While I do love words, I think I actually love sentences more. Sentences take you somewhere, transport you and drill into your heart. Beautiful sentences are hard won but worth it.
In this series of blog posts I want spread some sentence joy. No reason. Just for the joy of it (that’s why there is a daisy with rain drops up there – pure joy).
Here are some favourites to start with:
I heard Robert Drewe read from his new novel Whipbird at the Perth Writers’ Festival this year and his reading of these beautiful first two sentences was possibly one of my favourite things so far this year. He told us about how he rewrites and rewrites and rewrites his opening and I think it shows.
A rich cloud of meat smoke drifting slowly across the grapevines and paddocks greeted the members of the Cleary family as they arrived at the vineyard. The tasty mist from a dozen barbecues billowed over the house – the ‘homestead’, as Hugh Cleary called it – and the stable and the rammed-earth wine cellar, and above the rows of newly planted pinot noir vines, and curled up into the blue gums and manna gums bordering the creek.
These sentences drift along, laying out information in a easy rhythm that set the scene of the novel then circle up into the heavens (appropriately, if you’ve read the book). It is very white Australian, very contemporary, very middle class and, for me, very familiar. And it has my favourite thing that sentences do: when the rhythm and pace of the sentence structure follows the rhythm and pace of the subject of the sentence. Read that second sentence again and think about the way smoke moves.
I know I’ve written about Grenville’s work before, but here are a couple of astounding sentences that sneak a brutality and a horror past your defences so it is not until you have finish reading them that the terror settles within you. Which is exactly how I would describe the whole of The Secret River and its endless capacity to demand we question our history.
He could not get out of his mind the picture of Sagitty lying behind the barrel. The way the spear had quivered, delicate as a flower on a stalk. His eyes, begging. That length of wood locked into the private darkness inside a man.
I have taught the Coen Brothers’ True Grit to my students too many times to count and have always loved the opening lines. Imagine my absolute delight when I picked up the book to discover they were written by Portis! The film uses the opening lines almost word for word.
People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.
It is the use of voice in these sentences that make them sing. The old fashioned ‘credence’ against startling facts (she is fourteen and after vengeance). And that lovely long second sentence that tells us just exactly what kind of fourteen-year-old girl she is: precise, deliberate and not to be messed with. Delightful!
There is a wonderful close analysis of this opening by Emily Temple here.
If you are a writer, you could use Portis’ two sentences as models to practice the voice of your own characters – have them explain the central idea of your story as they would to someone they didn’t know. Can you get your ideas clarified enough to give them as purely as Mattie (the fourteen-year-old) does? Can you get their voice to shine off the page like Portis does? Try it out and then try and try again. I’d love to read what you come up with!
Do you have any favourites sentences to add?? Some I should include in the next instalment of Sentence Joy? Send ’em my way!