The Writer’s Pantry: A surprising sentence

Linked from: Classical Archives. *the oboe solo referred to below occurs at 4:18 of this recording.

I love Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Sure, the seventh may be more emblematic of his genius, and the ninth may be more ambitious, but I place the fifth towards the top of my favourites when it comes to classical music. Yes, I love the bombast of the opening four “knocks”, the variations on a theme of the second movement, and the heroic fanfare of the finale—but the moment (and it is a moment) that stands out for me is about sixty-percent through the first movement when the piece stops for a short, simple oboe solo.

There is nothing special about the solo, although I have seen and read think pieces about how it represents the dying Soul subsumed by the Universe, or perhaps the last clear sound Beethoven’s ears heard as his hearing declined. I’ll leave these creators (and you should you choose) to ponder the sometimes dense symbolism that is Romantic music; what I find fascinating about the fragment of a solo is that it surprises me. I don’t care how many times I listen to the piece, I always manage to forget about it until it occurs and then I stop whatever I’m doing or thinking and, for the (approximately) 12 seconds I listen. It is out of place, yet not random, for Beethoven lays the groundwork for the solo earlier. It is a perfectly placed surprise that is worthy of attention but does not detract from or derail the movement.

A good piece of writing should contain an oboe solo, in some form.

 

Surprise Your Reader

Photo credit: Ben White

I think this is an underrated element in writing, unless of course you are writing mystery, thriller, or related genres in which case, the advice “surprise your reader” is akin to don’t write in invisible ink. But bear with me for a moment, Louise Penny.

 

There are different ways to surprise your reader, whether you write genre fiction, literary fiction, non-fiction, content, copy, or anything in between.

The most apparent form of surprise is the plot twist. It is an element of the plot typically occurring in the latter half of the story, in which the reader’s expectations are subverted. There are plenty of examples, and chains of examples (such as the Bluebeard’s Castle model)—but this is not the type of surprise I wish to focus on. I want to take a more micro view of the matter and explore how, regardless of what you write, you can insert Beethoven’s fleeting oboe into your writing in the form of a well-crafted sentence, or sentences, that linger beyond the piece in the reader’s mind, ultimately elevating it.

The idea of “surprise the reader” has a more complex model in aesthetic philosophy. It is called the Sublime, and in Western literature its ancient roots are Aristotle and the winner of the ‘greatest name’ award, Dionysius Longinus. However, with your permission or thanks, I will overleap the long history of the Sublime and focus on Wordsworth’s succinct summary of it in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800).

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings

—William Wordsworth

*for our purposes, replace the word “poetry” with “writing”

Alright, maybe “succinct” isn’t the right word to describe anything in Lyrical Ballads, but it’s a good jumping-off point. Wordsworth’s version of surprising the reader is to create in the reader a spontaneous, or sudden, overflow of emotion. This is the literary version of hiding in the dark and jumping up in a cacophony of “Surprise! Hooray!” as the reader enters your room (your book).

Incidentally, has anyone actually pulled this off, or is this a Hollywood invention?

Photo credit: Jason Leung

Be Present (Even When not Writing in the Present)

The first goal to writing a sentence or sentences that surprise your reader is to create a sense of spontaneous powerful feelings. Writing in the present tense can certainly help instill spontaneous emotions, but it is not a guarantee.

“I walk the familiar route, my mind wandering, when I trip over a crack in the sidewalk, and as I struggle to recover, I realize that this day will go horribly wrong.”

Is just as bad a line as:

“I walked the familiar route, my mind wandering, when I tripped over a crack in the sidewalk, and as I struggled to recover, I realized that this day would go horribly wrong.”

Why?

Even though we are “in the moment” in the first example, there is no spontaneity. There is no spontaneity because there is no emotion. This is a cause-and-effect sentence where the cause is irrelevant and the effect is vague, and writing it in the present tense is ineffective.

So perhaps we can turn to the ‘miracle elixir for creative writers’: show don’t tell.

“Suddenly, my shoe snags the crack in the untended sidewalk and as I fall forward, breaths shallow, veins trying to escape through the back of my neck, sweat springing from my forehead, I moan at what the rest of the day will bring.”

Did this inspire a spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling? I use the word suddenly, which is an easy way to create immediacy. But the actions, the ‘showing’ seems empty. They come straight out of the physical signals of the ‘Panic’ entry in the Emotion Thesaurus, but does this sentence convey panic?

Understand that I do not mean to disparage resources such as the Emotion Thesaurus or methods such as ‘show don’t tell’: these are tools to help writers, but a hammer in the wrong hands will create nothing but holes in the walls.

What about this sentence?

“All at once, my foot snagged the crack in the sidewalk, and I approached the impending collision of my face and concrete with visions of small regrets playing in my mind: not life-altering regrets such as travels not taken or loves not loved, but the regret of never tasting rainbow sherbet, which I have heard is quite good.”

Please feel free to disagree with me (leave a comment below), but I believe this final example better captures the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings better than the previous examples, even though it’s in past tense and is more telling than showing. I use the “all at once” to create immediacy, a bit of a cheat but if it’s good enough for Wordsworth who I am to argue? I establish the threat, the collision following the trip, and finally the emotion. There is on one level panic, the thought that tripping over a crack in the sidewalk signifies an end of life, but not great panic, as shown through the “small regret” of not tasting rainbow sherbet. I believe you gleam more about our nameless tripper (it’s me) through the observations in the final example than the physical symptoms of the previous one. At the risk of immodesty, I believe this final example has the greatest chance at surprising the reader, and lingering in the reader’s mind like the brief oboe in a grand Beethoven symphony.

Photo credit: Zoshua Colah

This last part, the lingering in the reader’s thoughts, is the most important if we listen to Wordsworth. I cheated earlier and only gave half the quote. Here it is in full:

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.

The spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings is important, but it cannot be fully realized on a first reading. Truly sublime writing, a true surprise for the reader, is achieved when the reader has time to reflect upon what he or she read. It makes sense: you might have a favourite line from a book and (though recency bias is a thing) it is probably not your favourite because you just read it. It might be your favourite because it is poignant, but more than that, it sticks out from the rest of the story (or article, or advertisement). And when you think back on it, it grows in your thoughts, in your esteem.

This is the sublimity of a powerful sentence.

 

How to Write a Perfect Sentence

Sorry, can’t help you there.

 

How to Write a Memorable Sentence

There are few tips I can provide.

  • Recognize that this is not a first draft exercise. Sometimes you may have an amazing sentence in mind and it will fit perfectly into a piece. If so, great. But do not shoehorn a line where it does not belong: it will stand out for all the wrong reasons. Also, do not, during a first draft, labour over a sentence until it has the effect you want. If you do, your first draft will always be a first draft. Trust me. I’m still trying to follow my own advice.

 

  • A memorable sentence should ‘stand out’. I don’t mean physically on the page, it does not need its own line, but within the rhythm of what surrounds it. Listen to the oboe solo: it follows the conclusion of a theme rather than sitting in the middle of it. If you have a series of long sentences, with many clauses, broken by commas and semicolons, full of description and exposition, it will be harder to create something memorable in the noise.
    • Sentence variety is key!
    • Sentence variety is key! It is worth writing twice. Your chances of creating a memorable sentence increases if your piece is varied, if the reader doesn’t get lulled into the repetitive pattern of single-clause sentences or Victorian verbosity.

 

  • Does your sentence inspire powerful feelings? Not every sentence needs to do this unless you are writing poetry. An article, short story, or novel needs functional sentences: ones that connect elements of the story or provide needed information. But when you wish for the reader to land on a memorable sentence, think like an advertiser. You are trying to sell your reader on an image, an idea, a sense of the character’s want or your vision of whatever world you are creating. An ad with no emotional resonance is a waste of space. What powerful feeling should your reader or consumer take away from your work? Your words should lead them there.

 

  • Engage the senses. In the world of advertising, words are more effective when paired with a strong visual or audio cue. On the page this is done through imagery. A strong metaphor will go a long way to cementing the line in the reader’s mind.

 

This is simply a starting place, but I believe it’s a good start. Here is an example of a line that, for me, elicits spontaneous powerful feelings when I reflect on it. It is the final sentence from one of my favourites, The Great Gatsby:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The final sentence is truly an oboe solo.

Photo credit: Joël Vogt

 

There is so much more to cover on this topic. If you are interested in crafting brilliant sentences, the Writers’ Center is offering a workshop on October 3, 2020 that may be of interest to you:

https://www.alexandrawriters.org/courses/sentence-by-sentence/

Meanwhile, I hope you take the time to think about the oboe solos you have read (or heard, or seen) and how you can incorporate them into your writing. And as always

Thanks for reading.

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