Styling Sentences

If you are not inspired to try out some elaborate writing exercises after reading (or listening to) Brook Landon’s Building Great Sentences, you are not a writer at all. His explanations of long, elaborate, cumulative sentences, and how they are done well, makes you want to try them out yourself.

His book is available in both print and audio versions, but you want to own them both (unlike so many writing manuals) partly because this is a series of lectures and partly because it is about the sounds sentences make in your mind. (Although I have to admit I am rather put off by Landon’s speech, particularly how he slurs the word “se’nences”.)

Oddly enough, his book is not a textbook on how to write, but rather one that makes you more conscious  of how you have been writing and helps you improve. If you have been writing a mixture of good prose and poor prose and you are not sure how some of it turned out so good and some of it is so unreadable, Landon will give you a clearer view of what you have been doing wrong and how you might be able to improve. You might say it is quite like that magical mirror in Harry Potter that can only give you a reflection when you desire the right things.

The book is, from beginning to end, about nothing but sentences, in all its complexity, expressiveness, and musicality,  from the simple dot-dash rhythms of short and long word segments to the undulating refrains of similar sounding patterns, and how to add appeal, flavor and most of all memorability to what would otherwise be nothing but a string of words.

See what I did there? I am already writing longer sentences. It gets kind of fun, composing long sentences. What Landon (and other wonderful instructors like Ursula Le Guin and Virginia Tufte) fails (or purposely avoids) to tell you is that not everyone reads for the prose. Some of the best selling books in the world sport godawful  writing. Which begs the question, do we need to style sentences at all? James Patterson, currently billed as the best selling writer in the world, says flat out that he does not style sentences.

It all boils down to what you want to do. Do you have ambitions of writing really great books, or do you want to make a living? The rule of thumb, it seems to me, that the closer your work gets to poetry, the lower the chances you will make any money at it. Economics of writing is closely tied to the habits of the modern reader. Every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter must lead up to the next step in dramatic story telling (“Just let me read one more chapter before I come down for dinner!”), ending the volume in not-quite-a cliffhanger, and producing the next volume in the series as quickly as possible, so as not to keep the reader waiting.

I never imagined such a writing style, as an established professional pattern, when I was struggling with writing in the seventies. Commercial publishing did not even really take off until the Second World War. Yet most of the literary works we were taught when I was in high school was published before that time. The serial novel was a rarity until paperbacks were invented. And when you consider what kind of logistics are involved (you don’t know where the trees that went into those pages came from) in delivering to you the latest volume of a YA novel before your classmate reveals the ending, you can see this sort of thing could not have existed in Tolstoy’s time.

The idea of styling sentences evolved thanks to the way people read back in the day. Readers of Virginia Woolf did not leaf through the pages and wait anxiously for the next installment. They drifted leisurely through Mrs Dalloway, sighed, put down the book, picked it up again, and re-read their favorite passages. And in days before the invention of radio, public readings of short stories and novels (not to mention sonnets and verses) were held in pubs and cafes as a sort of entertainment, which meant that stories needed to sound good, with refrains, rhythmical structures and memorable quotes. All of this was related to the lack of industrial book production and circulation.

That is not to say that styling sentences have no place in the modern novel, especially if you intend to self publish and keep your day job. In fact the idea of mirroring sentences appeal to me very much and I would like to employ it in my current work-in-progress if I can.

Styling sentences can also be great elements in creating atmosphere if you are writing, say, fantasy novels or period pieces. And most of all, it is fun. Blending old-fashioned, aggressively styled sentences into modern-day, Hollywood-compatible story arc structures has a smart-alecky element that appeals to me. So if I ever get my novel finished to my liking, you can expect some slithy striving and pompous plotting, mucking up and messing about, kneading the phrases into your faces, nitty and graphic with the blood and feces, words, words, words, piled and structured, stripped and paraded like humiliated prisoners, sludging barefoot through the cold mud of self righteous prose, all for my enjoyment, not for yours.

2 thoughts on “Styling Sentences

  1. I always “style” my sentences and I prefer authors that do. A book can be an enjoyable read without style, but if an author has more sophisticated prose, it’s more likely I’ll pick up another of their books.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Writing is all about dichotomies: the reader versus the writer, popular versus worthy, money versus pride, et cetera.


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