Updated: Jul 23
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Chinese philosopher Laozi wrote that statement more than 500 years before Christ. Its ancient wisdom applies as much to us now as it did then.
I hope that at least one sentence I've ever written will last 2,500 years.
The average sentence length in English is about fifteen words. Novellas are between 20,000 to 40,000 words in length. With a bit of skewed math, we can squeeze a decent novella out of one thousand sentences.
Notice I wrote squeeze a decent novella instead of write a decent novella. This is because squeeze is a more interesting verb than write.
Make them interesting
Instead of worrying about the one-hundred things required for you to create a killer story, let’s concentrate on only one. To those of you good at compartmentalizing, this is your lucky day.
Make every one of your sentences interesting. Start with the first sentence and work it until it is interesting. Then proceed to the second sentence, and so on. Or do them backward, which may be more interesting.
For example, let’s analyze the first stanza of a poem published in 1830 by Sara Josepha Hale:
Mary had a little lamb Whose fleece was white as snow. And everywhere that Mary went, The lamb was sure to go.
This is poetry, but the same rules apply. Why didn’t Sara just write “Mary had a lamb”? Everyone knows that lambs are little, else they’d be called sheep. Could little suggest needful, innocent, or fragile? The extra word makes the lamb seem young and impressionable, which makes the lamb more interesting.
Everyone also knows that lambs are white. And the word everywhere is interesting. Just where did this lamb accompany Mary? Shopping? Church? Bathing? We can ponder endless possibilities from four simple lines.
The first two sentences of George Orwell’s novel 1984 are interesting:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
There are many good things about the above sentences. (I would have cut the first “quickly” from the second sentence.) Are you ready to be shocked? Here are the same first two sentences from Orwell’s novel 1984, but from a 1947 draft manuscript, written two years prior to the novel's publication:
It was a cold, blowy day in early April, and a million radios were striking thirteen. Winston Smith pushed open the glass door of Victory Mansions, turned to the right down the passageway and pressed the button of the lift.
The two sentences in the draft version are embarrassingly dull compared to those in the published novel. Thank goodness George Orwell took my advice and made his sentences more interesting.
I'm writing a novel with my friend Mike. He tells me our sentences should be tasty, that they must be appetizing, savory, or delectable. This greatly irritates me because he's correct. Most of my sentences are not delicious or flavorsome. Now, every time I write a sentence I'm thinking of satisfying adjectives like these.
Teach by example
I've heard it said that it's best to teach by example. Perhaps this makes the lessons more interesting. Therefore, I’m going to take two sentences from the draft of one of my stories and then attempt to make each sentence better. I promise the following is not faked. I am doing this real-time in front of you.
In the sentence below, two men handling Gary had just handcuffed him:
The men escorted Gary from the barn toward the farmhouse.
It’s a real sentence, but it is interesting? How about with some description:
The man in musty denim overalls gripped Gary’s arm and pulled him from the barn toward the farmhouse.
Better, maybe. What about this:
The barn was empty, perhaps even sprayed down, void of the typical piles of junk, used tools, and cobwebs in other farm buildings. The man in denim overalls pulled Gary by his arm so hard the handcuffs behind his back dug into his wrists. There were no farm animals that Gary could see, and nothing left out on the neglected lawn.
Hanover, J.J. Richardson
I don't want to provide too much detail because I don't want to be accused of meandering.
In the following sentence, Gary and his sister Cora operate a self-driving vehicle that suddenly doesn't cooperate with them:
The truck pulled off to the side of the road and turned off.
The sentence is clear enough, but not very interesting. I shortened the sentence as follows:
The truck pulled off the road and turned off.
Somewhat proud of myself, I read the new version to my friend Mike. As I did so, I realized I had repeated the word "off," and pointed this fact out to him. (I didn't want him to think less of me.) He and I sat there for a two minutes working on a better way to end the sentence. He suggested the following:
The truck pulled off the road and its termination light turned on.
Such glory added to a simple sentence!
Then, after thinking about the sentence further, the words "turned on" concerned me because they felt a bit passive, akin to "The light was turned on by Steve." Also, the word on is the direct opposite of the word off, giving a sense of repetition. I considered replacing the words "turned on" with the single word "illuminated." However, "illuminated" is too pompous and ornate given the story setting. Yet, perhaps the characters should be intimidated by a machine from outside their familiarity that is making them feel inadequate. Perhaps the following is best:
The truck pulled off the road and its termination light illuminated.
And it goes on
How many layers of subtlety can exist in one sentence? And don't forget, you'll have at least a thousand of these. Better start now on your journey to perfection.