In previous sessions, we’ve looked at a few of the individual ingredients necessary to building bricks which will endure in our writing. Now, in the third chapter, Le Guin asks us to look at the bricks themselves- sentences. In doing so, she draws our attention to how much power each sentence has.
Good grammar is pretty much like good engineering: the machine works because the parts do.
Sentences, their structure, format and length, are a large part of the machine in the load they carry. With a good sentence, we can carry the story from one thought to the next, but with a poorly constructed sentence, the entire story unravels as the reader is thrown out of their willing suspension of disbelief while trying to parse out your meaning.
One of the most intriguing things I find about writing is the vast playground that the mastery of ‘the rules’ (grammar, syntax, semantics) allows. As Le Guin phrases it, “The sentence is a mysterious entity.” We can master the rules, but just as easily, we can use that mastery to understand how we can break the rules to get the sentence to work in our favor. (Take this article’s focus, for example, and see what kind of story comes when you intentionally break the rule).
Le Guin, does however, point out the challenge we face as writers. Written communication has frequently withstood the test of time in preserving language, where oral language might not. However, some might argue that even today’s written language is rapidly changing to meet the needs of a society where writing applies to texts, emails, and abbreviated or brief messages, far more frequently than it does novels or academic writing for the pursuit of knowledge. Le Guin seems to echo the inner struggle with this challenge when she stated,
The pity of it is that people not only can’t write complex sentences, they can’t read them.
Even with a statement as heavy as this, Le Guin leaves the reader with a few things to consider in how we can tame sentences to do our bidding, before letting them loose on the world.
On very short sentences: “Isolated or in a series, are highly effective in the right place.” With a few words, we can pack a wealth of meaning and emotion into the sentence. In example, think of the power found in six-word-stories, or the short punch found in a two-word sentence after a long exposition. Don’t be afraid to let the reader fill in the pieces.
Long sentences: “Have to be carefully and knowledgeably managed, solidly constructed.” On the other hand, we can use the rules of sentence building to create a sentence which is quite lengthy, packed with information, and still maintain the reader’s attention- that is, if we have taken the time to prime them such endeavors. Such sentences, Le Guin argues, must be undertaken with careful thought and planning. After the writer has developed the foundation and proficiency needed to create the longer sentences, the process becomes less intentional and more natural.
After sharing her thoughts on the differences in sentence length, Le Guin summarizes it all by saying “there is no optimum sentence length. […]The length of a sentence in good prose is established by context and interplay with the sentences around it- and by what it says and does.”
In short, the art is not necessarily in crafting the perfect sentence, but in shaping all sentences to support each other in perfect unity.
- Create a narrative paragraph (between 100-150 words), using sentences of no more than seven words. Be careful to avoid sentence fragments by ensuring each sentence has a subject and a verb.
- Create a piece of writing (half to a whole page, approx. 350 words) which consists of a single sentence.
For Exercise 1, Le Guin suggests writing about an intense or tense action, and for Exercise 2, “a powerful, gathering emotion” which “sweeps a lot of characters in together”.
- For critique: How well did the sentence length match the story? Are the shorter sentences natural? Did the long sentence come across clearly, or did the reader find it necessary to stop and backtrack to catch the meaning?
- For discussion: Was either exercise a step out of your comfort zone? How did you find yourself reacting to the experience? Why?