First, See

Don’t think about how your characters sound, but how they see. Watch the world through their eyes — study the extraordinary and the mundane through their particular perspective. Walk around the block with them, stroll the rooms they live in, figure out what objects on the cluttered dining room table they would inevitably stare at the longest, and then learn why.

—Dinaw Mengestu, from Tin House

"In character and beyond character"

I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity.

— Flannery O’Connor (thanks to Matt Bell)

"Two of the greatest pleasures in fiction"

“Ambiguity, too many writers forget, comes with any and all language use. It’s a bigger accomplishment, as a writer, to make up a credible character who doesn’t know all the words we know, and it’s a greater artistic generosity to put readers in a (fictional) position of certainty and power. Two of the greatest pleasures in fiction include feeling — even for a moment — what it is to know, and feeling, intensely, what it is to be almost completely unsure.”   

— Daniel Bosch

Read "The Incredible Anthony Hecht"!

SxS: From Beginnings to Ends to In-Betweens

We open Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and read:

The elderly passenger sitting on the north-window side of that inexorably moving railway coach, next to an empty seat and facing two empty ones, was none other than Professor Timofey Pnin. Ideally bald, sun-tanned, and clean-shaven, he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.

So much to enjoy about these two sentences, which constitute the first paragraph of the novel and, in opening our introduction to Professor Pnin, provide a head-to-toe portrait of the man. One of the immediate effects for me is delight in Nabokov’s patient precision, which has me not so much reading the sentences as experiencing them. Pnin is traveling on that train, and I am traveling as well, with expectation, from beginnings through middles to ends.

The playfulness with beginnings and ends is of course explicit in the verbs of the second sentence: Pnin “began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his … but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.” We leave the station at the dome (“impressively”) and arrive at the feet (“disappointingly”).

Now take a look back at the opening sentence and see that it, too, is built for arrival, but of a different kind. We begin with “the elderly passenger,” isolated for consideration by our narrator, and isolated as well by those empty seats around him, but not until we’ve reached the end — and have experienced the emphatic drum roll of “none other than,” a moment of withholding — do we have a name for the man, professional title included.

In each case we are in a different place come the period; we have traveled and arrived. The sentence itself is an act of discovery (for us), movement toward revelation.

What has been revealed, interestingly, is quite a lot of in-between about Pnin: He’s elderly, but if you get close enough — step inside that first set of parentheses — you’ll see the “infantile absence of eyebrows.” He is “ideally bald,” with additional features that our narrator modifies as “apish,” “thick,” “strong-man,” and yet look at those “spindly legs” and “frail-looking, feminine feet.” (At the close of the next paragraph of the novel we will learn that “except for a soldier asleep at one end and two women absorbed in a baby at the other, Pnin had the coach to himself.” He’s not only physically composed of both the masculine and the feminine; he’s physically positioned between the masculine and the feminine.) 

And naturally, as a traveler on that moving train, Pnin is in an in-between place. I want to say that Nabokov promptly places us in a kind of in-between place as well with the repetition of the demonstrative “that”: “that inexorably moving railway coach,” “that great brown dome of his.” We’ve only just begun this novel; we don’t know anything, really, about this train or this particular man on it; but in these instances we’re spoken to as if we do know. We’re at once distant, observing, and close, knowing. 

That’s where Nabokov wants us: we’re about to know something more that will make us understand what’s especially inexorable about that train, and that will worry “that great brown dome.” We’ll arrive at the knowledge before Pnin does:

"Now a secret must be imparted," Nabokov writes at the start of paragraph three. "Professor Pnin was on the wrong train." 

That’s a whole new kind of in-between. We read on, inexorably.

(For more from the Characters-on-Trains file, click here.)

SxS: Get on Stage (Part One)


I want to put together two points that Verlyn Klinkenborg makes in his recent book Several Short Sentences About Writing

We forget something fundamental as we read: every sentence could have been otherwise but isn’t. We can’t see all the decisions that led to the final shape of the sentence. But we can see the residue of those decisions.


Why is the sentence this way and not another way? That sounds like a trivial or unanswerable question until you imagine revising the sentence, giving it a different rhythm, substituting a different word, a different structure.

The first point prompts me to ask how we can most clearly see — and possibly hear — that “residue” of decisions. The second point answers: with imagination and a license to fiddle. But I’d suggest, as I do to my students, a different application of the imagination. Instead of imagining revising a sentence you admire — that is, after its “final shape” has been achieved, thereby distancing yourself from the actual making — why not fantasize that you were there in the moments (or days, or weeks) of creation, of getting to that satisfying verbal arrangement?

Let’s imagine we were beside Richard Yates, perhaps peering over his shoulder, maybe whispering into his ear, as he composed the opening sentence of Revolutionary Road. Let’s say that he had already gathered the words he intended to use to create the image and narrative moment he carried in his imagination for the start of the novel, but that he hadn’t yet arrived at the most effective and artful syntax. Here are the building blocks:

1. the Laurel Players


2. an empty auditorium


3. the final, dying sounds of their dress rehearsal

With these three phrases, we have three crucial elements: the People(characters), the Place (setting), and the Predicament (the narrative moment — the very end of perhaps the last rehearsal).

But that’s not all — Yates has some specifics in mind about these People. They …

[a] stand still (on the stage)

[b] blink out over the footlights

[c] are silent

[d] feel helpless

[e] have nothing to do (now, in this moment).

The challenge: what’s the clearest, most artfully engaging single sentence you can compose with these elements? Where do you begin the sentence — with the People, the Place, or the Predicament? Where do you move next? How do the elements interact? And how do you end?

Let Virginia Tufte, author of Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, comment here:

[I]t is syntax that gives words the power to relate to each other in a sequence, to create rhythms, and emphasis, to carry meaning — of whatever kind — as well as glow individually in just the right place.

This, of course, is a closed-book endeavor. Enjoy! I’ll get Richard to deliver in my next post.

SxS: A Sentence in Six Acts


To consider how T.C. Boyle introduces person, place, and predicament in the opening sentence of his novel When the Killing’s Done, let’s go phrase by phrase: 

[1] Picture her there in the pinched little galley

No fooling around with exposition: we are prompted to see “her” immediately in this cramped space. And the use of a pronoun — instead of her name — brings us close, assuming our familiarity (the redundancy of “pinched” and “little,” establishing the colloquial voice,  contributes to the familiar feel). 

[2] where you could barely stand up without cracking your head,

And now we’re closer. Having been directly addressed (“you”), we, too, are hunched in the galley. What was “there” in the galley feels more like “here" in the galley.

[3] her right hand raw and stinging still from the scald of the coffee she’d dutifully — and foolishly — tried to make

Now that Boyle has us beside “her,” sharing the tight space, it’s time for empathizing, in a couple of ways: physically, in reaction to the pain of the “raw and stinging” burn, and emotionally, in consideration of the tension between a sense of duty and the questioning of it. At this point, we question as well: for whom did she perform — or try to perform — this duty? 

[4] so they could have something to keep them going,

The camera pans back in answer: “they” need her support, or at least that’s how she thinks. Notice that we’ve entered her thinking; we’re no longer just “picturing” her. Yes, we’re listening to the narrator still, of course, but “something to keep them going” is a phrase colloquial and vague enough that it could be hers, to herself (a moment of free indirect style). And with that phrase emerges a new question: “to keep them going” where? Doing what? Why? Boyle gestures to the larger story, outside this galley, and for a moment our attention is directed forward, is future-oriented.  

[5] a good sport, always a good sport,

Whose words are these? I receive them as the words of the crew (the absent “they”) as they sound inside “her” mind; the repetition in the phrasing is self-sustaining. Although the camera panned back a moment ago, we’re now zoomed-in, closer than we’ve ever been to her.

[6] though she’d woken up vomiting in her berth not half an hour ago.

To exit, we’ve returned to the omniscient narrator’s direction; the panning-back is retrospective, informing us of what went on before we ever tried to “picture her” — and what went on (“vomiting”) is a consequence of the greater situation on this boat.

All together now:

Picture her there in the pinched little galley where you could barely stand up without cracking your head, her right hand raw and stinging still from the scald of the coffee she’d dutifully — and foolishly — tried to make so they could have something to keep them going, a good sport, always a good sport, though she’d woken up vomiting in her berth not half an hour ago.

Mirroring her position inside the boat — “there in the pinched little galley” — her predicament is nested within a larger scenario, clearly a troubled one. Not a bad sentence to mimic, phrase by phrase, to launch story-making, or -finding.