Skipping the Sentence

These days, the prevailing school of thought regarding prose in commercial-grade novels—at least if one takes the self-help industry as representative—emphasizes speed, efficiency, and comprehensibility. Shorter words. Shorter sentences. Shorter paragraphs. Shorter books. Faster writing. Faster reading. Faster buying. Faster fandom. The novel as commodity. The author as commodity-generating machine.

Now, this emphasis has plenty that recommends it, especially to full-time writers. After all, writing is just as much a business as it is an art, and economic realities exist whether we wish them to or not. But for those such as myself who strive to create art for its own sake, the relative ease with which a novel slides down a reader’s gullet is no measure of its value.

My primary consideration whilst hashing out syntax isn’t ease of reader ingestion, or conformity to aftermarket guidelines concocted in sterile theoretical environments by unaccomplished critics, but rather something that seems almost completely ignored in the modern writing-about-writing industry: accent. Not the accent of dialect, but that of pronunciation. The framework of emphasis. The pattern of stress. Poetry.

No idea has only one potential permutation. Each and every sentence I write can take a hundred forms. As a writer, it’s my privilege not only to express a given thought, but to shape and tune its delivery. This means I pay attention to whether my language flows. Which entails more than simply varying the length, voice, and clausal configuration of my sentences.

As a particularly flamboyant example of what I mean, here’s an excerpt from Chapter 19 of A Sea Sought in Song:

Then, with one last glance at the sky, she turned and ran.

Up the hillside, though the grass. Around the standing stone and past the stern inscription there entombed, to meet the path beside which bloomed the heatherfire, summer’s outlier, and thence across the Tarn Ford Road to a recessed doorway through which flowed a scent of scones. Rhinya yanked open the latticed door and slipped inside.

Now, I doubt anyone would characterize this passage as especially easy to ingest—after all, it does feature a rather lengthy sentence—but wouldn’t you say it tends to tumble off the tongue? There’s something about it that fairly skips along. Here, let’s rearrange it:

Up the hillside, through the grass.
Around the standing stone and past
The stern inscription there entombed,
To meet the path beside which bloomed
The heatherfire, summer’s outlier,
And thence across the Tarn Ford road
To a recessed doorway through which flowed
A scent of scones.

The meter isn’t perfectly consistent, but it’s close. I originally composed this passage in the above format for the sake of scansion, and then collapsed the line breaks to form a normal-looking bit of prose. I wanted to subliminally convey the sense of a sprightly, skipping girl without having to spell out the manner of Rhinya’s ascent.

Of course, this approach took me much longer than if I’d simply described the relevant action and called it good. And more often than not, that’s all that’s needed. But language is capable of doing multiple things at once. Accent isn’t just for poetry recognizable as such. It’s the ball-peen hammer of a writer’s workshop: it allows for fine adjustments after a rough shape has been hewn.

For many writers, art is incidental. But for writers who strive for artistry, no aspect of language capable of making words skip should itself be skipped.

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