I told you I was reading this. I’m still reading it. Yes–I’m slow.
I just finished the chapter on sentences, and thought I’d share some of my favorites with you. Thing is, most come from the same source: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This post-apocolyptic best seller isn’t for everyone–it’s definitely black and depressing–but McCarthy’s style is worth studying. His sentence structures often violate the rules, as does his punctuation and dialogue format, but all of these violations are artistic and deliberate, and serve to illustrate how words, sentences, paragraphs, and punctuation can be used as illustrative tools far better than descriptive words alone.
In this novel, the man and his son, known only as “the man” and “the boy,” are traveling to somewhere the man perceives to be safe. The fact that the two travelers are nameless is interesting in itself. At this point in time, names don’t matter. What matters to the man is his boy and their destination. The apocalypse has happened, though the reader is never told when, everything is gray, days stretch into more monotonous days with one single goal: get to where they’re going alive.
The first pages of the book illustrate their daily routine, and one sentence seems to illustrate the monotony of it perfectly. The paragraph begins, “When he got back the boy was still sleeping.”
He pulled the blue plastic tarp off of him and folded it and carried it out to the grocery cart and packed it and came back with their plates and some cornmeal cakes in a plastic bag and a plastic bottle of syrup.
This reads like the run-on sentences your grammar teacher warned you against. But in reading it, you can almost feel the robotic movements of the man. These are activities he does daily to take care of himself and his son, and they’re listed step-by-automatic step. There is no thought required to do this, but the doing of it reminds him he’s alive and has a responsibility.
Note also the repetition of the word “plastic.” Premolded, lifeless, artificial. Lacking in value, to a certain extent: plastic tarp instead of cotton/satin sheets, plastic bag filled with cornmeal cakes instead of freshly made cakes, plastic bottle of syrup instead of glass or the metal cans with inset tops.
Writing it “properly” just wouldn’t have the same effect:
He pulled the blue tarp off the boy, folded it, and carried it out to the grocery cart to pack. He returned with their plates, some cornmeal cakes in a plastic bag, and a bottle of syrup.
That’s “proper.” And boring.
In fact, the movements are so trivial that to a certain extent they could be abbreviated: “He took the tarp off the boy, put it up, and brought out their breakfast.”
But no, that one sentence–that run-on, improper, wordy sentence–conveys far more than the words do by themselves.
Now try this one:
He stood and got hold of the door and swung it open and let it slam down and he turned to grab the boy but the boy had gotten up and was doing his little dance of terror.
Read it aloud and see how quickly you race through the words. Read the first one aloud and see how the tempo is just a bit slower. Do you recognize why? The first sentence has nine words containing two or more syllables. This one has five.
We’re told, when writing fast-paced action, to use short, choppy sentences, that doing so will increase the pace–and that’s true. But the thing is, whenever you’re writing short, choppy sentences, you’re putting in a lot of periods. Periods are an automatic pause. Try reading this aloud, and you’ll see what I mean:
He grabbed the door and swung it open. It slammed down. He grabbed the boy. The boy was up. He did his little dance of terror.
Not the same effect, is it?
But just to illustrate that the short choppy sentences do work, let’s take an example from Joseph Finder’s Company Man:
I’ve killed a man.
He was suffused with terror. I killed this guy. Another voice in his head began to plead, defensive and frightened as a little boy.
I had to. I had no choice. I had no . . . choice.
I had to stop him.
The context is self-explanatory. Nick, just the moment before, killed someone. The pacing of the sentences illustrate his shock and the chaos in his mind. Actually, I think “he was suffused with terror” is unnecessary. The punchy sentence structure says it all.
More often than not, a sentence is just a sentence–a conveyor of information. But there are times in your writing when you want to do more than just provide information, and an artful combination of word choice and sentence structure is the perfect way to do it.