I struggled with how to frame this post, because the thing tumbling around my brain comes from a very specific sort of sentence I have had the misfortune to find in several places recently. I could have easily labeled this post, “Sentences I Will (Almost) Never Write,” but, after a paragraph, I would have done nothing but vent my own frustrations, with no larger point made.
Still, let’s start with that specific example and work out from there. In the following snippet, see if you can spot the sentence that is the glass dust in my prison meal:
She climbed the stairs slowly, as if sandbags had been tied about her ankles. Below, the foyer’s large clock dinged the time. With her heartbeat pounding in her ears, it seemed to her that the clock was mad, chiming over and over again for the eternities it took her to claim the next step, and the next. And loud, like the bell-horn of a great ship making port. At the landing, the wind blowing in the broken window reached under the hem of her long, wool dress, seizing her legs with icy, too-familiar fingers. The hand of a dead lover making free with her body. She’d have liked to have tucked her own hand into a pocket for warmth, but, well, there was the knife.
The cold draft brought clarity.
The door was just ahead of her now; his door. His bedroom. He was screaming again. Strange that she hadn’t heard that before now. It seemed, in the time since she had seized the knife in the kitchen, that the only noises she had heard had been the thunderous falls of her own slippered feet, and the old wood floor, groaning under the weight of her passage. And the clock. The house itself conspired against her, railing against the quiet certainty of what she was to do as if begging that such a thing not stain its aged walls.
Not that he could have heard over his own shrieks. He went from bellowing for drink to whimpering for another blanket. He raged at her tardiness and begged for her forgiveness. The way he always did. Mostly, though, he screamed at things that only he could see, demons and shadows that refused to obey him. And the fear in his voice was the fear of a world he could not control.
At the door, she hesitated then pushed it open. The room beyond was small, with a porthole style window opposite the door, and a one-person bed built against the right hand wall. Plaster, brittle with age, had fallen from the walls in a number of places, exposing the lathe boards beneath. An oil lantern, turned low and sitting atop a small writing table, flickered with the gusts now tumbling in. He lay in the bed, wrapped in thick blankets up to his shoulders, glaring at her with black eyes better suited to a corpse. Soon enough.
Well, that was fun. I may have to do something with that story-seed. For now, back on point…
If you did not notice it yourself, the sentence which takes a ten pound sledge to my ear is, “At the door, she hesitated then pushed it open.” It took four glasses of wine and duct-taping my wrists to my desk for me to write that. (Not really, but you get the point).
Though I have seen that formation (“She hesitated, then did it”) in many places, in many genres, to me that sentence goes nowhere. What is the point of telling us that she hesitated if by the end of the sentence, she isn’t hesitating anymore and, there, in that short summary, is everything that went on in the sentence? It’s like asking someone why they called, only to have them respond, “No reason. Seeya.”
That is the thing I wanted to write about in this blog entry, but in thinking about the way that formation doesn’t work, the broader problem occurred to me. Yes, that sentence goes nowhere. And, yes, it is telling rather than showing. But it seems to me that those two problems together demonstrate a point that can apply more broadly to the things that we write. The sentence isn’t self-aware.
Let me explain. To me, writing isn’t just about the story and the pacing of our revelations and discovery. It’s also about the internal melody of our words and the way that the construction and order of our sentences can focus ideas and create feelings. In many ways the words on the page become the background music to the scene playing in the minds of our readers. There are many ways to break that music (see Matt’s post on misplaced idioms for one), but there are also ways to enhance it, to have it swell appropriately at climactic, emotional passages, or to have it march at moments of Prussian industriousness, or to have it strike like an orchestral hit when the zombie appears at the window.
We do this in different ways already. When the action is moving, our sentences might shorten. We get our reader’s eyes moving down the page more quickly. Same with dialog. Longer, slower speeches demonstrate characters not only willing to listen to one another, but who have the time and patience to listen to one another. The more stressful the moment, the shorter the dialog. Our readers rifle through a paragraph, a page, or several pages, matching the pace of the narrative action.
Such it is with the sentence in question:
If your character hesitates, why not let the prose hesitate, too? Let that moment linger. It might not need (or support) a full beat, but even a breath will communicate the pause to the reader, and give the sentence a purpose beyond just “telling.” You can use that beat/breath to relate the reason why the character hesitates, and/or the manner in which they hesitate (for more showing), and/or for revealing something about your story. Here are some examples that fit with the above bit of prose:
Full beat example:
At the door, she hesitated. She had never killed before, not anything more than a chicken. Though she was sure she should have been full of trepidation, her hand was steady on the worn brass knob. She pushed the door open.
She hesitated at the door, marveling at the strange absence of any trepidation, before turning the knob and stepping forward.
Alternately, an example where you might reveal something about the story, this one couched in a full beat.
At the door, she hesitated. Killing a sorcerer was no mean feat. She would have to be determined, more determined than his magics. With her mind set to her task, she pushed at the door.
Obviously, this is a very specific example (one that has been eating at me recently) of a particular formation, but don’t let that distract from my larger point. We should never forget that the way we deliver our words (on the page) is as important as the words we use and the story we tell.