In the writing world, the sentence is sacrosanct, although we tend to take them for granted, because there will be so many of them in our writing lives. But, in the grand scheme of the history of the written word—or in the significantly smaller realm of your own career—does one single sentence matter all that much?
Using all the analogies to snowflakes, grains of sand, and building blocks, sentences are the true currency of the writer. They are the precipice from which you leap into your creative work. Even the most splendiferous of words can never really be credited to any individual writer, but a sentence, yes, that is where each writer begins to create an identity.
And the most important place to use these lovingly crafted phrases is in the descriptions of characters, settings, and situations. Each writer can choose how to express something in a way that serves the story and their own creative style.
In every sentence, each word is a choice, contributing to the meaning and feeling of the sentence. Added to the next, it creates context, and then character, scene, and story—all born from that single sentence. What we do as writers, starts—and ends—with a sentence.
It takes practice, which is what today’s exercise is all about. When you’re writing your tome, start with that one sentence, whether it is the first or the last or somewhere in the middle. The idea is to take a common description and make it your own by writing something you have never heard before. In terms of process, this can be done in the first writing or the revision—as long as it makes it into the final draft.
A novice writer in a workshop I taught at Lake George wrote a little piece in which she described “the knitting of the waves,” which remains one of my favorite phrases. I also recall a description from a short story presented in another workshop, “she had a face like a pie.” While you don’t need every sentence to be loaded with rich description, a well placed phrase can elevate the whole piece.
Exercise #3: Stretch your imagination to come up with new ways to describe the following in a single sentence:
- A child playing in a sandbox
- A wife, a husband and his mother at the dinner table.
- A corpse at a funeral
- A sunset
- Someone crying
- A bride at the alter
You can use this technique to describe characters, places, or situation from now on. In your first draft you might write “tears streamed down her face” or “his heart pounded,” but consider these placeholders, and when you revise, take the time to sculpt that sentence into something with real meaning to your story.
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