The Art of The Sentence in Modern Literature
by Writing Workshops Staff
A year ago
The art of the sentence is an essential aspect of contemporary literature, as it allows authors to craft intricate and evocative prose that engages and captivates readers. In today's literary landscape, there is a wide range of sentence styles and structures being utilized by authors, from simple and straightforward to complex and experimental.
Long, Winding Sentences
One of the most prominent trends in contemporary literature is using long, winding sentences exemplified by authors such as David Mitchell and Zadie Smith. In their work, long, complex sentences are punctuated with clauses, parentheses, and other grammatical devices, creating a sense of depth and complexity that mirrors the intricate inner workings of the characters and the world they inhabit.
For example, in Mitchell's novel "Cloud Atlas," the narrator describes the character of Sonmi-451 this way: "She has a round, unlined face as smooth as a peeled egg, but her eyes, though kind, are like black holes, revealing nothing of the person behind them." Here, the sentence is complicated and reflects Sonmi-451's enigmatic nature.
Similarly, in Smith's novel "White Teeth," the narrator employs complex prose to describe Samad Iqbal, and their imposing and formidable nature: "He was a man of great physical presence, one who could fill a doorway without actually crossing its threshold, a man who could make a room dark by entering it."
In Jhumpa Lahiri's novel "The Namesake", to reflect the passage of time and the changes that have taken place within the family, she writes: "It is through Ashima's letters that Ashoke and Ashima learn the details of Gogol's life, the boy they had named for a Russian writer they had never met, the boy who has grown into a man they do not know, a man who has changed his name and distanced himself from them, a man who has forgotten the Bengali tongue, who has forgotten the rules of conduct that governed Ashoke and Ashima's own youth."
Or take Jonathan Franzen's style in "The Corrections". One such sentence employs a complex structure punctuated with clauses, creating a sense of momentum and flow that reflects the protagonist's emotional response to the book: "As an adult, he'd felt an obligation to maintain a certain critical distance from the books he loved, to deny them the pleasure of his wholehearted admiration and to insist on their flaws, but with this book, he was feeling nothing but grateful, grateful, grateful."
Here are a few more quick examples of this longer style of sentence-writing:
- "It was a Sunday, the first Sunday of July, the sky was bright and clear, and the air was hot and sticky, and it was one of those days when you feel like you're stuck in a dream, and you can't escape from it no matter how hard you try." (Jeff Vandermeer, "Annihilation")
- "The door was ajar, so I pushed it open and stepped inside, and I was immediately struck by the smell, a strange and unfamiliar smell, like a mixture of mold and decay, and I realized that the room was empty, except for a chair and a table and a lamp, and there was a window, but it was covered by a heavy curtain, and I could hear the sound of footsteps outside, getting closer and closer, and I knew that I was trapped." (Cormac McCarthy, "The Road")
- "It was a dark and stormy night, and the rain was coming down in sheets, and the wind was howling through the trees, and the thunder was crashing and booming, and I was huddled under a tree, trying to keep warm, and I was shivering and shaking, and I was cold and wet and miserable, and I knew that I was lost." (Neil Gaiman, "The Graveyard Book")
- "It was a warm and sunny day, and I was walking down the street, and I felt happy and carefree, and I was humming a little tune to myself, and I was smiling and enjoying the day, and then I saw him, standing on the corner, and I knew that something was wrong, and I felt a sudden chill, and I knew that I was in trouble." (Haruki Murakami, "Kafka on the Shore")
- "It was a cold and snowy day, and the snow was falling heavily, and the streets were covered in a thick blanket of white, and I was walking home from school, and I was tired and hungry and cold, and I was looking forward to getting home and warming up by the fire, and then I saw him, standing on the corner, and I knew that something was wrong, and I felt a sudden fear, and I knew that I was in danger." (Margaret Atwood, "The Handmaid's Tale")
In contrast to the long, winding sentences of authors such as Mitchell and Smith, there is a tradition of short, sharp sentences exemplified by writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Rachel Cusk. These writers often employ short, concise sentences giving them a jagged and fragmented quality.
For instance, in Hemingway's novel "The Old Man and the Sea," the narrator describes the character of Santiago with a short, sharp sentence: "He was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck." Here, the writing is simple and straightforward, reflecting Santiago's rugged and weathered nature.
Similarly, in Cusk's novel "Outline," the narrator describes the character of Faye with a short, sharp sentence: "Faye's voice was a deep, husky contralto, with a slight hoarseness." Here, the sentence is simple and concise, reflecting Faye's confident and assertive nature.
Here are a few more quick examples of this shorter style of sentence-writing:
- "I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do now." (Sam Lipsyte, "The Ask")
- "I'm not sure how to explain it." (Ben Lerner, "Leaving the Atocha Station")
- "I'm not sure what to say." (Rachel Cusk, "Outline")
- "I'm not sure how to begin." (Geoff Dyer, "Zona")
These sentences are simple and straightforward, and use their brevity to create a sense of tension and intensity.
Overall, the use of long, winding sentences by authors such as Mitchell and Smith and the use of short, sharp sentences by writers such as Hemingway and Cusk demonstrate the wide range of sentence styles and structures utilized in contemporary literature. These different styles and structures allow authors to craft unique and evocative prose that engages and captivates readers and is crucial to our time's rich and complex literary landscape.