As a reader and writer of literary fiction, I find it worthwhile to study sentences. I love the layers and textures present in carefully crafted syntax, the way a single sentence can tilt the axis of the Earth and light the world anew. This blog contains some sentences that have—in structure and content—struck me. Please scroll down for the complete collection of posts.
Copywrite Note: The purpose of this blog is educational and the posts include direct quotations from a very small portion of the larger artistic work. All quotations are clearly attributed. My intention is to celebrate sentences and highlight the work of great writers, all of which should qualify the quoted sentences as “fair use.”
A suspensive story told from the third-person limited perspective in which the protagonist, Nora, wrestles with a past trauma. Written in the present tense, a decision that heightens the urgency and suspense of the narrative, the past is revealed to Nora (and the reader) through therapy and psychotic breaks.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Panic tightens her chest and chokes her breathing. In front of her, a girl’s face, a wild numinous face with startling blue eyes, a face floating on top of shapeless drapes of purples and blues where arms and legs should have been” (3).
- “She doesn’t like the smell of this room—lavender air freshener disguising grief, invisible clouds of uncertainty lingering and descending on those who sit here, infiltrating their heads and lips and words” (15).
- “For a long while, Nora waits, stock-still in the dead silence, staring at the motionless body, the belly and breasts flattened, the head turned unnaturally to the side, tangled auburn hair obscuring the eyes, nothing moving at all” (25).
- “But lately, the anxiety was creeping back in, stealing her sleep, making her hard to get along with, making her pretend things—smiling while Fiona poured Cheerios and milk into her bowl, spilling half of it all over the table, and biting her tongue when she watched the evening news with Paul, him flipping channels and cursing at Clinton’s inauguration and Albright’s confirmation as the first female secretary of state” (60).
- “She’d read hundreds of saint stories in school, and their deaths always terrified her. All the flames and burning faces and sizzling hair and hearts and heads stabbed onto stakes and screams for mercy while thousands of faces watched. There were always facing watching” (90).
- “And then David is saying things that don’t make sense. Things about stolen money and orange shoe boxes and boxes of confession, and she is trying to listen, trying to understand, but it’s all too much. Too much. Too many pieces careening through her mind, smashing reason and logic to smithereens” (108).
- “On her way to the meeting, things are magnified. Students just released from classrooms pour into the hallway, sweaty, in various moods and behaving with conspicuous nuances. Mouths open and close, and sounds come at her scratching flats and sharps. Arms wave loosely. Lockers slam. Slam over and over again, the deafening slam slam slam and she wants to clap her hands to her ears, but of course she doesn’t” (130).
- “Something ugly and huge pushes and thrashes inside Nora’s head and fury forces its way out and the enormous hand of it slaps the heart from Fiona’s tiny hand and the heart flies across the room, hits the closet, and drops to the floor” (139).
- “Nora opens her mouth. Forms a ‘No’ with her lips. Breathes hard into the ‘No.’ She hears the air moving, feels her lungs push it out, but something shoves back into her throat, and there are no words, no words, no words, no words” (161).
- “Dark rises within her. Rises and swells. Rises and gathers force and becomes fire becomes blood becomes sound and the sound forces her body out of the bed and she begins running around and around the room arm and anger flailing pounding on walls and doors mouth open wide open wide and something fierce and violent rips open her heart rips her body open until she is not a woman not a girl only a screaming mouth a screaming heart a screaming body” (195).
- “And in the haze: How much more can I take until I’m planted in a wheelchair, staring at the same spot on the floor all day, eyes flat as stamps, murmuring silvery syllables that slip away like fish into an unfathomable ocean?” (196).
A story about a battle between Silas and Frank, brothers whose feud is rooted in the fate of the family ranch. The story opens after Silas, a rugged traditionalist, shoots Frank, his business-minded brother. The tension of the book lies in the reader’s eventual discovery of the events that preceded the murder. The story ends with a standoff between Silas and Lena (Frank’s wife), after a surprising plot twist is revealed.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “The road seemed to take on some significance, as if it were a boundary line—the first of many—and now that he was past it, he was that much farther away from what had been his life. But Silas also knew that it was just a road, same as any other, and that he was only covering ground. Even if he hadn’t the foggiest notion where he was going” (4-5).
- “The animals were her religion. Boyfriends, girlfriends, education, the prospect of a more reliable income—all of these had been laid down and sacrificed to the equestrian gods” (12).
- “He and his horse lunched in a green-grassed grove of birch trees two hundred yards off a winding, slope-shouldered road. The plan had been for him to move inland, where fewer people might know him, away from the equestrian world that centered nearer the coast, but there in that strand of trees, he felt a new sense of unease bloom in his gut” (24).
- “But of course that was simplifying. Storytelling. Truth was that their dissolution was gradual and sometimes numbingly slow. It was in the works for years. Decades” (43).
- “But above this ruthlessness was a thin skin of civility” (63).
- “Lena imagined that most young people went through a certain process of redefining family. You grow up and your world consists of little more than your parents, maybe siblings, grandparents at a stretch. You get married and you love your spouse, but family is still those old parents, siblings, grandparents. It isn’t until you have kids that you understand that you’ve created a new unit, that the old definition of family has been altered” (64).
- “As his life leached away, soaking into his bed and sheets and blankets, as the few breaths he had left escaped his lungs one by one, the boys saw him less and less” (68).
- “It was when they were together, though, whether in a period of peace or war, that they drank with such abandon” (83).
- “Frank got to them, boots in hand, his feet socked with sand” (88).
- “And from there it got bad. Frank tagged his brother twice in the ribs before Silas recovered the upper hand, straddled his brother’s torso, and laid fist after fist into his face and head and shoulders. All the while cursing him in every fashion one could imagine. People screamed. The bartender was on the phone. Frank managed to get out from under Silas and issue two sickening blows to his face before a posse of men took hold of the two of them from behind, pulled them apart. Both men were wet with blood and saliva and sweat. Both chests heaved with hatred” (90-91).
- “He hadn’t talked about his brother in months, and without that cloud hanging over them they became what Lena had always wanted them to be: a happy couple working and raising their son and slowly, quietly getting older” (113).
- “He’d gone years without exchanging a single word with his brother, but Frank had always been there. And now he wasn’t. Silas’s mind was hurled back to the days when he and Frank would ride through the great, wet, fern-strewn woods of the San Geronimo Valley, passing hours upon hours of their childhood traversing trails and trotting across streams and chucking rocks and generally being boys and brothers, trusting each other instinctually, loving each other implicitly” (125-126).
- “And with that Lena understood something that had eluded her through the years of the two men’s feuding: that it really was all based on nothing. There had been moments—that night with the hat, the selling of Ace, the shooting, the blister beetles, as well as whatever had been done without her knowing, both before and after she’d entered the world of the Van Loys—but none of those occasions, not even when added together, fully explained the war between the brothers” (129).
- “This guilt wedged itself in her gut and dislodged something” (143).
- “He rode on until the jagged mountains morphed into easy-rolling hills, until the sun was just peeking over those hills behind him, until he spied the coastal fog bank hanging squat in the distant sky, until he could smell the fishy wind and hear the aberrant whooshing of cars down 101” (157).
- “He couldn’t keep from it. Sitting in the chair outside his trailer, the chair in which Frank had set his bones just a few nights prior, or riding atop any one of his half-dozen horses—circling the arena, or loping and galloping across the trails cutting across his land—he tried to work out the specifics of a murder. Gun. Knife. Explosives. Poison. Push him off a cliff. Push him off a boat. How the fuck was he supposed to get him on a boat? Make it look like a suicide. Make it look random, a robbery. Do it himself. Outsource it. Pin it on some other sorry son of a bitch. Plenty of folks Silas wouldn’t mind getting rid of, as long as he was at it. Other trainers. Stable owners. Fuckers who mistakenly thought they were better than Silas Van Loy” (167).
- “Frank stood stone still save for the unsteady rise and fall of his chest. What chaos lived within the silence of that predawn. What dissonance rang through Silas’s head. Though he couldn’t have said just how, he knew that the end of his life had begun” (172).
- “Silas removed his boots and walked down into the surf. The pain of the cold shot through past his knees, but it served only to elevate the strange, black euphoria that had overtaken him. He sensed that he was not standing merely at the edge of a continent, but at the precipice of death itself” (173).
- “She wanted to kill him, her husband’s murderer, but she struggled to reconcile the man who shot Frank with the one who now caressed an injured animal” (183).
- “How many nights had Lena dreamed of Silas? How often had she thought of Frank? The questions were ludicrous. How many molecules made up the air? How many atoms locked together to construct the earth? It was all immeasurable—her past and present, her days and nights, her love and anger and grief” (188).
- “It told her nothing, of course, but what she’d already known, that they were bonded, those brothers, in a way she’d always nearly admired. Hatred, after all, did not flare up from a void. There must have been something there in the first place. Love. Passion, even. And this was what led to Frank’s death, their mutual commitment to each other over all else” (191).
Set in Singapore in the 1920, “The Moonlight Palace” is a novella that explores the often blurry and always complex web of cultural heritage. Agnes, the young female protagonist, who is the last surviving member of her royal family, lives in a crumbling palace with a diverse cast of characters and an equally diverse set of suitors. Issues of loyalty, greed, and imperialism are explored in this story.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Unlike friends and schoolmates, who share exciting flying dreams, where they sail away over the tiled rooftops through surging gray clouds beyond tiny Singapore, in my own dreams I skim low through the rooms of the palace, barely above the ground. I see the patterned carpets, the wooden floorboards worn to the smoothness of satin. But never have I risen above the level of the palace ceiling, not even in my dreams” (1).
- “I had not finished my history assignment for the night, but I fell asleep with the book in my hand” (18).
- “If you think you have come to an unhappy ending, it is not the true end. Keep going awhile” (26).
- “No one had a better eye for beauty than the blind man” (32).
- “Wei’s face was bruised and swollen, and there was blood slowly seeping out of the corner of his mouth. He pressed a handkerchief to the wound, and every few minutes one of the guards brought him a fresh handkerchief and chips of ice. That was the strangest part, I thought—to do this to another human being, and then bring him clean linen and ice” (54).
- “I expected grandfather to stand up and walk away with Brown. I had forgotten that he was confined to that chair. So many facts of our life slipped from my mind that night—our extreme helplessness, our poverty, the impossibility of our whole situation” (59).
- “Because we never had a Christmas tree, all of our decorations were left over from Chinese festivals, complimented by a few bright items I managed to salvage from Deepavali” (71).
- “With our silly crepe paper hats on, the tips of the hats drooping, we looked like inmates at an imbecile institution, or an inebriate asylum. What a foolish holiday Christmas was!” (77).
- “Geoffrey, a handsome, pale specter, looked out of place among these Singaporean high-school girls. It was as if a man from inside a moving picture had stepped down among us, bringing with him all of the background noise and music, the white light of Hollywood, California” (103).
- “I learned for the first time that when we lose the people closest to us, we tend to become more like them—as if to fill immediately the unbearable lack they have left behind. We take on their habits, their mannerisms, sometimes even their style of dress” (114).
- “I lived in perpetual dread of my former suitor moving his oily self onto our property. Everything I’d found attractive in him now turned my stomach. The unnatural color of his eyes. His wavy yellow hair, which was probably dyed. The idea that he might have any claim against us made me ill. But I steeled myself for the confrontation that was coming. He would not simply skulk away, I knew” (117).
- “I slipped back into my accustomed place at the paper. Strangely enough, I found it comforting to work with grown men who ignored me almost completely. Ink-stained, disheveled, balding, foul-mouthed, sweaty, heads down, they rushed from story to story, deadline to deadline” (121).
- “They say that the ocean is always calm and still, many fathoms down, no matter how wildly it may churn on the surface. I discovered a similar calm in myself as I walked and walked around, in long, looping parabolas. And it’s a lucky thing, too, for one more hurdle lay just ahead” (131).
- “Holding the note, I strode to the front door and opened it, the fragrance of the mimosas rising up as fresh as mango, the two-toned call of the night bird, the koel, springing from the riverbank to Jurong Hill” (164).
A short story that illustrates the “Iceberg Theory,” as it manages to convey much using few words. The expansive arc of this story encompasses a girl growing up and going away, realizing a dark truth about her family in the process.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Back then the road they lived on was a dirt road and they lived on the end of it, about a mile from Route 4. This was in the north in the potato country, and back when the Appleby children were small and the winters were icy and snow-filled and there were months when the road seemed impossibly narrow. Weather was different then, like a family member you couldn’t avoid. You took it without thinking much” (306).
- “Her grandmother’s house was a small square house, and in the long white months of winter the house seemed stark and bare naked, the windows like eyes stuck open, looking toward the farm” (308).
- “When Annie was in the fifth grade, she began staying at Charlene Daigle’s house more. Anne was still lively and talked incessantly, but there had been an incident with the long-forgotten tape recorder—a secret she shared with Jamie—and ever since the incident it was as though a skin was compressed round her own family; the farm, her quiet brother, her sulky sister, her smiling mother, who often said ‘I feel sorry for the Daigles. He’s always so grumpy and he yells at the kids. We’re awfully lucky to have a happy family’” (309).
- “What Annie did not say was that there were many ways of not knowing things; her own experience over the years now spread like a piece of knitting in her lap with shadows all through it . . . She had recently, though, had fantasies of what they called ‘going normal.’ Having a house and a husband and children and a garden. The quietness of all that. But what would she do with all the feelings that streamed down her like small rivers? It was not the sound of applause that Annie liked—in fact, she often barely heard it—it was the moment onstage when she knew she had left the world and joined fully another. Not unlike the feelings of ecstasy she’d had in the woods as a child” (316).
- “She looked around the small kitchen, the wallpaper that had water stains streaking down it, the rocking chair their father had always sat in, the cushion now with a rip large enough to show the stuffing, the teakettle on the stove that had been the same one for years, the curtain across the top of the window with a fine spray of cobwebs between it and the pane. Annie looked back at her siblings. They may not have felt the dread that poor Charlene had lived with. But the truth was always there. They had grown up on shame; it was the nutrient of their soil” (318).
This inventive story connects the struggles of corporate-sponsored “researchers” to the dramas of deceased people existing in a magical city. During the book, it becomes clear that researcher Laura Byrd—who spends most of the novel alone in the Artic—is the common link shared by those in the city, and it is her mind, her memory, that places them in limbo, living in the space between life and death.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Andreas Andreopoulos, who had written code for computer games the whole forty years of his adult life, remembered leaping to pluck a leaf from a tree, and opening a fashion magazine to smell the perfume inserts, and writing his name in the condensation on a glass of beer. They preoccupied him—these formless, almost clandestine memories” (11).
- “She had the absurd impression—a dream, really—that she was living inside a jellyfish. Early in the morning, before she was wholly awake, she would lie in her sleeping bag listening to the watery lurching of the wind and imagine that she was pumping slowly across the floor of the ocean as millions of yellow diatoms sailed around her. Dreaming was easier than worrying, and worrying was easier than crying, which was what she knew she would be reduced to if she didn’t keep a hard eye on herself” (30-31).
- “Ever since she was a little girl, Laura had felt like a pioneer, passing over into the wilderness of the rest of her life. She remembered lying beneath her bed on her twelfth birthday, staring up at the orchardlike rows of the box springs and thinking how strange it was that she had no idea where she would be a year later, on the day she turned thirteen, and that she had had no idea where she would be today the year before, on the day she turned eleven. Certainly she could never have guessed that she would find herself lying underneath her bed staring at the box springs and wondering about the way time was put together. Why was it that everything that had happened to her in the past seemed so clear, but as soon as she turned toward the future, it all went dim and faded to nothing? Was that what it meant to be alive—moving from a brightly lit corridor into a darkened room at every step? Sometimes she felt that way” (54).
- “They began to giggle, and then to laugh, catching themselves in one of those loops in which they realized how meager the humor of the original remark was, found the meagerness itself funny, and laughed even harder than they had before. Soon they were laughing at nothing more than the fact that they were laughing” (96).
- “REPENT, FOR THE TIME IS AT HAND, his next day’s sign read, and he inscribed it, YOURS VERY TRULY, followed by his name, which was Coleman Kinzler, Ph.D. He had conferred the Ph.D. upon himself the same day he finished reading his Bible, at the age of thirty-three, for he knew that though he had never actually been to college, he was a doctor now in the eyes of the Lord” (105).
- “He and Joyce had never known whether to treat each other as friends or antagonists. Or maybe it was just that their antagonism and their friendliness had been so inextricably tied up with each other that it was impossible for anybody to tell the two apart. It was through their arguments, their bickering, that they expressed their fundamental goodwill toward each other, and they both took a particular pleasure in pretending they disliked the other more than they did. It was part of the game” (142).
- “His skin seemed to be coming loose from his skeleton, like a star casting off its final wobbling shell of gas. His eyes watered over and gradually lost their focus” (143).
- “She imagined death as a wonderful melting. The cold would pass out of her blood. She would be so much warmer. No one would ever find her or know what had happened to her, no one would ever see her again, and what difference would it make? The world was over anyway. She would never meet another living soul” (167).
- “For the past few weeks he had been conducting long conversations about the end of the world in his head. They were simple discussions that, if he wasn’t careful, quickly degenerated into savage arguments and then into swiftly moving imaginary debates in which various people, sometimes judges and prosecuting attorneys, sometimes just disembodied voices, accused him of bearing direct responsibility for the effects of the virus. Why didn’t you? they needled him. Why didn’t you do anything? But it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t. Fuck you. He was just a regular guy who happened to land a public relations gig with Coca-Cola” (185).
- “At some point, when you were fourteen or fifteen, before you reached adulthood or knew who you were, you had to determine whether you were going to be the sort of person who held tight to every single thing that passed through your life, no matter how insignificant it was, or the sort of person who set it all adrift. Life was easier on the people who were willing to relax their grip, but she had decided to be the other sort of person, the sort who wouldn’t let go, and she had done her best to live up to that decision” (196).
- “She shut her eyes and listened. Something unusual was happening to her. She was stretched around her heart, taut and firm like the skin of a drum, a perfectly sealed membrane that was beating, beating, beating. The heat of her blood was moving through her in millions of waves, more than she could possibly contain, and yet somehow she did contain them. She couldn’t hear anything else. The sound filled her until she shook, and then it filled the tent, and then it filled the world” (206).
- “This was the kind of thing he would say every so often, a tight little knot of sentences, like the coil of rubber at the center of a golf ball, that would burst open in a spray of contradictory implications as soon as he tried to pick it apart” (212).
- “And the spring came, with the sun breaching the horizon and the wind lifting the snow off the ice and the bay popping and cracking like the frame of an old house. Shoals of fish traced the open water and flocks of skua followed close behind them. Great chunks of glacier thawed and broke off into the ocean, carrying the blue-green ice of a thousand years ago. For a few hours each day the snow glistened like rubies in the drawn-out light of the sun, and for a few minutes, as the light grew stronger, it glistened like diamonds. No other spring in the world was anything like it” (223).
- “But why did he remember only the things in his life that had hurt him? Why couldn’t he remember the things that had given him joy or caused him to smile: the jokes he had heard, the songs that had made him lift his arms in the air, the people who had loved him, whose cheeks he had touched with his fingers?” (249).
- “When the walls came together and the bubble finally collapsed, this was where they would all end up: right here, between these benches and rustling trees. It would happen in a matter of days or weeks. There would be no way for them to avoid it. They would gather together in the clearing around the monument, however many thousand of them there were, and they would stand there shoulder to shoulder. They would listen to each other’s breath. And they would wait for that power that would pull them like a chain into whatever came next, into that distant world where broken souls are wrenched out of their histories” (252).
In this complex and cinematic short story, Carla tries to escape her husband (Clark) with the help of her older neighbor (Sylvia, who is a widow). “Runaway” explores questions of self-definition and of unequal power dynamics within relationships.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill” (3).
- “There was no way to avoid the puddles in the path or tall soaked grass alongside it, or the wild carrot which had recently come into flower” (15-16).
- “Back home, having left the note in the mailbox, Sylvia cleaned up the dishes that were still on the table, washed and polished the omelette pan, threw the blue napkins and tablecloth in the laundry basket, and opened the windows. She did this with a confusing sense of regret and irritation” (29).
- “There was enough of a wind blowing to lift the roadside grass, the flowering weeds, out of their drenched clumps. Summer clouds, not rain clouds, were scudding across the sky. The whole countryside was changing, shaking itself loose, into the true brightness of a July day” (31).
- “She recalled now how the sun was coming up behind them, how she looked at Clark’s hands on the wheel, the dark hairs on his competent forearms, and breathed in the smell of the inside of the truck, a smell of oil and metal, tools and horse barns. The old air of the fall morning blew in through the truck’s rusted seams. It was the sort of vehicle that nobody in her family ever rode in, that scarcely ever appeared on the streets where they lived” (32).
- “The fog was there tonight, had been there all this while. But now at one point there was a change. The fog had thickened, taken on a separate shape, transformed itself into something spiky and radiant. First a live dandelion ball, tumbling forward, then condensing itself into an unearthly sort of animal, pure white, hell-bent, something like a giant unicorn, rushing at them” (39).
In this framed short story that showcases Bass’s dramatic descriptions of nature and human consciousness, the narrator (who is among the few friends to whom Mary Ann has told her story) relays Mary Ann’s adventure with Grey Owl (a dog trainer) and a team of dogs in Canada during winter (twenty years earlier). Motifs of survival and isolation are present in this short tale.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Blue creeping up fissures and cracks from depths of several hundred feet; blue working its way up through the gleaming ribs of Ann’s buried dogs; blue trailing like smoke from the dogs’ empty eye sockets and nostrils—blue rising as if from deep-dug chimneys until it reaches the surface and spreads laterally and becomes entombed, or trapped—but still alive, and drifting—within those moonstruck fields of ice” (163).
- “The storm has knocked out all the power down in town—it’s a clear, cold, starry night, and if you were to climb one of the mountains on snowshoes and look forty miles south toward where town lies, instead of seeing the usual small scatterings of light—like fallen stars, stars sunken to the bottom of a lake, but still glowing—you would see nothing but darkness—a bowl of silence and darkness in balance for once with the mountains up here, rather than opposing or contemplating our darkness, our peace” (163-164).
- “They traveled across snowy hills on snowshoes, the sky the color of snow, so that often it was like moving through dream, and, except for the rasp of the snowshoes beneath them and the pull of gravity, they might have believed they had ascended into some sky-place where all the world was snow” (165-166).
- “All eight of them slept as if in a nest, heads and arms draped across other ribs and hips; and it was, said Ann, the best and deepest sleep she’d ever had—the sleep of hounds, the sleep of childhood” (171).
- “The ice was contracting, groaning and cracking and squeaking up tighter, shrinking beneath the great cold—a concussive, grinding sound, as if giants were walking across the ice above—and it was this sound that awakened them” (172).
- “What would it have looked like, seen from above—the orange blurrings of their wandering trail beneath the ice; and what would the sheet of lake-ice itself have looked like that night—throbbing with ice-bound, subterranean blue and orange light of moon and fire? But again, there was no one to view the spectacle: only the travelers themselves, and they had no perspective, no vantage from which to view or judge themselves. They were simply pushing on from one fire to the next, carrying their tiny torches” (173).
- “I suspect that she holds that knowledge—the memory of that one day and night—especially since she is now the sole possessor—as tightly, and securely, as one might clench some bright small gem in one’s fist; not a gem given to one by some favored or beloved individual but, even more valuable, some gem found while out on a walk—perhaps by happenstance, or perhaps by some unavoidable rhythm of fate—and hence containing great magic, great strength” (176).