“Each sentence must have, at its heart, a little spark of fire, and this, whatever the risk, the novelist must pluck with his own hands from the blaze.”I keep this taped to my computer to remind me of the writer’s primary—and greatest—challenge: to engage the reader. A little spark of fire in every sentence will do just that.
Leif Enger’s newest novel, So Brave, Young, and Handsome. The novel, set on the road from Minnesota to California in 1915, delineates novelist Monte Becket’s journey to regain purpose after his astounding debut sucks the life from him. He does so by latching onto Glendon Hale, a character with a shady past who is seeking out the wife he abandoned in order to make amends.
The tale is like the river the two men initially navigate: while not always a whitewater thrill-fest, it nonetheless provides enough current to pull the average reader downstream. But if that reader is also a writer, Enger’s sheer command of language will deepen the experience.
Let’s look at some of the many ways Enger sparks his sentences, and see if we couldn’t borrow some of them for our own work.
Raising a reader question by qualifying the usual:
The fourth day of rain I entered the President’s Tavern to find Glendon uneasily drinking coffee with José Barrera.
Grabbing the reader’s attention through thought-provoking groupings of facts, thoughts, and/or events:
[José] was at least sixty yet still managed, through a sanguine outlook on pain, to startle crowds by riding at full gallop standing on his head in the saddle.
Offering the narrator’s witty commentary on another character’s dialogue:
“Yes, it’s true,” Glendon replied, gloomily realizing I was no shield against direct speech.
Making up words that contribute to an interesting word picture:
Like many veteran riders he walked hitchingly as though unused to his own feet.
Substituting “went” with more evocative words:
He lurched to a tarnished urn on the counter, filled his cup and returned to the table.
Using an “unlike list”—often considered an editorial infraction—to advantage:
“Her husband is named Soto. He has two fruit orchards and three or four languages.”
“You should leave soon, though. That river is losing its patience.”
Engaging the senses:
“Did you ever see a flood? It’s uglier than fire and makes a worse smell.”
Characterizing at every turn:
“Are you going to pay for the coffee?”
“Good, thank you, I’m saving my pennies.”
Enger exhibits countless other techniques on the pages of this novel. But here's the thing: these admirable examples come from one two-page spread (pp.124-125 in the hardback). Furthermore, this engaging writing springs from one of the most banal set-ups in the modern novel: a conversation in a coffee shop.
Could you find ways to add small sparks of fire to your prose in an equally concentrated fashion? See if you can think of a way to add one or two more sparks to every page of your manuscript. While changes in publishing have thrown much standard advice into question, I can assure you of one enduring truth: no author will ever fail to benefit from raising the literary quality of his or her chosen genre.
Care to share a sentence from your own work that exhibits a little spark of fire?
Kathryn Craft is an author of women's fiction and memoir who specializes in developmental editing at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."