What are the hallmarks of a good sentence?
I recently set out on a “journey” to find out.
I mostly read books on Kindle, and when I come across a good sentence, I highlight it. I’ve done this for years.
But I don’t always look back at what I’ve highlighted.
So, I wondered …
What would I discover if I traveled through my highlighted sentences?
Good sentences are the foundation of good writing
The main task of a good sentence is to convey meaning. As Joe Moran writes in his book First You Write a Sentence:
A sentence is a small, sealed vessel for holding meaning.
Yet, studying sentences in isolation can feel weird because we usually read sentences in context. A good sentence connects to both the previous and the next sentence. It’s only one carriage in a long train.
When I started reviewing my highlighted sentences, I realized I often highlight a paragraph rather than just one sentence; and the sentences don’t always work on their own.
But the very best sentences stand out and convey meaning—even out of context.
Here are my favorites …
Sentence #1: Sensory appeal
One of the first books I read this year was The Offing by Benjamin Myers. This sensory sentence hums with a quiet melancholy:
Sitting here now by the open window, a glissando of birdsong on the very lightest of breezes that carries with it the scent of a final incoming summer, I cling to poetry as I cling to life.
In one sentence, Myers describes a visual detail (an open window), an auditory detail (a glissando of birdsong), a scent (the scent of a final incoming summer), and a sense of motion or touch (the lightest breeze). These sensory descriptions transport readers, letting them experience the story as if they’re there.
After the sensory description, the sentence ends with the key point: I cling to poetry as I cling to life.
There’s meaning and poetry in one sentence. A beauty.
Sentence #2: A journey in one sentence
I read Tommy Orange’s book There There over two years ago.
And when I decided to write this post with my favorite sentences, I instantly knew I wanted to include this sentence:
It’s important that he dress like an Indian, dance like an Indian, even if it is an act, even if he feels like a fraud the whole time, because the only way to be Indian in this world is to look and act like an Indian.
Why do I like this sentence so much?
This sentence is brimming with tension. What does it mean to be an Indian? What’s real? What’s a fraud?
I love how this sentence races ahead, leaving you almost out of breath while reading. The repetition of phrases—like an Indian, even if—gives the sentence a strong rhythm. Again, there’s both poetry and meaning in one sentence.
Sentence #3: The broken beauty
Your high-school teacher may have told you off for writing an incomplete sentence.
But not every sentence needs to be complete.
Here’s an example from Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman:
From the tinkle of the door chime to the voices of TV celebrities advertising new products over the in-store cable network, to the calls of the store workers, the beeps of the bar code scanner, the rustle of customers picking up items and placing them in baskets, and the clacking of heels walking around the store.
I remember I highlighted this sentence because I liked the auditory description—the tinkle, the chime, the voices, the beeps, the rustle, the clacking of heels. I’m pretty sure, at the time, I didn’t realize this sentence doesn’t include a subject nor a verb.
But what’s wrong with that?
A good sentence can be “broken.” Not every sentence needs a subject and a verb.
Sentence #4 and #5: The suspense
The first sentence of How to Kidnap the Rich by Rahul Raina is probably the best first sentence I’ve read this year so far:
The first kidnapping wasn’t my fault.
These 6 words conjure up so many questions that I had to read on: Why was the first kidnapping the fault of the protagonist? Why were there more kidnappings? And why were those kidnappings his fault? What the hell is going on here?
A good first sentence pulls readers into a story by raising so many questions that readers have to read on.
The best first sentence I read last year also raises questions; it’s from Tayari Jones’s book Silver Sparrow:
My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.
Uhm … how? Why? How did you find out? And what happened next?
Sentence #6: The cliff edge
One of the best memoirs I’ve read recently is Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. This is the 6th sentence:
I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car.
This sentence is an irresistible invitation to read on. Don’t you want to know what the hell is going on here?
Perhaps that’s a key lesson here: Every good sentence is an invitation to read the next.
Sentence #7: Precision
I read A Rose for Winter by Laurie Lee earlier this year.
I had never read one of Lee’s books before, and I found this book a little tedious.
However, one beautiful scene about a guitar lesson stuck with me. Here’s the second sentence of that scene, in which Lee describes the arrival of his guitar teacher:
Each day, at the stroke of ten, he knocked softly at my door and entered on tiptoe, as though into a sick room, carrying his guitar-case like a doctor’s bag.
This sentence contains a lot of detail in quick succession. The sentence specifies the time (each day, at the stroke of ten), where it takes place (where the author is staying), the action (the teacher knocks and enters), and how that action takes place (on tiptoe as though into a sick room, carrying his guitar-case like a doctor’s bag).
The writing is precise without becoming flowery. I like it!
Sentence #8: The surprise
I felt like I couldn’t write a post about my favorite sentences without including Raymond Chandler.
Chandler is not one of my favorite writers, not by a long stretch. But I do admire his writing style, and how he uses surprising imagery. I like his sentences better than his books.
This is from Farewell, My Lovely:
Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.
I like the phrase “not the quietest dressed street”—it concisely communicates that people on this street may dress extravagantly without even referring to people.
But the best part of the sentence comes at the end: The ridiculous imagery of a large hairy spider on a slice of angel food. How on earth did Chandler think of that?
Sentence #9: The question
When we think of sentences, we usually think of statements.
But questions are sentences, too.
And questions are much undervalued in writing.
I bought the book The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim after I’d seen this question quoted:
Is it the world that’s busy, or is it my mind?
Questions can arouse curiosity, engage readers, and make them think. The question above lingered in my mind for a long time. That’s what a good question does.
Sentence #10 and #11: Wisdom
My favorite book of the year so far is The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer.
I wanted to include it in this blog post but I struggled to choose only one sentence, so I’m cheating and including two pieces of wisdom:
In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.
Going nowhere, as Leonard Cohen would later emphasize for me, isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.
Iyer’s book is about living life more fully by slowing down, embracing stillness, going nowhere, and being more present. The two sentences above sum up the wisdom in the book.
There’s a touch of poetry, too, as the concept of speed contrasts with going slow; and the idea of stepping away contrasts with loving the world more. Contrast is a poetic technique that can add drama and magic to our words.
I love these two sentences by Iyer mostly because of their wisdom. But there’s a quiet gentleness in the writing and a touch of poetry, too.
A good sentence is an adventure
What have I learned from my journey through my highlighted sentences?
As the sentences above show, there’s not just one way to write a good sentence. A good sentence can be long or short, and it can even be broken. There’s rhythm, sensory appeal, and poetry—even in prose.
Above all, a good sentence takes readers on an adventure, inviting them to read the next sentence.
Strong imagery makes that adventure more real, allowing readers to experience a story and expand their horizons.
And a nugget of wisdom contained in a sentence can nudge readers to reflect, allowing them to embark on an inner adventure.
A good sentence is both beautiful and meaningful.
Happy adventures, my friend.
Bonus sentence examples
As I’m continuing my adventure through sentences and books, I’m adding more sentence examples below. Enjoy!
I love the personification in this sentence from Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees:
When the night kissed your skin, as it always did, you could smell the jasmine on its breath.
The love of and respect for nature is woven through Robin Wall Kimmerer’s writing. In her opening paragraph of the book Braiding Sweetgrass, she describes the fragrance of sweetgrass:
Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.
So much truth in this sentence from Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson:
Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
Colson Whitehead is a great stylist and he characterizes people well. This is from Harlem Shuffle:
Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked, in practice and ambition.
I love the idea of living by and inside a story. This sentence is from This is Happiness by Niall Williams:
We all have to find a story to live by and live inside, or we couldn’t endure the certainty of suffering.
And this first sentence from Free by Lea Ypi raises so many questions that I’m eager to read on:
I never asked myself about the meaning of freedom until the day I hugged Stalin.
In the following sentence, Barney Ronay characterizes Jafarieh, a health guru (from The Guardian):
Jafarieh is a familiar type, the magnetic personality, the handsome and piercing spirit guide who accepts all major credit cards and looks like he might smell of musk and whale-song and concentrated human-power while he stands slightly too close to you in the lift.
You can picture him now, right?
What makes the characterization so strong:
- The surprising contrast between the spirit guide and accepting all major credit cards
- The multi-sensory details: the smell of musk, whale-song, and concentrated human-power
- The strong visual imagery at the end: I feel myself cringe when imagining being in the lift with this health guru
Books mentioned in this post:
- First You Write a Sentence by Joe Moran (recommended)
- The Offing by Benjamin Myers (highly recommended)
- There There by Tommy Orange (highly recommended)
- Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (recommended)
- How to Kidnap the Rich by Rahul Raina (highly recommended)
- Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (highly recommended)
- Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (highly recommended)
- A Rose for Winter: Travels in Andalusia by Laurie Lee
- Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
- The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim (recommended)
- The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer (highly recommended)
- The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (highly recommended)
- Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (highly recommended)
- Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (highly recommended)
- Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (highly recommended)
- This Is Happiness by Niall Williams (recommended)
- Free by Lea Ypi (recommended)