Narrative Transport. The official Michael Pryor website.

August3rd

I keep a compendium of sentences that I like both for inspiration and for the sheer pleasure of reading them again and again. What gets a sentence onto my list? A number of reasons. A neat turn of phrase. An unusual construction. An arresting use of punctuation. A thousand other things.

Here are a few Fantasy and Science Fiction favourites I’ve gathered over the years, and I’ve glossed them with the reasons for their inclusion on my list.

 

‘On the heights above the river Xzan, at the site of certain ancient ruins, Iucounu the Laughing Magician had built a manse to his private taste: an eccentric structure of steep gables, balconies, sky-walks, cupolas, together with three spiral green glass towers through which the red sunlight shone in twisted glints and peculiar colours.’ Jack Vance, The Eyes of the Overworld.

This is the opening of the book and it’s Jack Vance in full baroque mode. Sly, spiky, complex and mannered in an utterly distinctive way. Nice use of the colon, too, for which he gets extra marks.

 

‘Bright bloomed the morning, and debts were settled beneath it.’ Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light.

Almost the opposite of the Vance example, Zelazny goes the economical route in this chapter opener. I love the way he plays with word order (‘Bright bloomed the morning’ instead of the more customary ‘The morning bloomed bright’) and then he crushes the clichéd description of daybreak with a hammer blow. The way the sentence finishes is so far from where it started that it takes your breath away.

 

‘A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt.’ Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness.

Never use a strong, unusual word like ‘profound’ twice close together! And certainly never in the same sentence! Except if you’re in serene control like Ursula le Guin was with this one. It’s almost musing (‘after all’) and is profound in its own right.

 

‘Atop that, yet more crisp-cut stone towering higher and higher as if men competed with the gods who had thrown up the great rock the whole edifice stood upon.’ Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion.

Lovely scene setting. Bujold takes her time with this sentence, a lesson for all writers. She doesn’t hurry, and brings it home with a simile that not only a winner, but by its mention of gods it hints at mysteries, vistas and back story that efficiently adds texture to the narrative.

 

‘Driving east on the Santa Monica Freeway in the pre-dawn darkness, the moon long since set and the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles standing up off to his left like the smouldering posts of some god’s burned-down house, Crane had been seized with the idea of just staying eastbound on the Pomona Freeway, and all the way out past Ontario and Mira Loma to where it joined with the 15 in one of those weird, semi-desert suburbs with names like Norco and Loma Linda, and then straight on up to Las Vegas.’ Tim Powers, the Last Call.

How can you make a description of a humdrum world resonate with otherness? This is how. Pop in a disconcerting simile (‘like the smouldering posts of some god’s burned-down house’), use strong verbs (‘had been seized’) and then the world becomes ominous, uncanny, even threatening.

 

‘Readers will always insist on adventures, and though you can have grief without adventures, you cannot have adventures without grief.’ Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

This is a sentence built around rhythm, using repetition for an effect bordering on the sonorous. Three is the magic number, and using a word three times is like casting a spell.

 

‘Heidi’s room looked like the aftermath of a not-very-successful airplane bombing.’ William Gibson, Zero History.

Sometimes you just nail a metaphor. I can imagine that after writing that one, WG sat back with a small smile on his face.

 

‘Joe felt the familiar exultation, the epinephrine flame that burned away doubt and confusion and left only a pure, clear, colourless vapor of rage.’ Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Rhythm again. Hear the drumbeats of ‘pure, clear, colourless vapor of rage’? Hammer blows building, echoing Joe’s boiling fury. Add to that the startling image of rage as ‘the epinephrine flame’ and we have a sentence to savour again and again.

 

‘True peace required the presence of justice, not just the absence of conflict.’ N.K. Jemisin, The Killing Moon.

A neat antithesis, a sentence balanced around the comma which gives it a neat impetus. We read the first part and we know that something is coming either to turn this around or to emphasise it. Clean, cadenced, punchy.

 

A well-crafted sentence is a thing of beauty, and something all writers strive for. Some succeed.

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