Great Sentences

For my upcoming Masters in Creative Writing class, we have been asked to think about great sentences. Books, movies, articles, blogs, newspapers: It doesn’t matter the format, only the mastery, the prominence, the significance of the sentence itself.

I love this task. I often find myself reading a book and thinking “I wish I wrote that sentence!” and dog-ear the page just so I can go back and goggle at it again later.  Sometimes, if I can be bothered and I’m not so wrapped up in the story that I can spare a moment to find a pen and paper, I’ll write the sentence down, hoping that it might ingrain in me some ingenuity to later reproduce something of a similar standard.

Of course, I don’t know that it actually works like that. It’s not really a case of being able to swap a few words to make it your own, so much as recognising the combination of elements that just, well, work.

I find classic literature to be a treasure trove of great sentences, largely due to the fact that back in the day insults were so very cleverly disguised with words so charming and beautiful, such as Shakespeare’s, “Thy tongue outvenoms all the worms of Nile”, or Oscar Wilde’s “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever…”  Mostly, however, I love classic literature because the language in general was just so damn spectacular.

The sentence I picked is from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. 

I remember Mr Hubble as a tough high-shouldered stooping old man, of a sawdusty fragrance, with his legs extraordinarily wide apart: so that in my short days I always saw some miles of open country between them when I met him coming up the lane.

Honestly, does a sentence get any better than that? It evokes such a vivid image for me, as well as a subtle humour that intensifies its appeal. That, and I can’t help but love Dickens’ use of punctuation. Some of his sentences go on and on with so many commas and semi colons (see the opening to a Tale of Two Cities for further evidence of this) in such a way that I can’t help but marvel at the dexterity of it all.

But Dickens isn’t the only master of great sentences. Austen’s opening sentence to Pride and Prejudice is typically ranked at the top of the ‘greatest first sentences of all time’ lists. And for good reason:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

It would take many hours to list all my favourite sentences from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but this one from The Return of the King is quite beautiful:

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

Despite the countless times I recall thinking “what a great sentence!” I’d be hard pressed to remember them all now.  If nothing else, this task has reminded me that I really do need to write these things down, just so I can find them again easily later.

What are your favourite sentences?

52 comments on “Great Sentences

  1. Hey Katy,
    I totally understand what you’re saying about those sentences! I try to write them down as well, usually because that one great sentence is enough to recall the whole story later on. It’s really hard to pick one favourite, however. Apart from the Jane Austen one above, which I adore, but won’t count because you already mentioned it and because it is too obvious.
    I also like the English classics (especially Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde (okay, not really English, but we’ll let it slide for the moment), Charles Dickens) for exactly the same reason – they can write sentences that sound light and beautiful and frothy, and are, at the same time, deeply sarcastic and/or critical and/or insulting. Such genius!
    … hm, apparently I have to be more careful about actually writing down those sentences, because I cannot find the list I thought I had somewhere in the chaos that is my computer. Also, I’m not near my books at the moment, so cannot quote that one sentence from Walden that always brings shivers down my spine. I’ll try and look it up later.

    Very neat post, thanks for that! :)

    • It’s a bugger, isn’t it? It’s like when people ask what your top 5 movies are or something; I can never remember them all in the moment! If you find the Walden sentence later be sure to share it with me. I’ve started a document on my computer to record all these great lines! Thanks for commenting :)

  2. I wish I could recite great sentences at will but, like the funniest jokes, I am unable to recall them. I used to run a highlighter across whole passages of text that inspired me, but I became uncomfortable about defacing books like this.

    Anyway, after reading your post I knew of one passage I had highlighting from A Scanner Darkly by Phillip K Dick. It’s certainly one of my favourites:

    But the actual touch of her lingered, inside his heart. That remained. In all the years of his life ahead, the long years without her, with never seeing her or hearing from her or knowing anything about her, if she was alive or happy or dead or what, that touch stayed locked within him, sealed in himself, and never went away. That one touch of her hand.

    • Indeed, my powers of recollection are equally dismal, but you definitely pulled through at the end there with that lovely passage! Thanks for sharing.

  3. “What a piece of work is a man”

    But then again you could pick more or less any sentence he wrote and say ‘Yeah, that’s pretty good that is.’

    In the quest for great sentences I often find that song lyrics are woefully under-represented. Although we hear them more oft than we read them, sentences they still are. And there is some serious, serious gold out there.

    • Shakespeare has to be one of the founders of great sentences. And you’re right, any sentence he wrote would probably stand a pretty good chance of being labelled great.

      Very true, lyrics are often overlooked but probably demonstrate some of the best examples of great sentences. I shall keep my ears open…

  4. “Strapped into the quivering soup can laughingly called a plane, bouncing his way on the pummeling air through the stingy window of light that was winter, through the gaps and breaks in snow-sheathed mountains toward a town called Lunacy, Ignatious Burke had an epiphany. He wasn’t as ready to die as he believed.” These two sentences are from the first chapter of Nora Roberts’ Northern Lights, as the main character, Nate Burke, flies to his new job as chief of police in Lunacy, Alaska. One of the best openings I’ve ever read.

    • I LOVE it! I was about to write “especially the part where…” and then I went to copy and paste and found I’d highlighted the whole damn thing. What a great pick. Thank you so much for sharing.

      • You’re welcome. Nora Roberts (also writing under the name J.D. Robb) starts her novels with a great opening line. It’s one of the reasons I like her work so much because that opening line immediately intrigues you and makes you want to read on. The other reasons are her humor and her strong characters (both male and female).

  5. Short, vivid and to the point:

    “Mister Teatime had a truly brilliant mind, but it was brilliant like a fractured mirror, all marvellous facets and rainbows but, ultimately, also something that was broken.”
    ― Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

    • Wow. Great choice Joakim! I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read any Pratchett yet. I have one on the shelf waiting patiently for me though.

      • Oh I can’t take credit for this one, actually. It’s pretty famous. I just didn’t have time to look up the quote, so may have reworded it a little. I’d look it up now but I have an older guy with me wanting to race horses online… and hes very impatient. Another story to write tomorrow, more than likely :) Cheers! :D

  6. I can’t help recalling the words of wisdom that adorn so many of Clint Eastwood’s movies: “Buzzards gotta eat, same as worms” (on not burying a dead man). Lately though, a line that catches my heart when I hear it is a stanza from a song by My Dying Bride: “Issued from her mouth, a further request: the sons of Adam, put to death”. It feels laden with sinister, foreboding dread.

  7. I love the sentences you’ve chosen here. I kind of want to do this now just to see what my favorite sentences sound like and how they’re formatted.

  8. One of the best blog posts I’ve seen anywhere in ages!. It made me search the cobwebby corners of my mind for favourite sentnces. I came up with:
    Julius Caesar: “Veni, vidi, vici”
    Dickens: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”. (I’m not sure of the punctuation – it could be two sentences.)
    I guess I like brevity.

    • That is so kind of you Valerie, thank you! I came, I saw, I conquered is just so classicly powerful; great choice.

      Ironically, the Dickens sentence you chose is actually not brief at all. That was the opening line from a Tale of Two Cities that I mentioned. The whole thing being:

      It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

      What’s so amazing is that it actually is more like lots of little sentences, joined as one. Thanks for stopping by and for your lovely comments :)

  9. Some of my favourite lines come from Shakespeare. My favourite? “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much, such men are dangerous.”

  10. I think the really great sentences are the ones that attach themselves to our permanent memory. But I know what you mean about having a sketchy recollection of some great ones that fluttered off delicately, like a butterfly caught up in a hazy breeze.

    The person’s whose sentences have most earned a fond and permanent residence in my memory is Woody Allen. “The police accused me of having more than total recall.” Then there are the standard ones that most people remember, like Yogi Bera’s one-liners, “It’s Déjà vu all over again,” or Mark Twain’s many memorable one-liners, “There are lies, damn, lies, and statistics.”

    I think the really great sentences are the ones that attach themselves to our permanent memory, like the one you mentioned in your essay. I also know what you mean about having a sketchy recollection of some great ones that fluttered off delicately, like a butterfly caught up in a hazy breeze. I think the reason it is so difficult is because sentences usually don’t accomplish both tasks. They’re very much like notes. One note can sound fine, but it’s the notes that surround it that make for a symphony.

    Here’s an example of what I mean. This is from Truman Capote’s novella, “A Christmas Memory.” It’s two-hundred and fifty-five words long, and yet it leaves us (or at least me) wanting to know more.


    Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.

    A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”

    The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880′s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.

    • Well obviously, I didn’t do a very good job of proof-reading that. It ended up taking me a lot longer to write it than I thought it would. Hence, the redundant sentences that made it past my proofing.

      • Okie dokie. There’s also the problem of the missing sentences. What happened was that I wrote a good deal of it in you “Leave a Reply” box and then I got thinking. “This isn’t such a good idea. I should move it over to MS Word and back it up.”

        “The best plaid plans of mice and men.”

        Hey, another great sentence. Anyway, no problem. I’ll simply go to the “edit” button, and all will be well and good. Oops. No edit button when I’m on someone else’s blog.

        Okay, well, shhh. Don’t tell anyone about my disastrously bad reply to your post.

      • Not to worry, Donald! Some wonderful input there and so true what you say, that sentences are “very much like notes. One note can sound fine, but it’s the notes that surround it that make for a symphony.” To find a sentence that stands alone and magnificent is a great achievement. Thanks for your comments!

    • I’m an ashamed newbie to Dickens. It took me 26 years to pick up Great Expectations, but it was well worth the wait. And now I’m excited about his treasure trove of works that await my reading pleasure!

  11. Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens have such a wealth of brilliant lines. (…Those bastards.) ;)

    And as much as I, personally, did not enjoy “Pride and Prejudice”, I cannot deny that Austen came up with the perfect first line.

  12. Pingback: Best Australian Blogs Competition | storytelling nomad

  13. Ah, but let us not forget Charlotte Bronte in ‘Jane Eyre’: ‘I have an inward treasure born within me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.’

  14. I could never choose just one! I loved this post though, and you’ve now made me want to watch (and then read!) LOTR XD

  15. I’ve always loved (unoriginal idea, I know!) “It was the best of times it was the worst of times.” That entire paragraph is wonderful – I often think of later on in the paragraph, “…in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Gotta love Dickens.

    • It’s an amazing first sentence. There’s something about that Dickens guy. Yeah, I think he might be a bit of a master in the land of wordsmithery.

  16. I’ve thought about that sentence you chose, and I don’t think anyone could find a better one. It holds great truth, and even if you didn’t understand the words, they still have a lovely lilt to them.

    By the way, I thought I’d let you know, my site is up and running. I hope you stop by.

  17. Dickens and Wilde are awesome for the witty sentences. One of my favorite sentences from literature (that I can remember right now) is the first sentence of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.”

  18. Chiliad by Simon Otius, at unhappened [dot] com, is almost wholly written in long and very notable sentences. Here is the opening sentence:

    “To avoid giving the impression, – most particularly here at the very gatehouse of this, for the most part, linear narrating of what is believed a remarkable enough history, one that may, — making its slow but inexorable way to credit, — challenge the very tenets of traditional biography, – that words, – generally believed good-fellows, merry men nearly all, – are already right eager, – by building a labyrinth of intricable mystery, – to confound the unwary reader at the very onset : it will prove very useful if a few, simple, but important facts, concerning the family Troke, and their seat, are first supplied.”

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