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?