At a bookstore event for my book, The Art of Brevity, one person asked me, “What unit of writing are you most focused on in the art of brevity, whether it’s word choice, the sentence, the paragraph, or something larger, like a scene or chapter?”
My answer didn’t take much thought: It’s the sentence.
I love the sentence because, as Gertrude Stein said, “A sentence has wishes as they decide.” A sentence can have sweep and circumference, a swing and a lilt. A sentence can be a fillip or a thud, a tickle or a trickle, a brush or a scratch. A sentence can prick or punch or flow or stop. A sentence can be carried by a cadence or a gust of emotion. It can march in a parade or slink into the background. The words of a sentence can pop and flop, slither and dither, hurtle and chortle.
Sentences are like people. Some sentences revel in their opulence — they live for the show, fulsome and rococo — while others bristle at any unneeded adornment. And then some sentences seem to know nothing more than their function, as if they’re a garbage disposal or a toaster.
The shorter the story, the more work a sentence has to do.
The writer Christopher Allen opens his flash-writing workshops with the question, “Which sentence in a flash-length narrative is the most important?” Some students say the first sentence. Some students say the last sentence. Then he tells them it’s a trick question. “It’s every sentence because flash-length narratives don’t allow for spinning wheels and throwaway sentences,” he says.
That’s true. The parts that go into making a short are more noticeable because brevity accentuates them. The shorter the story, the more work a sentence has to do. A sentence must be able to cast shadows through the most careful word choice, create mood with the rhythm and juxtaposition of its words, paint brushstrokes of nuance, and capture the microscopic even as it weaves its way into a string quartet of other sentences.
Sometimes a single sentence can be a story unto itself, but those sentences can take on a variety of characteristics, lengths, contours, and rhythms to form the story. The prime example of the practitioner of a “sentence story” is Lydia Davis. Here, for example, is one of Davis’s…