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The Value of Boring Sentences
Some more dry (but useful?) thoughts on craft
When I was a young writer, I was determined to make every sentence wild. I’d taken to heart everything my professors said about “making it new” and “the elegant variation” and “literary style.” I wanted each line to be an explosion, each paragraph a fireworks display. But mostly, perhaps, I didn’t want to be lazy. I had the idea that simple, straightforward sentences—Bill opened the door and smiled. Sally walked inside.—was the work of a writer on autopilot. Someone who wasn’t putting in the work, and thus wasn’t worth the work of reading.
As a professor, I see a lot of student work written with the same mindset I had as a student. Where the writer has a clear aversion to saying something straightforward in a straightforward way, and so reaches for metaphors, modifiers, and the old thesaurus. Bill didn’t smile, instead his mouth curved upward affably. Sally didn’t walk inside Bill’s house, she ambled quickly into the foreign abode.
But now, having written a fair amount of stuff over a fair amount of years, I appreciate the value of the boring sentence. Not, I want to stress, a lot of boring sentences. I still roll my eyes at the type of writer (mostly older white men and/or commercial fiction authors) who say things like “If it sounds like writing, I CUT IT!” or “I write simple sentences for the working man on the back of the bus.” (As if working people can’t read complex sentences?).
No, I don’t want boring writing. But what I value is the value of deploying boring sentences alongside “fireworks sentences.” How they can work together, in the context of a paragraph, a scene, a chapter, to create an even more powerful effect.
What would fireworks be without the blank black sky behind them?
Like Said, He Said
Although many writing professors and craft essayists advocate making each line interesting, there is one near universal exception: dialogue tags. In most genres of fiction, from experimental literary fiction to commercial thrillers, everyone advises you to use “he/she/they said” 99% of the time. The other 1% can be “she/they/he asked.” There’s nothing that will make a writing professor or editor groan more easily than passages like this:
“How dare you show up here?” Bill barked.
“I do what I want!” Sally chortled.
“Well I want you to leave!” Bill groaned.
“Fat chance,” argued Sally.
“You jerk,” alleged Bill.
There are a couple reasons for this. There is the idea that dialogue should stand on its own, conveying meaning by the words in quotes. Then there is the fact that young writers frequently use impossible dialogue tags. Sorry, a human vocal system is not capable of “croaking” a paragraph, “moaning” a monologue, or “grimacing” a soliloquy).
But mostly this rule is in place because if you only use “said” then the tag becomes almost like punctuation. The reader’s eye gather’s information from it, as they would a question mark or a semi-colon, but they don’t read it with the same attention as other words. There is less emphasis. To put it another way, “he said” works almost as a pause between the major beats.
(If you want to see an illustration of this, simply read a dialogue heavy passage normally and then read it again out loud. You’ll notice the “said”s much more when you have to say them instead of letting your eyes skim past.)
I think this advice is completely right. But I also think it isn’t limited to “she said” and “he asked.” Perhaps there are a lot of short, simple sentences or clauses that provide a similar function. Minimal information and a sort of pause.
I’m thinking of sentences or clauses like “she smiled,” “he shrugged,” “we looked,” and “they turned around.” There are of course many ways to change these sentences. Scores of synonyms, endless elegant variations. But writing “he lifted his heavy shoulders up and down” or “she twirled effortlessly on her heels to glare at him” puts heavy emphasis on those sentences. And, outside of a few experimental styles, you don’t want every single sentence to be emphasized.
A Succession of Strobic Smiles
Years ago, when I was the editor in chief of Electric Literature, I commissioned a post on Cormac McCarthy’s use of smiling from the writer Matt Bell (whose own excellent writing substack is here). Bell talks about some the advice I mentioned above:
One of the rules I’ve heard taught most often in writing workshops is that you shouldn’t use “smile” or “shrug” too frequently — if at all — as they can serve as a sort of crutch keeping you from writing stronger and more-telling action around your dialogue.
But then notes that Cormac McCarthy, a famously baroque stylist, uses “smile” all the time. Some examples Bell pulls from Outer Dark:
Holme smiled slightly.
Holme smiled weakly.
The man smiled again.
She saw the man smile.
If you haven’t read early Cormac McCarthy, you might not know how odd those sentences seem compared to his usual style. Let me quote a favorite passage from the second page of Child of God:
Wasps pass through the laddered light from the barnslats in a succession of strobic moments, gold and trembling between black and black, like fireflies in the serried upper gloom. The man stands straddlelegged, has made in the dark humus a darker pool wherein swirls a pale foam with bits of straw. Buttoning his jeans he moves along the barn wall, himself fiddlebacked with light, a petty annoyance flickering across the wallward eye.
That’s certainly the most gorgeous description of a dude pissing in a barn while bugs fly around you’ll ever read! This is not, to say the least, an author who shies away from an “elegant variation.” McCarthy loves baroque sentences with bizarre synonyms and metaphors. And yet McCarthy feels free to write sentences like “[He] smiled” and “[He] smiled slightly.”
He knows when to shoot fireworks, and when to hold back.
Anyway, this is all on my mind as I just finished copyedits on my novel (coming this fall!) last night. During copyedits, I do the old “ctrl +f” search for “weasel words” like smile, almost, very, just, suddenly, that, etc. to make sure I’m not overusing them. This is a good habit. I advise doing it in your manuscript. But while doing so this time I kept starting to change a sentence like “She smiled” and stopping. Thinking, no, actually, that’s fine. The next sentence is a weird metaphor and the one before it is a burst of shocking action. Why not give the reader a little boring pause, before starting the explosions again?