On my writing journey, I spent a lot of time studying the big-picture concepts of writing, such as story arcs, conflict and character, but then I began to notice some smaller scale aspects. A phrase or a small block of text would sing out to me as I read. For a while, I logged the best examples in a spreadsheet. I noticed that my favorite books usually had a lot of these winning sentences.
What made them so powerful? Just as I had studied scenes and storylines to see what made them successful, I began to study phrases to see what made them catch my attention. All of them had one of the six qualities below. Most had several.
The Five Senses
The authors didn’t just use the senses. They bathed the words in sight or touch or taste (often using more than one sense at a time) until I could smell the salty sea air or feel the dried leaves crumble between my own fingers.
“There was a sizzle and steam and a sound like a thousand muskets firing. Then the sheets of ore began to fall.”
– Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks
The phrases usually occurred in the context of an emotional scene, but then a few well-chosen words would zing the emotion all the way home.
“I had only human comparisons for such a look. Caesar and Brutus. Jesus and Judas.”
– The Host, Stephenie Meyer
The authors utilized metaphors or similes, fresh images that made general ideas tangible and ordinary actions captivating.
“The prayer seemed to find shelter in the morning breeze, as though chanted by the leaves overhead.”
– Book of Dreams, Davis Bunn
Repetition of a word or a sentence structure gave the writing rhythm, almost like poetry.
“Each question would lead to another and another until there was only a man and a woman in a garden and a forbidden tree.”
– At the Scent of Water, Linda Nichols
Forceful, Visceral Words
Even removed from their scenes and sentences, the words were strong, capable of evoking a reaction. I noticed that the writers often used words related to the body (bone, blood, flesh) or to a threat (thunder, electric, knifed). Even when the words were used in a different context (neither related to a human body or a physical threat), they still carried the weight of those associations.
“Her voice was a whip-crack in the silent arena.”
– Taliesin, Stephen Lawhead
The text twisted the normal way of saying things. The writers clearly dug deep, looking for an original and unexpected way to convey their scene, and the words they found were guaranteed to catch the reader’s attention.
“She had skin the shade of bootleg coffee, and crossing her back were the memories of lashed scars.”
– Harvesting the Heart, Jodi Piccoult
Once I pinned down what gave these memorable sentences their power, it was that much easier to write a few of my own. What about you? Have you found other traits that make a phrase sing to you?
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