In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 157.
A sentence has wishes as they decide.
A person recently asked me, “What unit of writing are you most focused on in ‘the art of brevity’: 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 posits, sentences are each their own unique being. 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 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. The prime example of the practitioner of a “sentence story” is Lydia Davis. Here, for example, is Davis’s “A Double Negative”:
At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.”
Is such a sliver of a thought a story?
To some it might resemble a single somewhat awkward line drawn on a canvas. There is no setting. No characters with names or ages or any other kind of detail. And yet there’s conflict: over the choice of whether to have a child and the difference between wanting to have a child versus not wanting “not to have had a child.” That conflict reveals a state of mind, implies actions, and yet still holds questions.
Davis’s sentence communicates a sense of finality, and yet it’s unstable enough that you have to wonder whether she’s truly committed to any outcome. It’s a muddled sentence: using the double negative to maximum existential and dramatic effect yet so strangely phrased that it requires rereading to truly get its meaning. And then you’re stuck in the double negative, which by definition can never be quite a positive, so you’re left in an odd suspension. The character’s resolution seems unclear and requires rethinking.
The language of the sentence is the character of the story, for the narrative is a thought.
Davis’s stories can seem epigrammatic, yet they’re more than that. They don’t rely on any grandiosity of language or elaborate sentence structure. Rather, she constructs the lineaments of her story through subtle phrasal maneuvers, tuning them for different sonic impacts, stitching in the tiniest of narrative threads.
Interestingly, Davis’s short “sentence stories” were spawned by her translation of Proust’s long, winding sentences. “I started writing the one-sentence stories when I was translating Swann’s Way,” she told The Guardian in 2010. “There were two reasons. I had almost no time to do my own writing, but didn’t want to stop. And it was a reaction to Proust’s very long sentences. The sheer length of a thought of his didn’t make me recoil exactly—I loved working on it—but it made me want to see how short a piece of fiction could be that would still have a point to it, and not just be a throwaway joke.”
While Davis’s sentence stories tend to be short and pithy, a sentence story can be winding and rambunctious and breathy as well. Ted McLoof ’s “Space, Whether, and Why” is told in a single sentence of 1,394 words. The narrative is not only an achievement of word count but of storytelling. There is nothing extraneous or engorged about McLoof ’s story. Every word and comma feels necessary. In fact, I didn’t even realize it was a single sentence until after reading it, when I traced back looking for a period—and there wasn’t one.
McLoof said the story is about lack of space, a momentum that takes over a couple’s relationship with such force that they never get to examine their relationship properly. “Each event piggybacks on the last one, and they never get the benefit of perspective, and that dooms them. I wanted the reader to have that same feeling of breathlessness, of an inability to pause even for the length of a period to reflect, because that’s a distance my characters weren’t allowed,” McLoof wrote.
Other flash stories that are long, winding sentences include Hananah Zaheer’s “Lovebirds,” in which she uses 703 words to capture the simultaneity of life; Kirstin Chen’s “Meine Liebe;” Jennifer Todhunter’s “The Levitation;” and Gwen E. Kirby’s “Friday Night.”
Sentences, no matter whether they’re long or short, are units of composition. How they are used in a story affects how they are experienced in an architectural way, with the space in the “room” of narrative allowing for different types of drama.
Flashpoint Exercise: A Story in a Single Sentence
“The most revealing story I’ve written is also the shortest,” Amy Hempel wrote in an essay on Oprah.com, referring to her sentence story “Memoir”: “Just once in my life—oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?”
Now it’s your turn. Write a story in a single sentence. It can be six words or sixty or six hundred. It can be long and winding—breathless—or short and truncated and blunt. A sentence can be viewed much as a longer story or as a book is viewed. It is a container. It can be a container that is pure and simple, or it can be a container cluttered with strivings and meanderings, adorned with the rubble of meaning.
If you want to experiment and see how your story might change at different lengths, write it at all three lengths—six, sixty, and six hundred—and observe how the modulations affect the character of the sentence and the narrative itself. A perfect six-word story might be ruined by an extra fifty-four words, or vice versa.
Adapted from The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story, published last month by the University of New Mexico Press.
Grant Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and cofounder of 100 Word Story. He is the author of The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story (University of New Mexico Press, 2023), All the Comfort Sin Can Provide (Black Lawrence Press, 2021), Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo (Chronicle Books, 2017), and Fissures: One Hundred 100-Word Stories (Press 53, 2015). He is also an editor of Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story (Outpost19, 2019). Faulkner’s stories have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, the Southwest Review, and Tin House, among other publications, and have been anthologized in collections such as New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton, 2018) and The Best Small Fictions 2016 (Braddock Avenue Books, 2017). His essays on creativity have been published on Literary Hub and in the New York Times, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Find Grant online on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Listen to his podcast, Write-minded, and subscribe to his newsletter, Intimations: A Writer’s Discourse.Art: David Pisnoy