Sometimes she sits at her little writing table at the end of the garden and from the deep tamarind shade watches Ruby and Augustina at play on the dazzling sand with a horde of village and tourist children, the hollering crowd expanding and contracting with algorithmic logic, like a flock of starlings, as they splash in the waves, play raboka, race hermit crabs, or draw mysterious labyrinths in the sand for the island version of hopscotch.
“The Children,” by Andrea Lee
I love sentences and all that they can do. The syntax and rhythm of a sentence create as much meaning as the factual content. Lee’s long sentence invokes a sense of time passing. She sits at her little writing table, watching her children as they play.
And so much more is accomplished: rhythm and sound, a sense of place, the solitary versus communal, the shade and the light, a compelling image in the center, and the quiet and the great clamor of the external world.
In previous posts, we’ve seen a long sentence grow through conjunctions and dependent clauses. Lee grows her sentence primarily through prepositional phrases.
Lee uses a compound verb, but before we reach the second verb, “watches,” which will unfurl most of the sentence, she includes four prepositional phrases, situating you in a physical place and creating atmosphere:
1) at her little writing table
2) at the end
3) of the garden
3) from the deep tamarind shade.
After the verb “watches,” the direct object follows, “Roby and Augustina,” and then another five prepositional phrases. These phrases flesh out the setting beyond the little writing table.
She further elongates the sentence (and time) with a dependent clause, beginning with “as,” and then follows with a list of the children’s activities, which bursts with energy because of the abundance of verbs: splash, play, race, and draw. This dependent clause introduces four more prepositional phrases.
At the exact center of this sentence sits an arresting image of the crowd of children “expanding and contracting with algorithmic logic, like a flock of starlings.” Now I picture all the children moving in a murmuration, deeply connected, deeply in sync with each other.
I love “deep tamarind shade,” with its heavy stresses that make me slow down and feel the cool of the shade. “Tamarind” is a noun, but here it functions as an adjective. She could have written “from the shade of the tamarind tree,” but she would have lost the heavy stresses. This technique is called anthimeria, the substitution of one part of speech for another, and it also works beautifully to contrast with the “dazzling sand.”
Open with an independent clause, with a subject and verb. Include four prepositional phrases to establish place and atmosphere.
Add a second verb that requires a direct object. A direct object receives the action of the verb, answering what or who (who or what is she watching?)
Follow with a direct object and add five prepositional phrases that further elaborate the setting. Can you include a contrast between the prepositional phrases of the opening independent clause and this second setting? (deep tamarind shade/dazzling sand) Can you include a powerful image?
Add a dependent clause, and a list with four more prepositional phrases.
How did it go?
What else do you see?
I’ve taught “Style in Fiction,” “Word for Word” and “Cultivating Your Prose” at the University of San Francisco and Stanford Continuing Studies since 2007. In each of these classes, we spend 10 to 15 weeks drenched in the beauty of sentences, reading them and writing them. It’s such a pleasure! I’ve watched my writing and my students’ writing blossom with this practice of paying close attention to the sentence.
Please visit my website to find all of my books, www.ninaschuyler.com. You’ll find my book, How to Write Stunning Sentences, and my new book, Stunning Sentences: A Creative Writing Journal.
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I love long sentences. I'm a Faulkner fan. And this sentence had so many beautiful images. But too many to fully absorb and appreciate, I thought. I had to break it apart to fully enjoy. If I had been editing this, I would have put a period after "tourist childen," and put the rest in its own space. But I would have cut the part about raboka and hermit crabs to give more room to the lovely labyrinth image. I have to do this with my own overly long sentences too.