It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
Sula, by Toni Morrison
This fine cry feels like it will go on forever. It will never stop, it will never dissolve.
Sound is a traveling longitudinal wave, but we don’t usually picture it that way. Morrison takes this fact and uses synesthesia—a metaphorical process by which one sense modality is described in terms of another—to give sound a physical shape. Not waves, but circles. Repetition of the word “circles” creates a sense of an endless state of existence.
Morrison is one of our great stylists, and this sentence is overspilling with techniques. (I have learned so much from her; I will always learn so much from her). A cleft sentence, “it was,” builds to the subject of the sentence. While she could have written “The fine cry was…” there wouldn’t be this build that creates suspense and emphasis. The two words, “fine cry” not only ring out with the long “I” sound, (assonance) but also from the heavy stresses--FINE CRY, which slows the sentence, letting the words reverberate, giving the reader time to feel them.
“Fine cry” is also an oxymoron, with two seemingly contradictory terms appearing side by side. Morrison brings attention to the cry with this technique and creates intrigue: why is it fine? What exactly is of high quality about this cry?
Rather than commas, she uses an em dash to include more details about the cry. It’s such an ingenious use of this punctuation, which makes it feel like part of the cry, a cry extending outward, filling the world with this horizontal line. Adding to the sound of the sentence is alliteration, “loud and long.” It’s a slight rhythm change from the previous two heavy stresses of FINE CRY; now we have LOUD and LONG. (heavy stresses capitalized). The ear likes it; the ear likes variety.
The conjunction “but” always turns the sentence in a new direction. And here, the shape of the cry begins. First, she uses parallelism, saying like things in like ways, for an eloquent rhythm:
It had no bottom
It had no top
Then comes the beautiful image of circles and circles, which invites more alliteration into the musical sentence and specifies that this fine cry is not about joy but sorrow.
This is a compound sentence, with two base clauses connected by the conjunction “but.” Use a cleft structure, delaying your subject. Choose a subject that invokes one of the senses. Can you create an oxymoron by pairing your subject with a seemingly contradictory adjective?
Now add an em dash and describe the subject with two more adjectives. Can you use alliteration?
Add the conjunction “but” and now compare your subject to another sense. If you used color, for instance, what does it sound like? What’s the texture? Taste?
Can you use parallelism?
Let me know how it goes!
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: ninaschuyler.com
I’m thrilled that my new novel Afterword was chosen by Alta Journal as a top read for May! Bay City News, too, awarded it this honor.
On May 20th, Saturday, at 11:00 am I’ll be at Book Passage, Corte Madera, in conversation with Jasmin Darsnik, author of The Bohemians.
On May 31, 7:00 pm, I’ll be at Green Apple Books on 9th Avenue, in conversation with Katie Flynn, author of The Companions.
I have a new essay, “How to Tell a True Origin Story of a Novel,” published by the fabulous literary journal, Your Impossible Voice.
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Morrison, one of my favorite authors. I love the way you've you've directed this sentence. Beautiful.
This was a hard one - here's what I managed (didn't quite keep to the forms):
It was a flat energy--planed and pressed--not the matte black of a blown match nor the magnesium flare of sudden flame, just the red embered question before the spark.
Thanks for these posts, the sentence breakdown has been so helpful to my own learning...slows me down to notice the beauty and enables me to practice the forms with intention.