Virginia Woolf left behind many pithy quotes about writing, but this is one of my favorites. I keep it taped to my computer to remind me of the writer’s greatest challenge: to engage and entertain the reader through words alone.
Each sentence must have, at its heart, a little spark of fire, and this, whatever the risk, the novelist must pluck with his own hands from the blaze. — Virginia Woolf
Imagine how a little spark of fire in every sentence could ignite your storytelling.
There are so many ways to pull that off, many of them on display in Leif Enger’s So Brave, Young, and Handsome. The story follows Monte Becket’s 1915 journey to regain purpose after the astounding success of his debut novel sucks the life from him. Monte latches onto Glendon Hale, a character with a shady past whose goal is clear: in a hand-built boat, he will set out from Minnesota toward Mexico seeking Blue, the wife he abandoned, so he can make amends. Monte pulls double duty as narrator and protagonist.
The tale is like the river the two men initially head down: while not always a whitewater thrill fest, its inexorable current continually beckons the reader. The astute writer reading this book will recognize that this downstream pull is due in no small part to the way Enger sparks his sentences.
Let’s look at some of the ways he does so and see if we could borrow some of them for our own work.
1. Raise a reader question by making the usual unusual:
The fourth day of rain I entered the President’s Tavern to find Glendon uneasily drinking coffee with José Barrera.
2. Grabbing the reader’s attention through thought-provoking word groupings and/or unusual events:
[José] was at least sixty yet still managed, through a sanguine outlook on pain, to startle crowds by riding at full gallop standing on his head in the saddle.
3. Offering the narrator’s humorous commentary on another character’s dialogue:
Yes, it’s true,” Glendon replied, gloomily realizing I was no shield against direct speech.
4. Making up words to suit an interesting word picture:
Like many veteran riders he walked hitchingly as though unused to his own feet.
5. Using an evocative verb in an otherwise banal dialogue beat:
He lurched to a tarnished urn on the counter, filled his cup and returned to the table.
6. Creating an “unlike list”—the sort of thing that would usually garner editorial criticism—to advantage:
Her husband is named Soto. He has two fruit orchards and three or four languages.
You should leave soon, though. That river is losing its patience.
8. Layering in meaning by using a character name that allows double entendre:
Glendon was startled; he’d been set on Mexico, on the Blue of his memory.
9. Evocative sensory description:
Did you ever see a flood? It’s uglier than fire and makes a worse smell.
10. Constant attention to characterization:
Are you going to pay for the coffee?”
“Good, thank you, I’m saving my pennies.”
Of course Enger exhibits many additional techniques, but the point is not to sprinkle a generous handful of original thought throughout your book—it’s to do so on every page.
This brings us to the true source of today’s inspiration: these examples come from one two-page spread (pp.124-125 in the hardcover) in Enger’s novel. Despite the fact that the scene is set in one of the most common locales in the historical western —in a tavern—while the men are engaged in one of the most humdrum activities—drinking their morning coffee—I found such delight in this prose I underlined all ten of these examples.
Would you like to delight your reader? (Um, the answer here should be Hell yeah!) Imagine how much your manuscript would benefit if you added small sparks of fire to your prose. Could you pull this off in an equally concentrated fashion?
Back when Oprah Winfrey had her show on ABC and chose Janet Fitch’s White Oleander for her book club, Fitch said that in later drafts she pored over her prose and replaced any word combination she’d ever before heard (think mousy brown hair) with something that felt original. Imagine such diligence! Fitch strives for originality by treating her word choices and groupings as if her novels were long prose poems, and it shows.
Understandably, this is more effort than most novelists are willing to expend. But might you be willing to add a spark of fire to one or two paragraphs per page, as a way to spotlight their importance? Or on random pages in each chapter, to further engage and entertain your reader?
No matter what you are writing, open your manuscript now and give it a try. Of this I am sure: no author ever failed to benefit from raising the literary quality of his or her chosen genre.
In the comments: Care to share a sentence from your own work to which you’ve added a little spark of fire?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!