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: