John Gardner, from The Art of Fiction

The sentence may be propelled by some driving, hysterical emotion, like William Faulkner’s long sentence in the occasionally included introduction to The Sound and the Fury, in which the town librarian finds Caddy’s picture in a magazine, closes the library, and rushes with the picture, her wits flying and her heart wildly pounding, to Jason’s store; or the sentence may be kept soft—that is, held back from the relief of a final close, a full stop for breath, in other words, a period—by some neurotic sense of hesitation in the character whose troubled mental processes the sentence is designed to reflect—some intelligent middle-aged housewife, for example, who has read about women’s liberation in her magazines and feels an increasingly anxious inclination, hedged in by doubts and on-the-other-hands, to take a nightschool course—one in flower-arranging, or ceramics, or self awareness—perhaps telling her domineering mother and husband what she’s doing and then again perhaps not—though money will be a problem if she takes the course secretly: She has only her household and grocery allowance—and there are always the children, though Mark (let us call him) might possibly be talked into staying after school Thursday nights to play basketball, and Daniel, on the other hand…but would Daniel even miss her if she went out, in fact?—glued every night to the TV in his room, smoking (if that’s what the smell is) pot?—but it would be risky, no doubt of it; if they found her out—Harold and her mother—there would be scenes, tiresome dramas; better to find some more foolproof plan…or the sentence many be kept going by the complexity of its thought, or by the ornateness of its imagery, or by the “sheer plod” of the drudge it illustrates, or by some other cause, or motor, before at last it quits.

I was flipping back through Gardner’s seminal treatise on fiction writing the other day, noting which of his insights were still spot on (many) and which had grown crusty with time (some), when I came upon this lovely, instructive long sentence. It’s lovely in that Gardner so clearly knows how to modulate the momentum–the starts, the stops, the breath–of a sentence and instructive in that Gardner is in fact talking about the various kinds of long sentences while modeling them. It’s a marvel. I’m not sure if I’d be more pleased to know that, deep into the pleasure and momentum of writing this book, he dashed this sentence off in mere minutes, or if he puzzled over it for months, tinkering, adjusting, improving. Perhaps both would be best.

I love Gardner’s use of “motor” at the end of this sentence. It seems like a throwaway, a last-minute addition, but I think not. Every sentence has a motor. Is it sound or rhythm? The syntax pushing us through to a clause for which we’ve been waiting? Some detail or image that the speaker wants to get right? Some realization held off until the last possible moment? Some emotion suddenly come to the surface? I think from now on when I consider a sentence I love I’ll be asking What is its motor? 

One Response to “John Gardner, from The Art of Fiction”

  1. Jennifer Lunden

    I love this idea, that every sentence has a motor. I have never thought to ask, What is this sentence’s motor? It’s a powerful question. I will ask it more now.


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