Sentence Structure: How to Write a Memorable Sentence І The Great Courses

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Recently, I asked the students in my Prose Style class to think of memorable first sentences from novels. The results were actually a little disappointing, as almost everyone in the class came up with the same two or three first sentences, but only a couple of students could think of more than that. Of course, “Call me Ishmael” made almost everyone’s list. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” the very revealing sentence with which John Dowell opens Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier popped up on several lists.

You explore the myriad ways in which we think about, talk about, and write sentences. You discover insights into what makes for pleasurable reading. You also learn how you can apply these methods to your own writing.

Not surprisingly, the one opening line everyone in the class remembered was “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” that supremely balanced sentence that begins A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens made that opening so memorable by exploiting in just a few words almost all the strategies of syntactic balance: “It was the” before the comma is mirrored by “it was the” after the comma, and the fact that each clause starts with the same words exploits the classical rhetorical trope of anaphora. The first clause ends with “times,” as does the second clause, exploiting the classical rhetorical trope of epistrophe, and that both first and last words of these two clauses are the same makes it an example of yet another rhetorical trope, symploce. The only difference between the first clause and the second clause is that the word best before the comma is changed to worst after the comma, creating a simple but effective antithesis. It’s hard to imagine a more perfectly balanced sentence!

What my students did not remember is that “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is not the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities but is instead only the first of a string of balanced clauses and conceptual balances that combine to form a first sentence that keeps on going for 118 words. And Dickens doesn’t stop there, following this superbly balanced long sentence with even more balances.

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

Dickens balances the English king with a large jaw against the French king with a large jaw, the English queen with a plain face against the French queen with a fair face, the throne of England against the throne of France. Then in the next sentence, he exploits the duple rhythm of clearer than crystal and the pairing of loaves and fishes and creates a subtle parallel between the three-word phrase things in genera” and the three-word phrase settled for ever.

One can almost imagine Dickens performing these sentences, emphasizing their on the one hand/on the other hand structure with the regularity of a metronome: this/that, this/that, this/that.

What makes this famous opening of Dickens’s novel so memorable is variously referred to as its balanced form, or its extended parallelism. These two concepts exist in a kind of chicken-and-egg relationship: either balance is the heart of parallelism or parallelism is the heart of balance. It is easy to specify what makes a formally balanced sentence: A balanced sentence hinges in the middle, usually split by a semicolon, the second half of the sentence paralleling the first half, but changing one or two key words or altering word order. Dickens’s first sentence in A Tale of Two Cities doesn’t exactly fit the bill for a formally balanced sentence, but each of its seven initial paired clauses could, reminding us that sometimes a comma does the work of a semicolon in these constructions. But, while this sentence strings together a sequence of parallel balances, there are so many of them that we become more focused on the sentence’s parallels than on each of its binary oppositions.

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