I’ve been writing professionally for fifty years, so you might think I know how to write a sentence. Yes I do, obviously, but there’s always more to perfect. This book is to writing like practicing scales is to playing the violin.
Stanley Fish starts by explaining how a good sentence depends not on its content but its structure, and how experimenting with structures is a way to explore unexpected meanings within the content of the sentence: form follows function. Then he focuses on a few specific structures.
The subordinating sentence, which is formal in style, places ideas in relationship to each other through causality, time, importance, or some other logical construct, with the aim of creating a complete idea that requires and conveys the assurance of forethought by the author. An additive sentence is no less thoughtful or artistic, but it moves in a straight line and connects ideas one after another, feels spontaneous, and can be especially good for storytelling. A satiric sentence deliberately leads to a twist at the end: We may wish to consider the reasons why Elon Musk’s recent remarks after his purchase of Twitter have filled many of us with doubts, but I believe none of us disputes his claim that he is now the “Top Twit.”
First sentences in novels must hold out a promise, and they can do that, Fish shows, by choosing one of many available sentence structures and strategies. Last sentences need to say “the end” in a way that resonates; again, Fish presents many possibilities for doing that. As a novelist, I found this especially useful.
Fish does, at times, run off the rails because even the best sentence can be over-analyzed. This is a short book, though, so even when he tries too hard, he doesn’t go on forever.