The Rhythm of a Sentence

In a recent post I talked about writers who struggle with the rhythm of sentences. The other day I came across a sentence about playwright Sean O’Casey that gets the rhythm wrong. I started tinkering with it, but it’s not so easy to fix.

Here’s the sentence:

O’Casey’s love and admiration for his mother – he lived with her until he was forty, when she died – are shown in his account of his father’s funeral in I Knock at the Door, volume one of the autobiography.

The sentence sputters just when you arrive at its most interesting point: he lived with her until he was forty, when she died… (If you read the sentence aloud, you’ll hear that sputter!)

I tried rewriting the sentence and came up with this:

O’Casey’s love and admiration for his mother – he lived with her until she died when he was 40 – are shown in his account of his father’s funeral in I Knock at the Door, volume one of the autobiography.

It’s better – but not good enough. “Until she died” is still a subordinate (less important) clause – not a good choice for a major event in O’Casey’s life. And the main verb in the sentence is passive – “are shown.” Most seriously, there’s just too much information for one sentence.

I spent more time revising and came up with this:

Volume one of O’Casey’s autobiography, I Knock at the Door, testifies to his love and admiration for his mother. They lived together until he was forty, and it was only her death that separated them.

The ideas make more sense, and now there’s a climax: “it was only her death that separated them.”

Every writer struggles with overloaded and awkward sentences. Ernest Hemingway said that he rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times because he couldn’t get the words right.

All writing is rewriting. Remember that principle the next time you’re doing battle with a sentence that refuses to surrender to your will! 

Sean O'Casey

                Sean O’Casey

 

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