1. John had a horse.
That sentence tells you something, but not a lot.
2. John had a stallion.
We’re getting somewhere. That tells you what kind of horse it is, and should put a more vivid or at least specific image in your mind as a reader. An expert on horses might go into more specifics and detail on the stallion, or might say it’s a wild mustang or an Appaloosa. But for our purposes, we’ll go with what we have.
Good writing is specific. As William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White point out in their instructional classic, “The Elements of Style,” good writing is specific, concrete and definite. This is preferable to the general, vague and abstract. (See pages 21-22 in Elements of Style.)
It’s the writer’s task to make of what she is writing an experience that is real to the reader. The writer must deliver, as Boris Pasternak once commented that Ernest Hemingway did, “the earth, the matter, the wood.”
Back to John and his horse.
3. John rode his stallion.
This is specific action. John and the stallion are doing something. As a writer, you hope the reader will want to know what, and read further. It’s important to point out that many if not most of the principles of good writing are interrelated. Not only do we now have what began as a non-specific person and vague horse more definitely rendered, but they are also doing something. Other writing principles of action vs. inaction as well as significant detail, now come into play.
4. John loosened the kerchief around his neck in the scorching heat as he rode his stallion faster, the horse kicking up a dust cloud near the dry riverbed.
This is really just a first or second pass, a first draft sentence to a narrative that a writer might create, but you can see as you move from the general to the specific, from the general “horse” to a more specific horse and rider, both of which are doing something specific, even unique to themselves and their story, how much even a simple sentence can carry and convey. This also shows more than tells, making vivid and alive the story.
One sentence leads to the next. What are John and his stallion doing? Are they looking for water? Are they looking for someone? Are they doing both? Are they running from or to something?
A good sentence—all good writing—should make readers want to read more.
In both fiction and non-fiction, many sentences have to have a simple utility. You move your character from the kitchen to the bedroom in a short story; you describe the senator’s pale gray skin in your profile on him. You must convey information in non-fiction and sometimes use exposition in fiction.
Still, strive to make your sentences meaningful, interesting and if you can, compelling, without overdoing it. Let’s try another version of the first sentence:
5. John tugged at his kerchief which covered the deep gash on his throat as he rode his stallion at breakneck speed, which kicked up a cloud of choking dust as John fled the town by the dry river bed.
So there we’re on the edge of going too far; probably too far.
6. John rode his stallion, whose hooves pounded out a steady rhythm that added to the relentless pounding in John’s head which throbbed from a deadly thirst, as parched rider and horse passed yet another dry riverbed.
Okay, we get it, they’re thirsty, but that’s kind of over the top. You should have a sense of when it’s too much, or that it could be going in a better direction. That’s from your experience as a writer but it’s also intuitive. Don’t ignore your intuition. Let’s back the sentence down just a bit.
7. John rode his stallion, which pounded out a steady rhythm as parched rider and horse passed yet another dry riverbed.
That’s better, we’re back on track, but now the sentence is too plain, generic. If we add a specific though fictional place (which we just made up), we can ground the action of our horse and rider in a concrete way that ties things together better.
8. John rode his stallion, which pounded out a steady beat along Windless Trail, as parched rider and horse passed the Jagged Rock River, yet another dry, scorched bed.
That will do for now. We can build a narrative with that beginning, which should allow for a story to develop organically about John and his horse.
You can overdo changes. Same with specifics, detail—anything. Watch for that. Know when to stop.
But that’s the beauty of writing, the potential of words and sentences. You can begin with the simple, elemental man and animal then grow and weave a story. Some of those sentences, as few as thirty words or less, are almost a story unto themselves. Or at least the beginning of a story. Whole novels can be born from the humble beginnings of an idea that begins in one good sentence.
You don’t have to work this hard with every sentence you write. And you shouldn’t, of course, as you can overwork things, although you may play with sentences as you create or as a kind of exercise, though the value of that can be overrated. You should write as if it matters. But you can see how much a sentence can do when it’s well written, so it’s always worthwhile trying to improve. Fitzgerald wrote natural, beautiful sentences. Hemingway sweat blood for his. Faulkner transmitted his vision, nearly a hallucination, almost without filter. There are many ways to create, individual ways. Be specific. It will help you in whatever way you write.
This I think is what the bones of instruction are that you can take away from The Elements of Style or other good teaching: that good writing can do so much and that it’s always worth the effort.