Poet/ small press publisher Ed Perlman, my colleague at Johns Hopkins, teaches a very popular class called “Sentence Power” that all the students rave about. I know why, based on this glimpse of Ed’s insight into the role of a single sentence taken from Alice McDermott’s novel, After This:
Facial description continues to challenge even the most accomplished writers, and when the writer wants the description to give the reader insight into deep character, the task can become daunting. Alice McDermott never fails to rise to the occasion. Her description of her main character’s office co-worker in After This begins benignly enough with the commonplace details that are the stock-in-trade of many MFA fiction students. For “large face” substitute “round face,” “oval face,” “small face,” “flat face,” and for “strong jaw” substitute “square jaw” or “weak jaw,” and you can see how easily this sort of description begins to fall into the abyss of cliché. Add the color of the eyes to push the sentence over the cliff. Yet no such fate awaits McDermott’s deceptively simple and straightforward rendering of Pauline’s physiognomy. Those blue eyes provide the departure for a description that takes my breath away every time I read it.
You MUST read on, to see precisely how McDermott creates this artful and revealing sentence…and to have your own eyes opened to how your sentences can be more powerful.