Friday, August 20, 2010

A defining sentence

Many of us were inspired and moved by Elizabeth Partridge’s talk in July. One of the wonderful things that stayed with me was the way Partridge searches for a sentence that expresses the theme of each non-fiction book that she writes. When that sentence comes to her, she writes it on a Post-it note and sticks it up on her computer.

I wondered if I could I do the same thing with a novel. It’s always a struggle to uncover a novel’s emotional line; to define the energy that pushes the story forward. That emotional line is like the drone on a bagpipe, humming beneath every scene or, as Lisa described it once, it’s the strong thread that holds a string of pearls together. Could I express that theme or connecting thread in a single sentence?

In the novel I'm working on now, my character, Brandon, has learned some shocking truths that his father hid from those he loved. When his dad dies suddenly, Brandon searches for the father he never knew. Today, I wrote up a conversation between Brandon and his aunt, in which Brandon learns that his dad loved the Lone Ranger when he was a kid. And there was my sentence: “Who was that masked man, anyway?”

The sentence is silly and will probably change as I revise again and again. But finding it was a good exercise and it helped me to see what scenes should come next. So try it. Can you come up with a Partridge Sentence for your own short story/novel/poetry collection/critical thesis? Stick the sentence to your computer; tack it to the wall. Let us know what happens.


  1. I had a similar experience at the residency this summer, as I searched for the "essence" of the main character of my newly-begun novel. I was searching for pov and voice. I had three false starts that I had already scrapped. The sentence that came to me was a description of the character as "street smart in a dirt-road kind of way." That phrase got me going, and I was amazed that I immediately found the voice and the spark that got the fire of the story going.

  2. Thank you, I will use that this semester. I think that will help. Only how to pick the best sentence?