Updated: Oct 23, 2020
A technique the best stylists use.
For as long as I’ve been a writer—and even before that, when I was just a reader—I’ve been obsessed with sentences. Their rhythms and intonations, those sounds they make in your inner ear, as well as that strange quality of reading them at time-and-a-half speed when under the sway of a great stylist. I am a sucker for great stylists. A beautiful sentence is in my opinion as much an achievement as a beautifully crafted story. Each requires courage and almost endless revisions.
I’ve spent probably too much time studying great stylists and would like to share one technique I’ve learned from perhaps my favorite voice-y writer, Clive James, the Australian polymath whose collection of essays, Cultural Amnesia, is the LONE book that never leaves my nightstand. His prose is too good to ever be out of reach.
The one thing James does so well and so often is something I call The Hammer. The Hammer is a term I made up for how to close out a sentence. The Hammer helps readers remember the line long after they’ve finished the piece. The Hammer keeps readers reading you.
The basic idea is to have the last phrase of a sentence provoke the reader into the next. James was a master of this. With him we can choose an essay at random to see The Hammer at work.
Here he is on on a Nobel-winning novelist, the German-born and complicated Thomas Mann: “…Given all that, Mann deserved his status as a lion. He showed he had the heart for it, and all the more so because it was against his nature. One of his many reasons for hating the Third Reich was that it forced him to be a better man than he really was.”
Do you see that? The way he ends sentences two and three? The phrases in each goad you on, keep you reading. The sentences surprise you, provoke you. They don’t end where you think they will. That’s intentional. James knew the best way to get you to read the whole of his essay was to take great care with the end of every line. Sometimes the closing phrase contradicts the passage preceding it, like in the second sentence of our snippet. Sometimes James waits on a sentence so the closing idea can serve as an indictment, like in the third sentence. Read any of his essays and you see this consistently: James propelling you on, line by backloaded line.
Here he is on Chairman Mao and Communism writ large:
“Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thoughts contend…
“The flowers bloomed, the schools of thought contended, and Mao’s executioners went to work. The slogan had the same function as the Constitution of the Soviet Union, which Aleksandr Zinoviev telling defined as a document published in order to find out who agreed with it, so that they could be dealt with.”
I just love that, so they could be dealt with. In one phrase James sums up both the terror and cynicism of 100 years of Communist reign. It is also a wry and even perfect way to close out the sentence.
But we can and should keep going. Here is James on F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“F. Scott Fitzgerald is a cautionary tale, but the tale is about us more than him. Tormented by a glamorous marriage that went wrong, drinking himself to destruction while doing second-rate work to pay the bills, lost in a Hollywood system guaranteed to frustrate what was left of his ability, he became the focal point of numberless journalists’ stories about the waste of a literary talent. He himself gave the starting signal for that approach with the self-flagellating articles later collected in The Crack Up. Faultless in its transparent style and full of true things about the perils of the creative life, it is certainly a book to read and remember, but not until we have read and remembered (indeed memorized) The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night. Otherwise we might get the absurd idea that one of the most important modern writers spent his career preparing himself for a suitably edifying disintegration.”
Read as much Clive James as you can. You’ll see The Hammer not only in his writing but the work that inspires it. James said he wrote the whole of Cultural Amnesia, some 850 pages of brilliant criticism and reflection, based on a single sentence he heard as a boy, from Tacitus, the Roman historian, a sentence so compact and loaded it is one of the Western canon’s great epigrams and a summation of the arrogance and folly of war.
“They make a desert and they call it peace.”
It is that last word, peace, which gives the sentence its power and transcends it beyond the battle it’s describing. It is that last word that transformed the life of a young Clive James, who in turn transformed mine, and it is that last word that is perhaps the greatest example of what we’re describing here:
New to my writing? I’m a best-selling author and award-winning journalist who’s written for The New Yorker, GQ, ESPN, and New York, among other titles. My first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I’m now at work on a second book for Celadon about a pivotal 10-week period in the Civil Rights Movement that still defines our lives.