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Just a sentence I ran across

June 18, 2015

Ran across this breathtaking sentence recently:
As I crossed his shadow, thrown long over the garden by the moon, not yet risen high, he said quietly, without turning–
“Jane, come and look at this fellow.”

Even if read quickly, its delicate phrasing would still resonant. How does it have that effect?

First, unlike most sentences which simply take off and then end, this contains several slight pauses, like musical phrases, which give it shape and form. “As I crossed his shadow, pause, thrown long over the garden by the moon, pause, not yet risen high, pause, he said quietly, pause, without turning, pause . . .
Now that you’re aware of these pauses, read the sentence again, and hear its music.
As I crossed his shadow, thrown long over the garden by the moon, not yet risen high, he said quietly, without turning–
But that’s not all. Look at what follows the word “shadow.” Yes, it’s giving you information about that shadow. It’s telling you the shadow is “thrown long.” Think about that for a second. A lesser writer might have been content to simply say “a long shadow,” but this writer went beyond that and chose “thrown,” which by it’s implicit action, suggests someone throwing a blanket perhaps. How precise is that when applied to a shadow?
And there’s more. Listen to what follows “thrown long:”
over the garden by the moon

Musical, definitely. But how? By the two prepositional phrases: “over the garden,” and “by the moon.” But notice “over the garden” is placed first. Why? Does it make a difference? Listen to it the other way. You decide. “by the moon over the garden” It has the same meaning but the phrasing is a bit clunky Original phrasing: long-short-short-long-short -long-short-long OH-ver the GARden BY the MOON

Clunky phrasing: long-short-long-long-short-short-long-short BY the MOON OH-ver the GARden. Clun-ky.

It’s those consecutive stressed sounds MOON and OH that spoil the sweetness.

Still more? You betcha. Just as “thrown long” modifies shadow, “not yet risen high” modifies moon. So we have a shadow that’s “thrown long” and a moon that’s risen–Oh but it isn’t merely risen, that would be too imprecise. We have a moon “not yet risen high.”

How beautiful is that?

It doesn’t end there. The whole purpose of this sentence is to show us the character who’s about to speak. How best to do that? People speak all kinds of ways. They shout, whisper, nag, condescend, but this character is going to say what he’s about to say quietly. Intriguing, isn’t it, that he’s keeping it low?
But that’s not all. Just as people speak in all sorts of ways, they also move in all sorts of ways while talking: hands waving, heads shaking, shoes being banged on tables. But guess what? This writer chose the road less traveled. Her character’s movement is no movement at all. How clever. Her character speaks “without turning.”

So? By describing the character’s non-movement, the writer has given the reader a chance to participate in the story. What image do we get by reading “without turning?” Maybe someone so captivated by what he’s looking at, he’s frozen in place.
And once we make the connection between a character seeing something and being frozen in place by what he’s seeing, our natural reaction is curiosity. Okay, what’s he looking at?

Such a subtle way to get you, the reader, to keep reading to find out what happens next. No violence, no profanity, no explosions, no Hollywood gimmicks, just brilliant writing. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Just a sentence I ran across recently.

As I crossed his shadow, thrown long over the garden by the moon, not yet risen high, he said quietly, without turning–
“Jane, come and look at this fellow.”

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