A Supreme Court lawyer-turned-thriller-writer on crafting sentences with punch.
In both legal and thriller writing, a tight sentence with a single idea is usually better than a longer, more complex sentence. For legal writing, you want the judges or justices to understand where you’re heading on the first read, and complex sentences require the brain to process more information. I prefer, as Chief Justice John Roberts recommends, to “take the judges by the hand and lead them along” step by step. For thrillers, my job is to get readers to suspend their disbelief. If they backtrack to re-read a sentence—or stumble over an unusual word—it might break the spell.
So short and simple is better. Both Supreme Court justices and bestselling thriller writers agree. As Justice Clarence Thomas tells his law clerks: “Look, the genius is having a ten-dollar idea in a five-cent sentence, not having a five-cent idea in a ten-dollar sentence.” The same principle applies to the words that fill the sentence. As Stephen King said, “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.”
I follow a “two-line rule”: whenever I see a sentence that exceeds two lines on the page, I ask whether I can break it into two sentences. Then I ask whether I’m using plain language. And whether I’m adhering to Strunk & White’s famous edict to “omit needless words.”
Shorter is better.
3. Cock Your Ear
Speaking of Strunk & White, I agree with their advice that sometimes “the rules,” like my two tips above, must give way to the ear: They wrote, “The question of ear is vital. Only the writer whose ear is reliable is in a position to use bad grammar deliberately; this writer knows for sure when a colloquialism is better than formal phrasing and is able to sustain the work at a level of good taste. So cock your ear.”
For instance, if Abe Lincoln had followed my first two rules, “Four score and seven years ago” would have become “Eighty-seven years ago.” But Lincoln trusted his ear and chose cadence over plain words and brevity. Similarly, consider the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence,* promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
What’s a “more perfect Union”? And four lines? Under my first two rules, the revised version might look like this:
“We the People establish this United States Constitution. We do so to improve the union, establish justice, insure tranquility, provide defense, and secure liberty.”
It’s shorter, but not better.
Justice Elena Kagan, who some regard as the best writer on the Court, is a master at crafting clear opinions with a unique voice. She uses plain language, pithy examples, and colloquialisms (on occasion even citing Spider Man, Star Wars, and Dr. Seuss). She trusts her ear.
Cocking your ear is even more important when writing thrillers. Thriller writers aren’t turning in an English essay, but trying to create atmosphere, capture the imperfections of speech in dialogue, and ratchet up anticipation and suspense.
Consider the opening sentence from one of my favorite thrillers of the past few years, I Am Pilgrim:
“There are places I’ll remember all my life—Red Square with a hot wind howling across it, my mother’s bedroom on the wrong side of 8-Mile, the endless gardens of a fancy foster home, a man waiting to kill me in a group of ruins known as the Theatre of Death.”
This sentence is long and contains many ideas, but it pulls you in.
I think even Grammar Girl would agree, sometimes you’ve just gotta throw out the technical rules, and follow your ear.
Anthony Franze is a lawyer in the Appellate and Supreme Court practice of a prominent Washington, D.C. law firm, and author of thrillers set in the nation’s highest court, including THE ADVOCATE’S DAUGHTER (St. Martin’s Press, 2016), and THE OUTSIDER (St. Martin’s Press, March 21, 2017).
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