In which we break things thereby proving we can't have nice things

Topic Sentence #3

Dear reader,

Here’s our topic sentence:

The perfect shatters.

This sentence from Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (recommendation via the very trustworthy Katharine Coldiron), a bingeworthy, beautifully-plotted urban fantasy based in Navajo mythology.

I would be remiss if you thought I only liked sentences that strutted around with their clauses out, with em-dashes and punctuation barely holding the whole construction together. To wit, can short sentences be perfect?

The answer is yes. Firstly, one of the first lessons of writing is in rhythm. Even when not read aloud, a sentence achieves some measure of beauty by its rhythms, its cadence, and like any piece of music, it achieves some of that beauty from its contrast to sentences around it. (This quote by Gary Provost is an oft-quoted example.)

I like our topic sentence because it does everything it needs to. It achieves some of that power from a simple construction. Subject-object, “the perfect”, and verb, “shatters”. And like raspberry and chocolate, an abstract noun and a strong verb can often pair well together.

Secondly, this sentence is a brief microcosm of the book as a whole. In the book, Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, in a slightly post-apocalyptic world, with spirits that she can barely control, and a past of jagged regrets. When the brief moment of “perfect” shatters for Maggie, it shatters hard, and shatters again.

But thirdly, this sentence is a microcosm of writing fiction as a whole. I’ve been reading (that is, obsessed) with story structure for the last little while. And this might be a three-word guiding star in how to plot a book—have the character grasp for perfect, and then have it shatter. Again and again.

Novelists are by nature torturers. They thrust characters—and readers, by proxy—into difficult situations, over and over again. Wish fulfilment makes for pleasant daydreams and lackluster books.

But the act of fiction means that what happens when at the end of all this torture is something inescapably beautiful. It helps us regard our own imperfect situations with greater empathy, with greater bravery. It helps us, in some inescapable measure, understand a bit more of what is good—and what approaches perfect.

Or, as another writer said, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

With clauses tucked in,


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