Definitely and inflexibly

Topic Sentence #15

Here’s our topic sentence, italics mine:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there”. Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.

This is the opening paragraph from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

A lot of what I do is follow a trail of breadcrumbs left by other writers. For example, finishing Verlyn Klinkenborg’s jolting Several Short Sentences about Writing, led me to looking up Joan Didion, which led me to an article called “Why I Write” which gifts us this gem:

To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.

Think of a camera, or better yet, the camera in a movie. The best directors know how to use the camera to their advantage, the camera moving to show what they need to show efficiently, flexibly: the camera not as artificial limitation but as an invisible actor. Similarly for writers then, think of the sentence as a shot that allows you the lead the reader through to what you want them to see and think and feel.

With that in mind, come back to our topic sentence. The first part of the sentence, before the semi-colon, establishes our scene: “The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive”.

Did you notice the subject of the second part of the sentence? Unusually, we are kept waiting until the end: “a traveler reaches them”. Instead, we have a trio of visual images: “a white cluster of grain elevators rising”, “as gracefully as Greek temples”, “are visible”. What made me jangle when I read it was that potential redundancy; the sentence could read: “a white cluster of grain elevators rising long before a traveler reaches them.”

But that redundancy has an effect, putting those grain elevators in the mind’s eye of the reader and keeping them there through the use of a strong verb—“rising”—a crisp metaphor—“as gracefully as Greek temples”—and then invoking our visual sense once more—“are visible”.

It is the equivalent of a movie shot that begins in the air, lingering on the landscape in the background, before tracking down and down to show us our protagonist in the foreground, small against what is to come.

And who hasn’t felt like that at some point?

In the foreground,


P.S. My friend Kathleen Jennings’ new book Flyaway has just been released! She told me it’s (among other things) a book for people who like sentences, so it’s a bit of a no-brainer. I can’t wait to read it.

P.P.S. Also the second edition of my friend Sarah Avenir’s Gather the People is out now, and she’s doing a free class about the principles involved—just follow this Instagram. Highly recommended if you feel you need some direction in this season.