Sentences are the foundation of great writing, yet the artistry of a great sentence often fades behind the content it works to deliver. And yes, the content is and should be more important than its method of delivery. But the method of delivery —the sentence—can enhance the content. When this happens, we have a great sentence.
For a sentence to be truly great, though, its many components must harmonize: the register (level of diction) must match the scene and style of the story or its characters, the syntax has to properly highlight the words for a desired effect, and of course, the verbs must dynamically connect nouns rather than simply linking them to descriptions.
Below is one of my favorites, from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Let’s put this thing under a microscope:
They set forth on a crimson dawn where sky and earth closed on a razorous plain.
This sentence is amazing for several reasons, but the most salient reason is that verb, closed. It is a remarkably active verb describing something that is normally not active, the delineation between sky and terrain. It is as if we see these two plains moving toward each other with purpose. They don’t just appear near each other, they close upon each other. They don’t just exist side by side, but they interact visually. This verb heads something beautiful and poetic.
The final word, plain, also is great here. It displays the two halves of the characters’, and indeed the reader’s mental view. One plain is up and one down, and there is nothing between. There is only sky and and earth to be seen, and they meet tightly, narrowly.
How narrow is their meeting? Razorous. A word that isn’t in a dictionary, yet is easily understood by every native speaker to be the adjective of razor. McCarthy made up this word, and it’s beautiful and perfect here, for what delineates more precisely and microscopically than a razor?
So now we have only two plains moving together so tightly — pixel to pixel, if you will — that there is nothing else to see. Just the red — no crimson — sky and the earth. Crimson. The color of blood and bad omens, danger, and death.
And how do the men in the story cross this ominous scene? They don’t do anything boring like walk or continue or even move, which is especially dull. The author wants them to continue, but that is both too vague and technical. And the characters in this story wouldn’t use such words. No, they simply, set forth, as they were doing the night before.
Even the pronoun they serves a purpose in this sentence. Why name the men and distract from the scenery? This isn’t about them; it’s about what they encounter. Every word is focused and stimulates the reader’s senses. I would also argue that morning would be less visual than dawn and so forth. Every word is perfect.
All 16 words in this sentence are either required by the rules of English (on, a, where, and, on, a) or expertly and artistically chosen for sensory effect ( they, set, forth, crimson, dawn, sky, earth, closed, razorous, plain). Trying to improve upon any of these ten would be difficult. It truly is a 16-word masterpiece of English. And that is Cormac McCarthy.