Sentences That Pack a Wallop

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”—Emily Dickinson

If you haven’t read Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones, you should fix that at the very first opportunity (see glowing reviews from Paul Tremblay, Benjamin Percy, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and a host of others).

While the following doesn’t contain spoilers, I do quote lines from the book, and these lines would be best experienced in their original context. So if you haven’t read Mongrels, I’d jump ship and do that first. If that means you never get back to this post, so be it.

Mongrels opens with a boy living with his grandfather, aunt, and uncle, all of whom, unlike the boy, are werewolves (or so the boy tells us). Of Grandpa, we hear this:

“The moon was always full in his stories, and right behind him like a spotlight.”

What a sentence. The rhythm is a bit unusual, and the moon-as-spotlight imagery speaks volumes about Grandpa.

A little later we have this:

“He twisted the cap off his wine cooler, snapped it perfectly across the living room, out the slit in the screen door that was always birthing flies and wasps.”

On first read-through of this sentence I didn’t (and why would I?) catch the sexual tinge to the word slit. But even as I hit the period I had to jump back and reread. This imagery, like so many other well-connected portions of the novel, appears again later, and this next line gives us a clue as to what the author is doing.

“Just a story that keeps changing, like it’s twisting back on itself, biting its own stomach to chew the poison out.”

This is a book about storytelling and of how we make sense of our lives. Tell it slant, indeed.

“And none of Grandpa’s stories were ever lies. I know that now. They were just true in a different way.”

And still later:

“Darren was just like Grandpa, telling one story, meaning another.”

And then this, infused with sadness:

“That’s how it is with werewolves. You have something, then you just have the story of it.”

Stephen Graham Jones is a hell of a writer. His pages reward the careful reader, and writers in particular would do well to pay close attention. Think of it as a master class.

Refresher on Types of Sentences

Sentences seem like simple enough beasts. You have a capital letter, one or more words, and a period (or possibly a question mark or exclamation point or ellipsis). You usually have a subject and predicate (noun and verb).

There are four basic types of sentences:

  • Declarative (statement)
  • Imperative (command)
  • Interrogative (question)
  • Exclamatory (statement of emotion or excitement)

Sentences can also be described as

  • Simple (one clause)
  • Compound (two or more independent clauses)
  • Complex (one or more independent clauses plus one or more dependent clauses)

Those are the basics, but between that capital letter and concluding punctuation mark lie infinite possibilities, and in fact sentences can stretch to infinity by connecting a never-ending series of independent clauses with conjunctions. Sentences can be punchy, or elaborate, or confusing, or hard to parse, or downright unsettling.

Sentences can foreshadow something to come or make you question something you’ve already read. Sentences can turn back on themselves or open themselves up to shocking possibilities. Sentences can be ho-hum, but when reading ones laid down by craftsmen operating at the top of their form, they can reshape your world.

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