Sentencecraft

Poe’s Law of the Short Story is this:

“Every word in a piece of fiction pays its way.”

Have you ever read Mark Twain’s enthusiastic description of the wonderful new invention called the “typewriter”? If you read it today, you’d swear he was talking about the computer: a machine that allows you to get your thoughts down just as fast as they pop into your head. Since the moment I got my first word processor, a Smith Corona, back in the summer of 1988, I’ve never wanted to go back to writing by hand (and my penmanship has greatly suffered from my reliance on the keyboard). I remember a cautionary comment from Garrison Keillor, though, about this speed which technology allows us: he argued that computers make writing a little too quick and easy. In the old days, setting the mind’s ejaculations into fixed marks on the page took a little bit more time and effort. Consequently — ever the efficiency-seekers that we are by nature — we writers did a degree of revising between initial impulse and the moving of the hand, the flowing of the ink. What made it onto the paper when the quill began to scratch may not have been a full-blown second draft, but it was something more than a first.

Many writing teachers have said, “Books aren’t written; they’re re-written.” And it was the poet Horace who called revision “the long labor of the file.” Every year I use this quote in my classes, from Samuel Johnson: “What is written without effort is, in general, read without pleasure.”

So I thought it might be worthwhile this time around to think hard about the sentences we write. Sentences, after all, are the boards we use to build our scenes, and our scenes one by one make up the shanty town that is the story or book. (I know that’s weird, but I had to think of something made out of boards to finish the metaphor.)

I’ve put together a little quiz. I use parts of this with my writing students every year. I’ve tried it with junior-high and high-school students in the U.S., too; and I can honestly say that it’s no easier for the Americans than it is for the Japanese. Sometimes the reasoning behind the choices made is different, but native and non-native English speakers alike tend to reach the same decisions . . . which (until they start seeing the patterns) are quite often not the best ones.

In the fifteen instances that follow, there are two choices: a) and b). Both options are grammatical enough; both are in standard English. But one choice is a better, stronger sentence for most writing purposes.

You can make your decisions, and the answers follow. I’m not out to make anyone feel bad. Ultimately, I’m just one idiosyncratic voice, and a “perfect score” simply means that we think alike. If you get a perfect 15, you probably shouldn’t gloat — we may be inept together. (And we still have to do all the stuff with character, plot, setting, theme, etc.) If you get a low score, don’t feel bad — unconventional thought patterns may stem from genius.

Have fun with it! Remember, you’re not looking for right vs. wrong. You’re looking for the sentence that does a better job. Hire one, fire the other. Here’s the quiz:

1. a) “I think so, too.” He laughed.

     b) “I think so, too,” he laughed.

 

2. a) My brother was talking about his boss, and he said that he didn’t like him.

     b) My brother said that his boss didn’t like him.

 

3. a) “Why not?” she queried.

     b) “Why not?” she asked.

 

4. a) I pounded on the weathered door, which was faded and scarred with the passage of countless seasons.

     b) I pounded on the weathered door.

 

5. a) Sheets, towels, and shirts hung from the green clothesline, rippling in the breeze.

     b) Sheets, towels, and shirts crouched on the green clothesline, wandering in the breeze.

 

6. a) Tony inspected a glass for water spots. “You’d better hit the road before Leon shows up.”

      b) “You’d better hit the road before Leon shows up,” Tony warned.

 

7. a) Kirsten landed the job after weeks of preparation — research, updating her resume, and gathering letters of recommendation.

     b) After weeks of preparation — research, updating her resume, and gathering letters of recommendation — Kirsten landed the job.

 

8. a) The first problem really seemed slightly strange, but Eli was not very eager to ask a question in front of the other boys.

     b) The first problem seemed strange, but Eli didn’t want to ask a question in front of the other boys.

 

9. a) Seized by rage, Paul kicked a chair across the room.

     b) Paul kicked a chair across the room.

 

10. a) Dim light filtered through grimy windows. Dirty socks sprouted under chairs and in corners like growths of fungus.

        b) The sun was as dim as a distant fire through the grimy windows. A crop of dirty socks flooded the carpet in dark towers.

 

11. a) We want the same things: a big library, to have space to write, abundant nature, and living in a small town.

       b) We want the same things: a big library, space to write, abundant nature, and life in a small town.

 

12. a) Carter spotted an open drawer. Had it been that way when he’d left? A pen on the desk had been clicked, its point extended. Meggie must have been here.

       b) Carter spotted an open drawer. He wondered to himself if it had been that way when he’d left. He noticed that a pen on the desk had been clicked, its point extended. Meggie must have been here, he thought.

 

13. a) Olivia wandered into the lobby. There was a huge potted plant beside the main entrance. The black marble counter was spotless and polished. A crystal chandelier hung over the broad staircase. People stood around in suits and ties and spoke foreign languages. It was formal and strange.

      b) Olivia wandered into the lobby. Beside the main entrance, a potted plant loomed over her like a jungle tree brought indoors. Gleaming counter of black marble, chandelier, sweeping staircase, suits and ties, murmurs of foreign language — everything whispered of formality and strangeness.

 

14. a) “Get out of my house and don’t come back,” he said softly, and kissed her.

        b) “Get out of my house and don’t come back!” he said coldly.

15. a) Our boots squeaked on the snow, which covered ice a half-meter down. We trudged to the lake’s center.

       b) Our shoes sank into the snow, piled a half-meter deep on the ice. We hiked to the lake’s center.

 

And the answers:

1. a) is the better choice. A Cricket editor set me straight on this one. You can’t laugh most words, and you can’t smile words. Try it. I always try it, to prove my point, in front of my students. So keep the action separate from the quoted words. Put a period and move on, as Judge Judy says. Of course the following is perfectly okay: “I think so, too,” he said.

2. b) is better. In a), we don’t know who doesn’t like whom. Be very careful about pronouns. Is it clear who every “she” and “he” is?

3. Go with b). It’s the simpler, less intrusive word. And you don’t want to intrude here: you want the reader’s focus to be on the speech itself. I remember back in junior high, a teacher very proudly gave us a handout that was titled something like “100 Ways to Say ‘Said.'” Yes, there are probably a hundred ways or more. It’s good to know about them, to know our language is so rich and diverse. There may be, in the grand flow of our writing lives, opportunities to use some or many of them. (Why, just today, I worked in a form of “ejaculate,” didn’t I? And it was entirely appropriate.) I’m sure whoever put together that handout was a sincere educator who loved young writers and wanted the very best for them. But trust me, when you’re reading along and you come to characters who “observe” or “interject” words, you will be jarred out of the story. That’s not to say that you can’t sometimes write “answered” or “asked” or “suggested” or “insisted” — in general, variety is good, yes. You have to find the comfortable, natural middle ground. It’s okay to use non-jarring alternatives for “said,” when they’re appropriate. But the point is, “said” is just about the closest thing to an invisible word that there is. When you’re reading a gripping scene, you hardly even see “he said.” Your brain simply uses it to attribute the speech to the right character, but you don’t think about it at all. On the other hand, if it’s “she assessed” or “John ventured,” you do notice it. See what I mean? There’s a classic, often-anthologized story called “Long Walk to Forever,” and it’s a dialogue between a man and a woman, and pretty much every line is “he said,” “she said,” “he said,” “she said” — and you don’t notice that at all. All you care about is what they’re saying — and whether he’ll be able to change her mind.

4. Here, we’d best go with b). My students quickly become conditioned that they should always pick the shorter sentence to make me happy — just as, in Sunday school, you’re always safe if you answer “Jesus.” But seriously: the a) option is repetitious — the door is weathered, faded, and scarred. “Weathered” pretty much encompasses “faded and scarred,” so b) is a more efficient sentence. [I also tell my students to be highly suspicious of “which.” It often points the way to flab.]

5. Here, we should choose a). Many young writers, feeling their oats, grab up an armload of vivid verbs and jam them into sentences willy-nilly. But we have to be sensitive to what the verbs mean. We have to use the right vivid verbs. Laundry in reality hangs down from a line; it doesn’t crouch on it — that would be eerie. The clothes are pinned in place, so they can’t really “wander.” Vivid is only good when it’s also appropriate.

6. a) is better. The speech is clearly a warning. There’s no need to tell the reader that. a) gives us a nice additional visual detail, too: Tony going about his business, inspecting a glass as he speaks. We know it’s Tony speaking, because the quoted speech is in the same paragraph as Tony’s action.

7. b) is the stronger choice. It illustrates the use of the “power position,” which is the end of the sentence. The end delivers those last words that ring in the reader’s ear. Don’t waste the power position on something that doesn’t deserve power. What we really want to know in this sentence is whether or not Kirsten got the job. That should come at the end. The outcome goes at the end of a story, if you want people to keep listening. Once we know she got the job, we don’t really care how she prepared for the interview. But if we hear the details of her preparations before we know the outcome, they build suspense.

8. b) is better. a) is loaded up with qualifiers: “really,” “slightly,” “not very.”

9. Again, b) is more effective. There simply are not many emotions other than rage which would prompt a person to kick a chair across the room — particularly if we have a context for this action from the unfolding story. It’s not necessary to name the rage: the action shows it perfectly well.

10. Let’s go with a). For one thing, the analogy it draws is consistent. Fungus sprouts. In b), there’s a “crop” that “floods” in “towers.” Square pegs, round holes. The words we use need to function together as a team. I also have a problem with “The sun was as dim as a distant fire,” because the sun on its brightest days is “a distant fire.” It’s a magnificent fire, 93 million miles away. So go with a). We’ll all sleep better.

11. b) is better. It illustrates the principle of parallelism. b) lines up a nice set of nouns: library, space, nature, and life. a), on the other hand, gives us a noun, an infinitive, another noun, and a gerund. Yes, those things can all function as nouns. But when you have a world of nouns at your disposal, and you’re building a nice, even row, why not use all nouns?

12. a) is the stronger choice. We can tell that Carter is seeing and thinking and noticing these things. Take heed of this one! I habitually put in far too many “She noticed that”s and “He realized that”s. a) is tighter, leaner, more efficient. It was Plato who said: “The most beautiful motion is that which accomplishes the greatest results with the least amount of effort.” You know — he was right! If you don’t believe me, just watch the Olympics. [And please — let’s not say “wondered to himself.”]

13. b) is our choice. When possible, it’s best to avoid forms of “to be,” which have a diluting, weakening effect. In a), there are three uses of “was.” Also, a) takes up space telling us very conventional things: the chandelier “hung,” people “stood around and spoke.” b) gives us crystal-clear images, like snapshots, with no unnecessary baggage.

14. a) is the selection. It gives us a surprise, a mystery, something to wonder about. What is going on?! Any takers? Who wants to write a story explaining what’s going on in a)? — but you could, right? It invites the asking of questions, which is the combustion in the engine of story. b) states the obvious.

15. I’m messing with you. I lied: not all my pairs of sentences have a greater and a lesser. In this case, I think either choice is equally valid. They’re both lean, expressive, and vivid. The words are pulling their weight, paying their way. The difference I can see is that the two examples make use of sounds in different ways: a) uses harder, sharper consonant sounds to conjure the impression of a frozen world. b) utilizes softer, more sibilant and liquid sounds to create the impression of a softer winter world. Both kinds of winter exist, so whether you chose a) or b), you’re right! A  wise friend of mine says, “There are always at least three ways to do anything.” So if you chose c), I guess you’re right about that, too!

And shouldn’t that be our ultimate point? Find your c). Construct the sentence your way. Tell the story only you can tell.

Let’s give the last word to a virtuoso crafter of sentences:

“Shut up,” he explained. — Ring Lardner

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35 Responses to “Sentencecraft”

  1. drjanem Says:

    “Sentences, after all, are the boards we use to build our scenes, and our scenes one by one make up the shanty town that is the story or book.”

    Love this sentence for its alliteration.

    At what point do you think students are ready for sentence level revision? You might enjoy reading Richard Lanham’s book, Revising Prose. An accessible, useful, small text with very practical ideas for revising prose.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Thanks for the book recommendation! As to your question, I have no expertise at all with teaching students in the States. My writing students are native Japanese. I expose them to some revision techniques in our university ESL writing classes.

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        It occurred to me that my reply there was confusing–sorry! I’d mentioned trying this sentence exercise on students in the U.S. Those were brief, one- to three-day workshops done in the schools in my hometown awhile back. So I don’t have an education degree or any experience of actual, full-time teaching in the U.S.A. Sorry for the ambiguity!

  2. fsdthreshold Says:

    Hey, Everybody! Shieldmaiden, I think we have the solution!

    I just added an RSS Feed to this blog! If you’ll look at the right edge of the page–scroll down to the bottom, and you’ll find the buttons for RSS Feeds. You can choose posts, comments, or both. I THINK if you’ll click on those, you can set up your system to be instantly notified whenever I post a new entry and/or whenever anyone leaves a comment. Somebody, please try it and let us know if it works!

    For this improvement, we have to thank Shieldmaiden for bringing the question up. . . .

    And a special big, BIG thanks goes to Lizzie for her very kind, patient, and user-friendly explanation to me!

    • Shieldmaiden Says:

      OK, I tried to sign up, I am testing to see if I get a notification that I have just left a comment here. I added both posts and comments! Thanks Daylily for the help before and to Lizzie, Nick and Fred for helping to figure this out… hopefully!

      • Shieldmaiden Says:

        OK, sorry these are such a technical comments. The (RSS) at the bottom of the page when you scroll till you can no more, is a different one than the feed links you added now, right? The new ones are only visible from the blog page before you click on “leave a comment” and are in the right margin? Everything poofs from the margin once you click on a specific post, right?

        So far I have not gotten anything but I should see this one if I did it right….

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        I believe what you’re saying is right. All the blue stuff along the right edge of the blog disappears for me once I do something within the blog; it’s only there when I first log onto the page. I have activated those RSS feeds, so I’m hoping they will now work. . . . Yes, I’m talking about the ones in the right margin, not the ones at the very bottom of the page. At least, that’s what I think I’m talking about! Anyone? Advice? Confirmation?

  3. Catherine Says:

    My mother came upstairs — when I was sitting (which is a position that involves putting one’s weight on one’s tailbone and applying the tailbone to a chair) and doing my math — and pointed out to me: “Fred has a new post.”

    “Oh, really,” I smiled.

    She nodded. “Yes,” she affirmed. “I think it will be helpful to you as a writer,” she added, with motherly concern for my future. “I took the quiz and I found it to be very fun,” she concluded.

    “I will have to go and check that out,” I responded.

    I walked downstairs like a locomotive and sat down at the computer, which blooms on the desk like orange paint and is as filled with sentences as picnic hampers are full of toolboxes. And I took the quiz. Now I know how to write sentences, I thought to myself, since I can’t communicate telepathically. 🙂

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      “Catherine,” he commented, not without more than a little sarcasm, “you are a bona fide mischief-maker.” For indeed, her humor was like a dancing bear that bearly danced.

    • Shieldmaiden Says:

      I am now officially having a GREAT time! 🙂

    • Daylily Says:

      Thank you, Catherine, for making me laugh! I especially loved the last paragraph. I think that I will try walking like a locomotive. Perhaps while I am vacuuming the house like a llama. It could enliven this routine task!

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        I believe “walk like a locomotive, vacuum like a llama” was a certain famous boxer’s rough draft for his motto, which he eventually revised to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Ah, the power of revision!

        Then there’s “Walk Like an Egyptian,” which I sometimes attempt to sing at karaoke.

    • John Says:

      How much are we paying for that literature intensive curriculum?

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Catherine seems to have stolen the show this week! 🙂

      • Daylily Says:

        Or maybe she added a final scene to an already entertaining show! I found the quiz and the explanations to be intriguing and thought-provoking. And much more interesting than vacuuming like a llama. I look forward to the movie to be based on this show: “Crouching Wash, Hidden Error.”

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        “Crouching Wash, Hidden Error”–I love it! 🙂 And watch out for the white wigglies in the dumpster! (I had to bring them up again, didn’t I?)

        “Vacuuming like a llama” is plenty interesting!

      • Daylily Says:

        Believe me, I have not yet forgotten “the moment of horror in the morning!” I look in the bottom of the dumpster almost every time I take out the trash. No sign of the return of the white entity. It only appeared once in these four and two-thirds years of residence here. Perhaps I will dare to let down my guard as the weather turns colder . . .

      • Daylily Says:

        I live in rural Connecticut; we have a llama farm on our road, about two miles south of us. If ever I am to learn to vacuum like a llama, this is the place for it!

  4. mileposter Says:

    Sorry–I don’t have a funny response! 🙂 Scored 11 out of 15. Point well taken on the third and fifth pairs. Someone once said that C. S. Lewis wrote with a razor blade, which fits my thought: “Less is more.”

    Actually, C. S. Lewis wrote with a nib pen on paper–never learned to type–and rarely revised anything. He has been criticized for lack of polish, but I have never found that getting in the way of what he had to say.

  5. fsdthreshold Says:

    So, doing the math. . . . It sounds as if there were two pairs on which you don’t agree. Care to discuss them? There may be others who feel the same way!

    Apparently there are a very few writers who almost never revise and yet turn out wonderful material, like C.S.L. I find that amazing!

  6. Shieldmaiden Says:

    My test results are as follows:
    I was mostly a b) person. I agreed with Fred’s answers on all but three. I will argue for two of mine though, and agreed with the explanation given for number six. On the first one a) may be the better choice, but I do it all the time! No really, ask my friends. Not that they understand what I am saying, but I do laugh my words on a regular basis. On number fourteen I have to go with b) even though it is a more boring sentence. I don’t want to wonder about someone who tells someone to “get out” with a kiss and soft words, they sound crazy! Maybe it does make for better reading, hmmm? And b) may state the obvious but it does still tell me something: it could have been said coldly or even yelled. I understand the sentence clearly. I liked it better. I completely missed number six. I agree that a) is better, and that b) is clearly already a warning so it doesn’t need to be part of the sentence. For number thirteen I did get it right because I chose b) but I didn’t like it much. I think I liked the first half of a) and the end of b) [did I think about this exercise too hard?]. Seven, eight, nine, and eleven were absolutely b) only for me. Didn’t like fifteen much, either of them. I read them both a couple times and think I liked b) more, sort of. I loved ten; the dirty fungus sprouting socks under chairs! I know that isn’t what you said, but I couldn’t help the visual, the words were in the same sentence together.

    I have to thank Catherine for that comment of hers! I have read it a few times and I grin hard enough to cause pain in my face until I get to the “orange paint” line, where I fall over laughing even though I know it is coming. I just love this blog!

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Thanks! I love this blog, too, and can only take very partial credit for it — it’s our blog — thanks to everybody!

      Thanks for the detailed opinions and arguments! I will concede that I also have an aunt who “laughs” words sometimes. I should have used “smile” in the example instead of “laugh.” But I still think the principle is sound that we shouldn’t have our characters normally smiling or laughing sentences.

      About your aversion to the potentially insane guy who tells the girl to “get out” with a kiss and soft words: I’ll betcha I could write a story in which that would make perfect sense in context! 🙂 Seriously, you never know what’s going to come up. My all-time classic example is this: a friend of mine over here who speaks very little English loves to, as a joke, string English words and phrases together and see what outlandish things he can come up with. Many years ago, he blurted out: “I have not been human!” We all laughed about that and decided we couldn’t imagine any possible context in which someone would say that. Then, just a year or so later, the film Interview with the Vampire was released, and plain as the nose on my face, Brad Pitt’s character Louis, a very old vampire, delivered the line, “I have not been human for [specific number] years.” We had a very good laugh over that one!

  7. I write a different language Says:

    As a professional sportswriter, I am someone who exists on the edges of the AP Style Book.
    Don Heinzman’s “Newsroom Staff” sez the following regarding sports:
    “Sports editors area a different breed. They are independent and opinionated, which are good qualities. A good sports editor is worth more than his weight in newsprint, because the sports section is intensely read and can often, of and by itself, determine the success of your publication.”
    He continues: “Sports editors will work odd hours and write different kinds of copy, a potential issue if your proofreaders are not versed in the lingo that comprises much of sportswriting. Be prepared for the heavy use of metaphors and adverbs but understand that this is expected by your readership. The AP Style Book gives sportswriting a long leash, so remember that what you are looking for is not simply concise accuraacy but also copy that ‘breathes’ in a style unlike the meet-and-greet local news content.”

    And that was CERTAINLY the case for me when I took the quiz. Schoolbook grammar would infuriate half of my 5,000/day readership.
    That does not mean the rules are able to be freely tossed, but I am not looking to have a book or article published — I am trying to make the city excited about how their football team fared last Friday night.

    Is there anyone on this blog besides myself who works in the newspaper business? I would love to hear your thoughts, as well as those of all others.

    I leave you with this: Barring a MAJOR news event, what section is always missing from the paper at the doctor’s office, the coffee shop, the library? The sports section.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Thanks for that perspective, and you make an excellent point: language is very much relative to the audience. Fiction writing is not sports writing. (Nor is fiction writing even newspaper reporting. By definition, fiction is not non-fiction!)

      I have to tell my story which I hope I haven’t told before. Hold up two fingers, everybody, if you’re hearing this for the second time.

      Years ago, I was sitting outdoors in a park here in Niigata, marking up a manuscript. A little boy wandered over and asked (in Japanese, of course) what I was doing. I explained (in Japanese, of course): “I’m editing this manuscript.” The boy was young enough that he didn’t know the vocabulary for “edit” or “manuscript,” and he told me so. Immediately I rephrased it to: “I’m writing a story,” and then he knew exactly what I meant.

      See, I was used to being the foreigner — the person in the room who spoke and understood the least Japanese. I wasn’t allowing for the age difference, for the fact that I knew different words (still probably not “more words,” but different words) than kids knew.

      I guess it’s like the Bible says: speaking in tongues doesn’t do much good unless you’ve got someone there to interpret!

      Yes — the language of sports. . . . I remember a day in high-school p.e. when we were playing flag football, and the captain of my team said, “Durbin, you’re on the line.” I actually had to ask, “Okay! Um . . . which line would that be?” I don’t think I heard the end of that for quite some time!

  8. I was not in the band Says:

    Hey, I want what Shieldmaiden calls “the brown snowflake” icon back!!

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Heh, heh! Return of the Brown Snowflake, an independent art film. . . .

      Seriously, it’s simply a matter of which e-mail address you write from. When you write from your traditional address, you’ve got the brown snowflake. When you use the other one, you’ve got a bunch of staples riding a Ferris wheel.

  9. I write a different language Says:

    uhh, sorry … I think …

  10. fsdthreshold Says:

    What I want to know is, are those RSS links working? If you’ve set up the “comments” one, you should be getting notifications every time someone writes a comment. If you’ve just engaged the “posts” one, you should know in another couple days whether it’s working or not.

  11. I write a different language Says:

    O.K. I get it now. That might be an interesting topic for those of us who are regular posters on this, THE blog of all time: who likes or dislikes their icon?

    I confess to having liked mine from the beginning, and when I saw that it had changed (from my own doing) I was mortified. We all know how people are — we all get possessive, like the family in church who sits in the same pew every week.

    I told Fred early in the history of the blog that my first reaction to the icon at right was of a Fu-Lion (I dunno why). Shieldmaiden put me on the right path — it is a brown snowflake. Perfect for me, as I am always a little polluted, in most every way a man can be …

    • Scott Says:

      I think it looks more like a 4 headed dog or a dog chasing it’s own tail. It’s so appropriate because it reminds me of the Nifranif.

  12. Marquee Movies Says:

    My goodness, I loved taking this quiz, and reading everyone’s responses. Nice job, Fred, and great responses all – especially Catherine, who made me laugh – but not while talking. A scene where someone is telling someone to leave and never come back, but with love, is in Cinema Paradiso, when a mentor tells his young friend to go seek his fortune, and never come back to this little town again, because if the young man returns, he’ll never fulfill his dream of becoming a great film director. A powerful and touching moment in a great film full of powerful moments. Another scene that describes the same scenario (Leave, don’t ever come back, but said with love) is in 28 Days Later – there is a virus that will infect people if they get it in their bodies – if they do, they have only about a minute before they become zombies. A father becomes infected, and he has one bone-chilling moment to tell his daughter how he feels about her AND to tell her to leave him immediately. Whew!
    Fred, I purchased both those books you mentioned in your last posting, and will read them just after I finish something else I’ve just received. And to those that recall my summer at the cottage ritual, I did indeed bring Bilbo home on our last weekend up. This cottage is surrounded by water, so there are loons who cry out at sunrise and sunset. On the last night, just after the stars came out, I listened to Bilbo say goodbye to Thorin, King Under the Mountain, and Fili and Kili, and venture home with Gandalf. The final scene when old friends gather over tea is almost too lovely for words. It’s sad to say goodbye to such a lovely place for so many months, but God-willing, it will be there next year. And of course Bilbo will be waiting to go on his adventure again. God bless the storytellers, and those who love them.

  13. Shieldmaiden Says:

    You are right Fred, the principle that we shouldn’t have our characters normally smiling or laughing sentences is a sound one. But then, no one ever uses the word normal in regards to me. And I do bet you could write a story that would make perfect sense about the potentially insane guy who tells the girl to “get out” with a kiss and soft words. Of that I have no doubt. Maybe I just had too many damaged relationships to be intrigued, but a story about a guy who has not been human… now THAT I would want to read! [smiles]

    Thanks for your great examples of tender “get outs” Marquee Movies! I loved them. And I was wondering about the summer cottage and your adventures there and back again. Your last night there makes me long for the return of summer evenings and stars and reading late into the night. The Hobbit is honestly my favorite ending of any book. Ever. It just slowly winds down, it doesn’t leave suddenly. It walks me slowly home and says goodbye. I think it would have been hard to bear otherwise, as I never want to leave. The visit from old friends over tea was truly lovely indeed. “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world”. O! Tra-la-la-lally Come back to the valley.

  14. Marquee Movies Says:

    Oh, Shieldmaiden, how well said! “It walks me slowly home and says goodbye.” A perfect depiction of how I feel – in fact, I’ll let you in on a secret. I was so dreading coming to the end of the book, that at the end of the second to last chapter, I immediately (BZZT!) pressed back on my ipod, so I could listen to it one more time, and delay having to start off on that final journey. So I got to hear Bilbo and Thorin’s final words once again, including that beautiful line that you quoted: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Every year, when I hear that line, I always pause, because it so simply and perfectly expresses how I feel. I picture the pub where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and their other friends would gather and the many long evenings they had talking and laughing into the night, their pipe smoke curling up to the dark but warm ceiling, their glasses of brandy and (I’d like to think) Guinness littering the table. The table where Winnie the Pooh, Christopher Robin, Owl, and the others gather after the Blustery Day, when the rain rain rain came down down down. The hollow tree in Pippi’s front yard where Pippi, Tommy, and Annika have tea. The children roasting marshmallows over the chandelier that sticks up from the floor in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s upside down house.
    Can the world ever really be like that? I suppose not – but it sure is wonderful aiming for it, isn’t it? There’s a beautiful scene in an early Errol Morris documentary called “Gates of Heaven” – it’s about a pet cemetery. A woman is explaining that of course her dog has a soul. Yes, her dog is dead. “But yesterday, there was something there that made it move.” A book is just a collection of words, a movie is nothing but a series of still photographs. But when we choose to celebrate them, to care about them, we infuse them with our genuine love, we make them part of our everyday lives – and they are no longer “just” stories. What a magical and amazing blessing! Like persistence of vision – movies technically should NOT work for us. But thankfully, because of our persistence of vision, our eyes are tricked into thinking that the still photos are actually moving. This allows us to believe what really isn’t there. Yet once we believe it – well, the belief is genuine, isn’t it? So it IS there, after all.
    Teaching people to care more about movies is truly my God-given responsibility, because I want more people to love more stories more. Fred is an inspiration, because he’ll never ever stop loving stories, and he’ll never ever stop creating stories. He’s putting more love in the world. That’s what all the great ones care about most – like Bilbo – like most of the hobbits. They are, far and away, the heroes of Middle-Earth for precisely the reason that Thorin said.
    So, thanks, Shieldmaiden, for expressing for me just why I love the ending of The Hobbit so much. You’ve given me yet another reason to love this great story even more – and have therefore put more love in the world!

  15. Michael Says:

    HI Fred,

    Wonderful to see your parents’ writings here! Thanks for putting those up.

    I’ve been reading Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth. (Great book — strongly recommend it if you haven’t read it!)

    Makes me grateful that our little group was spared the “bitter winnowing” of real war!

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