What Makes Writing Outstanding: An Analysis

The Poisonwood Bible
The Poisonwood Bible

I wish I’d written that!

What makes a piece of writing outstanding? For fiction, there’s an engaging plot, layered characters, a theme that touches our hearts, scintillating dialogue. Nonfiction needs a novel premise and intriguing points backed up with well-researched information. Many authors can accomplish these. But what lifts an author from being merely a popular writer to a place among the all-time greats?

It’s the quality of the writing. What marks them as master wordsmiths is the way they manipulate words and use rhetorical techniques to expert effect. This may seem difficult to quantify, but we can identify some of the strokes that make the rest of us sigh, “I wish I’d written that!”

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

Let’s analyze a powerful excerpt from one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver. In The Poisonwood Bible, Leah’s missionary father has moved his family to the Congo. They have endured all manner of hardships, including fire ants, a flood, hunger, and little Ruth May contracting malaria after hiding her quinine pills. Now a green mamba has killed Ruth May. Leah narrates:

A honeycreeper sang from the bushes outside the window. It seemed impossible that an ordinary, bright day should be proceeding outside our house. Mother spread a small, soft hand onto hers and washed the fingers one at a time. She cradled and lifted the head to rinse it, taking care not to get the soapy water in Ruth May’s eyes. As she dried the limp blond hair with a towel, she leaned in close, inhaling the scent of my sister’s scalp. I felt invisible. By the force of my mother’s desire to conduct this ritual in private, she had caused me to disappear. Still, I couldn’t leave the room. After she dried and wrapped her baby in a towel she hummed quietly while combing out the tangles and plaiting the damp hair. Then she began to cut our mosquito netting into long sheets and stitch the layers together. At last we understood. She was making a shroud.

Let’s look at sentence length

A honeycreeper sang from the bushes outside the window.
It seemed impossible that an ordinary, bright day should be proceeding outside our house.
Mother spread a small, soft hand onto hers and washed the fingers one at a time.
She cradled and lifted the head to rinse it, taking care not to get the soapy water in Ruth May’s eyes.
As she dried the limp blond hair with a towel, she leaned in close, inhaling the scent of my sister’s scalp.
I felt invisible.
By the force of my mother’s desire to conduct this ritual in private, she had caused me to disappear.
Still, I couldn’t leave the room.
After she dried and wrapped her baby in a towel she hummed quietly while combing out the tangles and plaiting the damp hair.
Then she began to cut our mosquito netting into long sheets and stitch the layers together.
At last we understood.
She was making a shroud.

Kingsolver uses sentence length to build tension. Half of the sentences are long (green). Since the narrator is describing the unfolding scene, this makes sense. Periodically, though, she is shocked by what she sees, and this is reflected in short, choppy sentences (red), which drive the rhythm until the very end, where she can barely speak.

Let’s look at first words

A honeycreeper sang from the bushes outside the window.
It seemed impossible that an ordinary, bright day should be proceeding outside our house.
Mother spread a small, soft hand onto hers and washed the fingers one at a time.
She cradled and lifted the head to rinse it, taking care not to get the soapy water in Ruth May’s eyes.
As she dried the limp blond hair with a towel, she leaned in close, inhaling the scent of my sister’s scalp.
I felt invisible.
By the force of my mother’s desire to conduct this ritual in private, she had caused me to disappear.
Still, I couldn’t leave the room.
After she dried and wrapped her baby in a towel she hummed quietly while combing out the tangles and plaiting the damp hair.
Then she began to cut our mosquito netting into long sheets and stitch the layers together.
At last we understood.
She was making a shroud.

Half of the sentences begin with a noun or pronoun. As the scene is a story narrated by a teen, this is appropriate. We don’t speak in complicated, complex sentences. A few adverbial clauses begin sentences to add variety.

Let’s look at sentence structures

S=Simple C=Compound CX=Complex CCX=Compound-Complex

S—A honeycreeper sang from the bushes outside the window.
S—It seemed impossible that an ordinary, bright day should be proceeding outside our house.
S—Mother spread a small, soft hand onto hers and washed the fingers one at a time.
S—She cradled and lifted the head to rinse it, taking care not to get the soapy water in Ruth May’s eyes.
CX–As she dried the limp blond hair with a towel, she leaned in close, inhaling the scent of my sister’s scalp.
S—I felt invisible.
S—By the force of my mother’s desire to conduct this ritual in private, she had caused me to disappear.
S—Still, I couldn’t leave the room.
CX–After she dried and wrapped her baby in a towel she hummed quietly while combing out the tangles and plaiting the damp hair.
S—Then she began to cut our mosquito netting into long sheets and stitch the layers together.
S—At last we understood.
S—She was making a shroud.

Nearly all of the sentences are simple sentences. The scene is narrated by a teen, who would not use convoluted language, so simple sentences are true to her voice. Kingsolver wants her words to be clear and to punch through to the heart, and simple sentences do this best.

Now my commentary

–The original text is in red, my comments inserted in black.

A honeycreeper Related to finches and tanagers, honeycreepers are native to Hawaii and the tropical Americas. I couldn’t find any references to there being any in Africa. Thus, Kingsolver’s reference to them is strange: while they may actually exist in the Congo, she may have put them there to use the symbolism in their name—the “honey” (happiness) is trying to “creep” into the house. sang from the bushes outside the window. The device of juxtaposition places the assumedly happy bird’s song next to the family’s sorrow to create a jarring dissonance. The bird’s song encroaches from just outside the window, representing the thin pane between life and death. It seemed impossible that an ordinary, bright day should be proceeding outside our house. Again, here, we have the juxtaposition of life and death, happiness and grief, the impossible (Ruth May’s death) and the ordinary.

Mother spread a small, soft hand onto hers Powerful imagery of larger mother’s and smaller child’s hands touching for the final time. Disbelief—how can Ruth May be dead if her hand is still soft? The /s/ sounds are soothing, yet at the same time evoke the sss sound of the snake. and washed the fingers one at a time. Painfully detailed description of washing each finger parallels the painfulness of the actual process and the painfulness of grief. “Mother washed her small hand” would have provided the information, but wouldn’t have evoked any of the pathos.

She cradled This vocabulary suggests “baby.” and lifted the head Chilling—by not using “her” head here, you know she’s talking about a body part here, not a living person. to rinse it, taking care not to get the soapy water in Ruth May’s eyes. Leah switches to describe her mother giving Ruth May—a living child she names—a bath. She no longer refers to the disembodied the head rinsed in the first part of this same sentence. This shows Leah’s inability to accept her sister’s death.

As she dried the limp Not only was the hair limp, so was the body. “Limp” also infers impotence, as in Mother’s inability to change fate. blond The reader would by this time already know what color Ruth May’s hair was, so there was no imperative to describe it here, except to infer the child’s innocence and angelic quality. hair with a towel, she leaned in close, As did the snake? inhaling the scent of my sister’s scalp. Again the /s/ sounds. Also, the compelling image of a Mother smelling baby’s head, trying to breathe it in for forever.

I felt invisible. Such a short sentence amid these longer ones jolts the reader. Leah has also changed the focus from her sister and mother to herself, reminding the reader that she, too, needs attention! By the force of my mother’s desire to conduct this ritual in private, she had caused me to disappear. Even though her sister is dead, Leah still feels jealous. And this sentence is formal, very different from the others in the paragraph, as if Leah has suddenly had this epiphany dropped on her from outside. Still, I couldn’t leave the room. Leah is narrating—she can’t disappear, not physically, not emotionally, and because she’s the narrator! Creates an ironic situation.

After she dried and wrapped her baby in a towel Leah repeating this shows that she has refocused on her mother’s actions. she hummed quietly while combing out the tangles and plaiting the damp hair. While performing another action that is at once ordinary and horrific, Mother is soothed by humming, something that allows her to pretend it is the former. Still, there is an insistent /short a/ sound—ahh! ahh! ahh!— reminding her this is a nightmare.

Then she began to cut our mosquito netting into long sheets and stitch the layers together. Sharp sounds suggest the actual scissors sounds. A sudden change from the earlier softer sounds in “washed,” “inhaling,” “wrapped,” “hummed,” and “combing” also suggests a change in mother’s mood.

At last we understood. She was making a shroud. Ending with this word terrifies. The word sounds nasty; your mouth sneers when you say it. Even though we know Ruth May has died, this makes it official. Two short sentences are like death blows, like the two fangs of the snake.

You can do this

You can see how much thought goes into one paragraph. It’s not simply deciding to write about a girl watching her mother prepare her sister’s body for burial and typing your words into the computer. There is symbolism to include, characters to develop, mood to set, tension to build, theme to establish…Nothing is random.

Take something you’ve written and analyze it as I did here. Where there are “holes,” revise so your words become full of meaning and beautiful to read and listen to. Maybe your writing will be considered outstanding someday…

What do you think?

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