Reading Like a Writer: The Passion's Sentences and Paragraphs

Posted on Fri, Oct 24 2014 9:00 am by Allison Wyss

Jeanette Winterson's The Passion is a novel about love, sex, war, and gambling. It takes place in Europe during the time of Napoleon. Much that happens in the book is fascinating and absolutely worth discussion. However, right now I'm interested in what this novel does on the level of its sentences and paragraphs.

There's something fresh and intriguing in the way the language works throughout the book. It's often highly poetic. But even when it's not, there's a mystery to it that I believe stems from the way the sentences appear out of nowhere. Sentences are related, but not in an expected way.

I started as a neck wringer and before long I was the one who carried the platter through inches of mud to his tent. He liked me because I am short. I flatter myself. He did not dislike me. He liked no one except Josephine and he liked her the way he liked chicken.

Each sentence must be inspired by the one before it, but the unexpected way it is connected makes us understand an unusual and fascinating mind—one that makes those connections but disdains to explain them. When, as readers, we fill in that gap between sentences, we are getting close to the mind of the speaker.

Winterson rarely explains the connection between her sentences. She's sparing in her use of conjunctions.

The following two sentences recur throughout the book. Their lack of conjunction requires the reader to supply one, creating a particular and unique meaning.

I'm telling you stories. Trust me.

Without an explanatory conjunction, these two sentences are ambiguous. Should we trust the narrator that he is telling stories (and therefore know that we shouldn't really trust him)? Or should we trust him despite the fact that he is telling stories? Is this an entreaty to take the narrator seriously or not to? A connecting word like "therefore," "so," or "however" would immediately clear things up.

But Winterson doesn't want to clear things up. Of course she is playing with us. She wants us uncertain. Or, rather, it's a different type of certainty that she achieves. We know that we're being toyed with, yet we go along, delighted to be so.

As in the first example, forcing the reader to supply the missing bridge between ideas encourages an investment in the sentences, and thus an engagement with the story. We're not told the narrator's thoughts in a simple way, but compelled to participate in them.

A similar thing happens in Winterson's movement from paragraph to paragraph.

But before I get into that—aren't narrative paragraphs weird? There are such clear organizing principles for making paragraphs when writing an essay. But when telling a story, when event follows event follows event, grouping sentences becomes more difficult.

Paragraph breaks are oddly easier than the paragraphs themselves because they have a clear effect. A break signals a transition, perhaps in time or space or perspective. It means: something new!

For a long time, as a writer, I paid a lot of attention to paragraph breaks, but I didn't pay much attention what was inside those paragraphs. I wasn't sure what grouping sentences together in a narrative meant. I've only recently come to think that what is inside the paragraph, between the breaks, is very important.

I think of it when I smell porridge. Sometimes after I've been by the docks I walk into town and use my nose tracking fresh bread and bacon. Always, passing a particular house, that sits like the others in a sort of row, and is the same as them. I smell the slow smell of oats. Sweet but with an edge of salt. Thick like a blanket. I don't know who lives in the house, who is responsible, but I imagine the yellow fire and the black pot. At home we used a copper pot that I polished, loving to polish anything that would keep a shine. My mother made porridge, leaving the oats overnight by the old fire. Then in the morning when her bellows work had sent the sparks shooting up the chimney, she burned the oats brown at the sides, so that the sides were like brown paper lining the pot and the inside slipped white over the edge.

We trod on a flag floor but in the winter she put down hay and the hay and the oats made us smell like a manger.

Most of my friends ate hot bread in the morning.

Instead of movement through time or space, we're moving around an idea and looking at it from different angles.

To me, the interesting thing isn't where these paragraphs break—of course they break there—but the three different perspectives lined up and offered one by one. It's the way the ideas are grouped inside the paragraphs that is interesting to me. Winterson is clearly not afraid of a single-sentence paragraph, but she still collects all of the ideas in the first one together, marking them as related. Yet the grouping is not natural or intuitive. Again, we glimpse the thought patterns of the narrator's unique mind.

And there is no natural connection made between the paragraphs. It doesn't seem like a progression. Neither do we have an introductory clause explaining the connection, such as "due to these circumstances..." or "the reason I think of this…" Thus, each paragraph is fresh, mysterious, and quite intriguing. Arranged sequentially, they force us to consider what their relation might be. Without obvious transition, they make us wonder how this voice is moving us through the story—just like those sentences, I described earlier.

I like sentences that flow smoothly, one to the next to the next. Or paragraphs that work similarly, following a natural progression, introducing and explaining themselves. They have their place.

But I'm really excited by these Winterson sentences and paragraphs—they jump at me and I love them.

Which authors have wowed you with their sentences and paragraphs? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.


Allison Wyss is teaching "Reading Like a Writer: The Best Book Club Ever" this winter at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.