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Word Play - magical sentences


As a writer I'm fascinated with words. I love examining how authors wield them to create moments of literary brilliance. I keep a notebook for recording magical sentences from the novels I read. Phrases that inspire me and from which I hope to learn.


Sometimes what impresses me about a sentence is the author’s skill in creating a mood appropriate to the story’s genre. Like these lines from Dean Koontz’s horror novel, The Darkest Evening of The Year:

  • Her daughter glided at her side, as firmly attached as a remora to a large fish.

  • Amy had the feeling that something more than the man himself lived in Brockman’s body, as though he had opened a door to a night visitor that made of his heart a lair.

  • The hooded eyes looked sleepy, but the reptilian mind behind them might be acrawl with calculation.

Every time a read those words, ‘acrawl with calculation’ I literally get goose bumps. As you may have guessed, Koontz is one of my favorite authors. Check out the imagery in these lines from his novel The Taking:

  • The room had the deep-fathom ambience of an oceanic trench forever beyond the reach of the sun but dimly revealed by radiant anemones and luminous jellyfish.

  • The nape of her neck prickled as though a ghost lover had pressed his ectoplasmic lips to her skin.

  • As effectively as a leech taking blood, fear suckled on Molly’s hope.

Nothing impresses me more than a brilliant metaphor or simile. Like these from The Half Life of Valerie K, by Natasha Pulley:

  • The engineer ghosted into a chair looking like a walking toothache.

  • The name sat on his tongue like a pebble.

  • The two thoughts…chased each other around his head like two horribly mutated cartoon characters.

Or these from The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler:

  • Her eyes narrowed until they were a faint greenish glitter, like a forest pool far back in the shadow of trees.

  • Her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust.

  • A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp like wildflowers fighting for life on a bare rock.

It strikes me that much of the magic in effective writing is created through the use of colorful verbs, or by using common verbs in an unusual way. Like these, again from The Half Life of Valery K:

…daylight javelined in…

Grass and weeds grasped at the ruins…

…a headache coiled around his temples…

…tiredness steamrolled over him.

The electric echo of the cattle prod prowled down his ribs.


Other times it’s a well-chosen adjective that makes the difference:

rancid terror

…a desiccated man in his sixties…

It made a talkative, sloshing sound…


I love it when an author can get me to see an every day object in a new way:

  • The underside of the kettle looked like it had recently re-entered the atmosphere. (Half Life of Valery K, Natasha Pulley)

  • A few drops of water spilled on the stove top boiled into dancing globules that spat as the dried. (Rid Of A Pest, Alison Manthorpe)

  • Sidewinding snakes of dust skitter across the road in front of me. (The Wall, William Sutcliffe)

But probably the greatest magic in writing is wielded through the author’s unique voice and in this regard few hold a candle to the grand master, Raymond Chandler:


There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight and meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. (The Big Sleep)

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