Learning from Pynchon

“They arrived at the mouth of an oversized freight elevator, scrambled inside, and begun to plunge earpoppingly hellward, aged fluorescent bulbs buzzing and flickering till the brakes caught just when it seems too late, and they bloomed to a stop and came out into a tunnel, deep underground, which led them under the creek bed and then slowly uphill for half a mile, where they exited at last into brightly sunlit terrain where they could hear in the distance the invading motor convoy and the blades of the helicopters, merged in an industrious roar that could as well have been another patch of developer condos going up.”

from Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

  • This sentence is a summary of a journey. Summary, creative writers rightly worry, can be uninteresting. What makes this walk after an elevator ride engaging?
    • The context is one answer. The sentences before this suggest a chase is beginning. The characters are in danger, but even without that context I think this summary holds readers’ attention. Context alone is not enough.
    • While it is a summary, the sentence uses particular sensory details. It is specific and evokes sight and sound and perhaps a sense of movement.  
    • Word choice matters. “Oversized,” “scrambled,” “plunge earpoppingly hellward,” “bloomed,” for example. Almost every word manages to be interesting or a small surprise.
    • Finally, figurative language helps make the sentence interesting. After all, according to the first few pages, the elevator is a mouth and characters are inside.
  • The sentence begins at the beginning of the journey and ends at the end of the journey.
  • The length or structure or shape of this sentence is part of what is interesting about it. To illustrate, what would it be like as a series of shorter sentences? Would it be less or more engaging?
    • They arrived at the mouth of an oversized freight elevator. Scrambling inside, they began to plunge earpoppingly hellward. Aged fluorescent bulbs buzzed and flickered till the brakes caught just when it seems too late. They bloomed to a stop and came out into a tunnel, deep underground. It led them under the creek bed and then slowly uphill for half a mile. They exited at last into brightly sunlit terrain. In the distance they could hear the invading motor convoy and the blades of the helicopters. The sounds merged in an industrious roar that could as well have been another patch of developer condos going up
    • Obviously, rendered in shorter sentences, the reading experience has changed. Is it more or less likely to interest readers?
  • As the sentence ends, it returns to a larger theme, in this case the environment.

Consider trying something like this.

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