An Exercise from Matt Bell’s Writing Exercise Newsletter

Matt Bell, a writer and Associate Professor of creative writing at Arizona State, recently introduced a special literary gift: the Writing Exercise Newsletter. Each month, Bell delivers a free and original craft exercise to your inbox, along with reading recommendations that illuminate the study of other authors.

In the name of productivity during social distancing, Porter House Review is republishing Bell’s first exercise, which is based on a sentence from Carmen Maria Machado’s story, “The Husband Stitch.” For future exercises, subscribe to Matt Bell’s Writing Exercise Newsletter.

Exercise #1: In-Sentence Suspense

This semester, I’m teaching a graduate course on sentence style and acoustics, so I’ve been writing exercises that ask students to explore aspects of grammar and syntax, to focus on particular elements of the sentence or the paragraph, and to write in atypical ways. The exercise I’ve shared here today isn’t something from that class, but it is concerned with what we’ve been studying: how to notice interesting moves in the sentence structures of others, and how to keep adding those moves to the tools we have at our disposal when we sit down to build our own sentences.

Carmen Maria Machado’s story “The Husband Stitch” (from the collection Her Body and Other Parties) is one of the most memorable short stories I’ve read in the past few years; if you haven’t read it (and if you haven’t, you should), I’ll just say that it’s narrated by a woman born with a ribbon tied around her neck—a ribbon she forbids her husband to touch. Throughout the piece, Machado folds urban legends and cautionary tales (some retold from Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) into her own story of power, desire, lust, and toxic masculinity. (It also contains a handful of intriguing parenthetical stage directions for reading the story aloud, which, if followed, slowly become more aggressive toward your audience . . .)

I taught “The Husband Stitch” again this past week, and there’s so much I could say about it—but today I want to focus on just one move from one sentence.

Early in the story, as the narrator recounts her first sexual experience with her future husband, she says: “I have imagined a lot of things in the dark, in my bed, beneath the weight of that old quilt, but never this, and I moan.”

I love those triple prepositions in the center of this sentence, which create what I think of as “in-sentence suspense”: the prepositional phrases create a delay that literally suspends you in the sentence, temporarily preventing you from reaching the next independent clause and preventing the sentence itself from resolving.

If you break the Machado sentence down a bit, you find it contains two shorter simpler sentences: “I have imagined a lot of things but never this” and “I moan.” Neither is particularly surprising on its own, though both are clear and communicative. For me, what makes Machado’s sentence sing are the parts of it that slow it down, the prepositional phrases that keep the first independent clause from meeting the second: “in the dark,” “in my bed, “beneath the weight of that old quilt.”

If she’d wanted, Machado could have extended that delay indefinitely: why stop at three prepositional phrases? Why not five, or seven, or ten?

Obviously, Machado had her reasons for not adding more. But for this exercise, we’re going to experiment with what happens when you indulge where Machado held back.

To begin, write a single sentence with two clear parts: it might look like the Machado example, with its two independent clauses joined by a conjunction, but it doesn’t have to. Note that the two independent clauses in the Machado story have very simple structures: noun/verb/object, noun/verb. I’d suggest yours be similarly simple, to heighten the effect of the next step.

Once you have your sentence fashioned, find a point between the two parts to write into: how can you successfully expand the middle of the sentence, delaying the sentence’s resolution and keeping its parts apart? Can you slow the sentence down without making it drag? Can you fill it with other kinds of information, actions, or sensory detail? Is there a way to insert a mid-sentence list of some sort? Play around with different sentence parts and kinds of clauses: you’re certainly not limited to the prepositional phrase. All that material you’re used to putting at the beginnings or ends of sentences? Try putting in the middle instead. Look for ways to create variety and surprise.

What other effects might be possible from within the middle of the sentence? Surely refusing forward motion isn’t the only thing you might accomplish.

Machado’s sentence is fairly short and lives inside a longer paragraph—she moves on rather quickly. For your own sentence, instead of moving on, move in. Try to bloat its middle past your usual comfort level. Keep adding, for as long as you can, only to the inner reaches of your sentence—don’t append clauses before its current beginning or after its present end. How long can you make this sentence—and can that length make its meaning or impact even more powerful than it would be in a shorter version? How palpable can you make the syntactic suspense that blooms between its two halves? How can this suspension be made beautiful and gripping, so that the reader remains happily caught in its web even as they’re anticipating and craving the sentence’s eventual resolution?

Aim for at least 250 wordsa complex but compelling page-long sentence. You may end up with a complete work of micro or flash fiction. You might make a piece of something longer. (You might also do what I often do and try doing this exercise inside a story or novel you’re already writing, adding this to the kinds of sentences it contains.) Remember that the exercise’s suggestions are only a starting point. Stick with the exercise as long as it’s useful—then swerve toward whatever occurs to you next.

Matt Bell’s next novel, Appleseed, is forthcoming from Custom House/William Morrow in 2021. He is also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a nonfiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University. For future exercises, subscribe to Matt Bell’s Writing Exercise Newsletter.