Skip to content
Advertisements

The Art Of The Sentence Bomb

Have you ever been reading along in a book, appreciating the author’s style, the story, the character and setting descriptions, when all of the sudden, out of nowhere, like a big pile of space debris that lands in your backyard, the author drops a earth-shattering bomb on the plot?

I’m sure there’s probably a literary term for this, but I can’t recall what it might be. So I’ll simply call it a “sentence bomb.”

Carson McCullers is an expert at this. At least three or four times during The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, she has thrown in one sentence–ONE SENTENCE–out of nowhere, that changes everything in her story.

For those of you who might want to read this book, I won’t quote an example from the book because it would be too much of a spoiler. So I’ll come up with my own amateurish example of what a sentence bomb might look like:

A bird tweeted. The wind whispered to the trees as Johan whispered in his lover’s ears. Abigail smiled. She placed her arm around Johan’s waist. They laughed. Another bird tweeted. A sniper bullet zipped through the spring breeze and split Johan’s skull. A leaf fell softly to the ground.

Do you follow?

I can’t tell you how good Carson McCullers is at executing these sentence bombs. One, in particular, occurs near the end of the book to close part two and just about left me breathless. I had to reread the sentence three times to believe it happened. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

Is there a better, more literary, name for this technique than a “sentence bomb?” And have you noticed other authors doing this?

Advertisements
34 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, and reading your commentary makes me want to read it again. I am glad you are enjoying it.

    Like

    April 12, 2012
  2. Even if there is a phrase, your choice of “sentence bomb” is one that I won’t forget, it’s a great one – especially if it also kills off a character. nicola http://aroundbritainnoplane.blogspot.com

    Like

    April 12, 2012
  3. That’s a great example! Love it. Louis de Benaires is an author who leaves me breathless with sudden plot changes – I’m thinking specifically of a part in The War of Don Emmanual’s Netherparts. Maybe it’s the authors who can do it well, rather than jerkily/breaking believability, that are most memorable.

    Like

    April 12, 2012
    • Yep. McCullers use of it works. It fits. So it’s believable, even if it catches you off guard.

      Like

      April 12, 2012
  4. Well, I’m not an expert, so I researched a tiny bit. I cut and pasted. Let’s see if it worked. This technique I think spoke to the heart of what your question asked. Then I never read Carson, but I bought her off of amazon so she’s coming over the mountain and through the woods.

    Deus ex machina is a Latin term meaning “god out of the machine.” It refers to an unexpected, artificial or improbable character, device or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction to resolve a situation or untangle a plot. In Ancient Greek theater, the “deus ex machina” (‘ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός’) was the character of a Greek god literally brought onto the stage via a crane (μηχανῆς—mechanes), after which a seemingly insoluble problem is brought to a satisfactory resolution by the god’s will. In its modern, figurative sense, the “deus ex machina” brings about an ending to a narrative through unexpected (generally happy) resolution to what appears to be a problem that cannot be overcome (see Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I). This device is often used to end a bleak story on a more positive note.

    Like

    April 12, 2012
    • Great research! Thanks. I know that term, but in this example the “sentence bomb” is surprising in a negative way. A horribly negative way.

      Like

      April 12, 2012
      • Well when i’m comfortable in a narrative with what possibly follows, probably happens next, with what life generates more than not, and an author figurativly pulls the carpet out from under my magic carpet ride—hummm—I’ve been out-foxed so they say. It’s like driving on a familiar road and a car from the other lane wrecking into your car. Perhaps negative, but maybe uncomfortable position is the origin of the negative (isn’t bomb more inflammatory?) lol. If you have time, would you check out my blog. I’m writing a senior thesis, but the blog is poetry. Hey have you read the Alexandrian Quartet? By Lawrence Durrell Can’t believe that didn’t make list. for shame.

        Like

        April 12, 2012
    • The rhetorical device known as Deus ex machina is seen as a negative value in writing today. What it implies is that the author isn’t able to resolve the plot elements so he relies on an external device to arrive unexpectedly (no contextual preparation required) and cauterize the bleeding narrative.

      In classical literature, the god would actually arrive in a chariot (the machine) often on ropes to effect flying, provide explanations, absolve blame, tie up the loose ends, make sure the audience understood the lesson, and point to the exits.

      More modern literature tends to avoid introducing gods but sometimes relies on handy substitutes—the discovery of a diary, the appearance of a long-lost nephew, the inscrutable detective that knows more than the author ever revealed.

      Generally the presence of a Dues ex machina is a clue that the book you are reading is sub-par literature. This is not the same as the device McCullers uses in her novel. I agree with the earlier comment that “sentence bomb” is not a good term, mostly because of the destructive connotation but also because it is inaccurate: the sentence in question may radically affect the narration but it neither blows itself up nor does it destroy the author’s text. Such tropes are not uncommon in literature but it might be easier to consider how such scenes are effective in the cinema.

      Like

      April 13, 2012
      • That is quite a literal interpretation of “bomb.”

        Like

        April 13, 2012
      • Actually, no. I was just continuing the figure of speech. Don’t take it so literally.

        Like

        April 13, 2012
      • Thank you for clearing up my misappropriation of a literary term. Honestly I looked up terms on the net. The one I mentioned suited the “sentance bomb” the best (so I thought). I would rather be corrected than hung out in the wind like a giant bananna pinata for all to laugh at my absurdity. Cheers.

        Like

        April 14, 2012
      • You are welcome, although I didn’t see my post as a correction but rather a discussion of the device.

        But let me add one additional comment: I hate the auto-spelling corrector built into WordPress. I would type “Deus” and it would make the correction to “Dues.” I am plagued by this problem all the time and since I tend not to watch what I am typing, some very unfortunate typos are introduced into my writing. Grrrr …

        Like

        April 14, 2012
  5. I have had this book on my TBR list for-ever, and since I’ve been following your commentary, I am inspired to pull it off the shelf and read it. I think sentence bomb is an utterly fantastic description of that technique, and I will enjoy looking for them as I read.

    Like

    April 12, 2012
    • It’s a good read. Worth your time. Definitely bleak. But I guess that’s to be expected from the books on this list.

      Like

      April 12, 2012
  6. Does Carson Maccullers preface the sentence bomb–say the sniper’s bullet–with any prior developments, or do the characters just suffer from the external machinations of the author?

    Like

    April 12, 2012
    • Good question.

      With this book, the sentence bombs make sense. In other words, after reading them I can look back on the story and feel like, in context, the sentence bomb worked. Even though it’s still surprising when you first read it. That’s the beauty…you kind of tell yourself, “I should’ve seen that coming.”

      Like

      April 12, 2012
  7. I love the term ‘Sentence Bombs’, and I love reading them as well. When things such as surroundings or clothes are being described, I tend to skim over these rather quickly, so it is great when a sentence completely stops my eyes in their tracks. I usually have to read it about 5 times, too, just to make sure I am reading it correctly, and YES that REALLY did happen. Did the author MEAN to put that sentence in there? I’m going to have to read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter now.

    Like

    April 12, 2012
  8. Great term, sentence bomb. In 1984 there was a decidedly lack of any sort of sentence bombs (except one). Orwell simply started a new chapter without having put any words to how “the worst thing that could have happened” actually took place. It simply did. The exception, “And then the cage opened”. Oh, my.

    Like

    April 12, 2012
  9. I loved this book as well, but one of the “sentence bombs” in particular came across as so over the top that I found it humorous. It actually turned into a family joke for a while. I don’t think this will give it away, so I’ll just go ahead and write the (unintentionally?) funny sentence that followed the sentence bomb: “She was so cute I just had to take a pop at her!” Great book over all, though.

    Like

    April 12, 2012
  10. “Sentence Bomb” is perfect for what you are describing. I haven’t read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but I know what you mean. The worst is when an author does this without having it as part of their style. Suddenly, you skimming through a long paragraph and someone dies in a sentence your like, “what!” Yeah. Sentence Bombs are an awesome technique, and I studied with a few people who used them in their work, but they are hard to do. Every words counts, and you have to hold your audience attention from what sentence to another like a relay race, or it just doesn’t work.

    Great post. Loved your rendition of the Sentence Bomb effect. It was very artfully done. 🙂

    Like

    April 12, 2012
  11. I hate Carson McCullers [long story, I had a high school teacher that made us read Member of the Wedding EVERY YEAR] — but even I admire the craft in THIALH.

    I like the abbreviation — it sounds like an Elven yoga pose.

    Like

    April 12, 2012
  12. I couldn’t think of it when I first read this post, but it just occurred to me: Pearl Buck wrote in a similar fashion. Deaths, births, conflicts and such all were just understated and blended in with all the mellow routine of day to day life. Yet the lives in the book weren’t so routine or so mellow.

    Like

    April 15, 2012
  13. Oooh good term.

    Like

    April 16, 2012
  14. Jose Saramago is also quite a sentence bomb expert. I love the both of them dearly.

    Like

    April 17, 2012
  15. I love the term and example you use! Sentences like that make me go back and wonder if I missed something!

    Like

    April 19, 2012
  16. I loved your definition and example of a ‘sentence bomb’. Apt!

    Like

    April 21, 2012
  17. I quite like your example, but sometimes even the subtle sentence bombs can be equally effective. A great example appears in Jude the Obscure, where the reader just exclaims: “WHAT?”

    My attempt:

    Cara smiled as she opened the shoebox. She pulled out one of the photographs of her son, Richard. He was such a pretty child; his smile was beaming back at her. She placed the photo back into the box, took out the gun and shot herself. Her neighbour heard the noise, but thought it was a car backfiring.

    Like

    October 16, 2012
    • The type of extreme turn which you suggest is clichéd. Go back and read “Richard Corey” by Edwin Arlington Robinson for a common example. Although it isn’t quite the same, Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek uses a similar technique to tie up all the loose ends in her novel Wonderful Wonderful Times. You might even consider Wharton’s Ethan Frome.

      Like

      October 16, 2012
  18. Marty Andrade #

    Reblogged this on Marty Andrade.

    Like

    January 11, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Book #40: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter | 101 Books
  2. Book #49: A Handful Of Dust | 101 Books
  3. Grandpa Breaks His Pelvis | 101 Books
  4. Bathos (A Response to 101 Books) | The BB3

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: