Great Quotes: The power of language

Concise, elegant descriptions are sometimes all we need to convey what’s necessary in a scene. Take this example from Walter Mosley’s, Devil in a Blue Dress:

Joppy was cleaning one area on his counter until it was spotless, except for the dirt that caked in the cracks. The dark cracks twisting through the light marble looked like a web of blood vessels in a newborn baby’s head.

It’s just two sentences. But do you have any doubt what that bar looks like? Will you forget it anytime soon? Does the spotless counter–but the  “dirt…caked in the cracks”–maybe imply something about Joppy or his character?

How about this description of a hulking mansion from someone known more for their action scenes:

It was a long drive up to the house. Gray ocean on three sides. The house was a big old pile. Maybe some sea captain’s place from way back when killing whales made people respectable fortunes. It was all stone, with intricate beadings and cornices and folds. All the north-facing surfaces were covered in gray lichen. The rest was spotted with green. It was three stories high. It had a dozen chimneys. The roofline was complex. There were gables all over the place with short gutters and dozens of fat iron pipes to drain the rainwater away. The front door was oak and was banded and studded with iron. The driveway widened into a carriage circle. I followed it around counterclockwise and stopped right in front of the door.

– Lee Child, Persuader

Notice how saying “The house was a big old pile” is like a summary statement, giving us the macro-view before following with particular, specific details like the lichen spotted with green and the “fat iron pipes”.

Child isn’t afraid to use repetition when it works for him: “It was three stories high. It had a dozen chimneys.” The two sentences together should be too short, too choppy, but they work precisely because they’re not made into one compound sentence. It’s also how you would see the house as you drove: short bursts of recognizable detail. This selective sentence length isn’t accidental: it helps break the rhythm of longer sentences to follow, like the longer “There were gables…” sentence. Other truncated sentences also work well: “Gray ocean on three sides”, and not the more obvious and plodding, “There was gray ocean…” Child even manages to sneak in Reacher’s sniff of disapproval with the line, “..when killing whales…”.

For an example of character description, how about the piercing observation of Pyle as seen by Fowler in The Quiet American:

I had seen him last September coming across the square towards the bar of the Continental: an unmistakably young and unused face flung at us like a dart. With his gangly legs and his crew-cut and his wide campus gaze he seemed incapable of harm.

Pyle, as a character and a person, is almost entirely summed up in a handful of words. And, of course, there’s the prophetic mistake Fowler makes in underestimating Pyle (foreshadowing and intimating that the presence of innocence and the ability to do harm have nothing to do with each other).

Language is beautiful, malleable, and—with enough practice—able to create entire worlds out of nothing but letters.


Writer of crime fiction, psychological drama, and dark humor.

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Posted in Excellence in Writing
2 comments on “Great Quotes: The power of language
  1. Alex says:

    Matthew, I enjoyed your Marty Singer series. You write well and entertainingly. And, I so appreciate good grammar. You manage to utilize a comfortable story telling style for the main character but obviously have a clue about parts of speech and anatomy of language and syntax. Too many authors try the e-book publishing and obviously love to write – but once you get past all the basic elements of good story telling — too many missed out on basic English composition and grammar and it makes such a difference to enjoying the story’s journey.

    Thanks for this series. Are you working on more?

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hi Alex – Thanks so much for your kind words. I fear my grammar skills still need honing–crime fiction, with its slang and verbal shortcuts, isn’t the place to practice, unfortunately! But I try to keep my skills sharp.

      I’m definitely at work on more Marty Singer novels. The Wicked Flee (#5), in fact, should be out in just a few weeks. There are just a few rounds of editing to get through and it should be available. If you sign up for the newsletter ( you’ll not only get advance notice about its publication, you’ll also get a free Marty Singer short story. 🙂

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