Friday, September 3, 2010

Tolstoy's Style in Anna Karenina

Queen Anna of the Netherlands, née Grand Duche...Image via Wikipedia"Anna Pavlovna's reception was in full swing. The spindles hummed steadily and ceaselessly all around. With the exception of the aunt, beside whom sat only one old lady, who with her thin gaunt face was rather out of place in this shining society, the entire company had settled into three groups. One, mainly masculine, had formed round the abbe. Another, of young people, was gathered round the gorgeous Princess Helene, Prince Vasili's daughter, and the little Princess Bolkonskaya, cute and rosy, though rather too plump for her age. The third group hovered round Mortemart and Anna Pavlovna."

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Not only does the above paragraph lacks sentence variation, but each sentence in it begins with a noun, a pronoun, or an article. This is typical 19th century writing. In the 21st century readers demand agility, and writers accomplish this through sentence variation; especially by paying attention to strong sentence openers. In Mary Duffy's writing textbook Toolbox for Writers, you'll find abundant examples of how to begin sentences and how to write a college essay.

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"As a clever maitre d'hotel serves up as a juicy delicacy a piece of meat that no one who had seen it in the kitchen would have cared to eat, so Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests, first the vicomte and then the abbe, as juicy choice morsels. The group about Mortemart quickly started discussing the murder of the Duc d'Enghien. The vicomte said that the Duc d'Enghien had been slain because of his own nobility, and that there were specific reasons for Buonaparte's hatred of him."

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The only break in the pattern 'subject-verb-object' above is the Sentence that begins with the preposition 'As.' Were it not for this break, the reading would become quite monotonous.

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"With a soft rustle of her white dress trimmed with moss and ivy, with a gleam of white shoulders, glossy hair, and sparkling diamonds, she glided between the men who made way for her, not looking at any of them but smiling on all, as if graciously allowing each the privilege of admiring her beautiful figure and well-shaped shoulders, back, and bosom--which in the fashion of those days were very much exposed--and she seemed to bring the glamour of a ballroom with her as she moved toward Anna Pavlovna."

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With the inclusion of a prepositional phrase: 'With a slight rustle …' and an appositive between the m-dashes, the paragraph becomes a little more agile.

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She waited, a smily on her face. All the time the story was being told she sat straight up, glancing now at her beautiful round arm, altered in shape by its pressure on the table, now at her still more beautiful bosom, on which she toyed with a diamond necklace. From time to time she smoothed the folds of her dress, and whenever the story produced an effect she glanced at Anna Pavlovna, adopting at once the expression she saw on the maid of honor's face, and again relapsed into her brilliant smile.

Not letting the abbe and Pierre get away, Anna Pavlovna, conveniently kept them under observation, brought them into the larger circle.

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If you wish to learn how to write strong prose, fresh, and dynamic (how to write an essay or fiction), avoid beginning your sentences with nouns, pronouns, and articles. Instead use prepositional phrases: 'From time to time…' and the present participle: 'Not letting the …' as bolded in the above 2 paragraphs.

Mary Duffy's English guide Toolbox for Writers shows many ways in wich master writers use sentence openers: they use infinitives, the present participle, prepositions, past participles, subordinating conjunctions, coordinating conjunctions, similes--and many other parts of the English language.
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