This past year, I read over twenty books, both fiction and nonfiction. Several of those books were amazing reads, others left me a little disappointed. But I learned something new from each one that helped me improve my own writing.
As I read, I tried to pay attention to how the authors implemented storytelling principles, how they handled transitions, how they crafted their opening sentences and concluding paragraphs, etc.
When I came across a paragraph that struck me with its eloquence, I wrote it down. That helped me study it on an even deeper level and absorb the author’s techniques for structure and style.
In today’s blog post, I’m sharing five of the best paragraphs (in no particular order) that I collected in 2023 and what I learned from them. Let’s dive in.
(Please note that links to the books are Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase a book through the link, I’ll make a small commission that will help me continue to create writing resources for you.)
1. A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle (1989)
Mayle’s bestselling memoir A Year in Provence (affiliate link) follows his adventures when he moves from England to a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the Lubéron in southern France. (Note: this book does contain a little sprinkling of strong language from the colorful cast of characters.)
I could have chosen one of Mayle’s many mouthwatering descriptions of French food to highlight here. But I found a paragraph describing one of Mayle’s neighbors to be the most memorable.
“Bonjour.” He unscrewed a cigarette butt from the corner of his mouth and introduced himself. “Massot, Antoine.”
…His face was the color and texture of a hastily cooked steak, with a wedge of nose jutting out above a ragged, nicotine-stained mustache. Pale blue eyes peered through a sprouting tangle of ginger eyebrows, and his decayed smile would have brought despair to the most optimistic dentist. Nevertheless, there was a certain mad amiability about him.
Often when I write down a favorite quote, it’s because the sentences struck me as particularly beautiful. This paragraph is the complete opposite as Massot is not the most handsome fellow. But I love the imagery that Mayle uses.
Here are four of Mayle’s techniques we can copy:
- Active instead of passive descriptions: Instead of just writing that the character is smoking, he shows us the cigarette in the character’s mouth.
- Evocative Metaphors: That comparison to a hastily cooked steak!
- Mini-stories: Mayle writes that Massot’s “decayed smile would have brought despair to the most optimistic dentist.” He’s adding another layer to the description with a sort of mini-story. We can see Massot striding into a dentist’s office and striking fear into the dentist’s heart.
Steal these techniques to make your descriptions more vivid too. I share more tips for writing strong descriptions of characters in my video below about the techniques F. Scott Fitzgerald uses in The Great Gatsby.
2. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens (1841)
Each year, I pick a Charles Dickens book to read. This year I chose The Old Curiosity Shop (affiliate link), one of Dickens’s most famous novels and one that contains a memorable cast of characters.
Here’s the paragraph that struck me:
[Nell] raised her eyes to the bright stars, looking down so mildly from the wide worlds of air, and, gazing on them, found new stars burst upon her view, and more beyond, and more beyond again, until the whole great expanse sparkled with shining spheres, rising higher and higher in immeasurable space, eternal in their numbers as in their changeless and incorruptible existence. She bent over the calm river, and saw them shining in the same majestic order as when the dove beheld them gleaming through the swollen waters, upon the mountain tops down far below, and dead mankind, a million fathoms deep.
This is definitely one of the quotes that I’d say is beautifully written!
Here Dickens compares the waters that Nell gazes on to the Biblical account of the flood. It imbues the scene with deeper meaning.
Nell and her grandfather are impoverished and traveling across England as vagabonds. As Nell gazes into the river, she sees their tragic condition. They are all alone in the world as if dead (it also foreshadows the way another character in the story will die).
However, in the Biblical story, the dove eventually finds dry land, hinting that Nell and her grandfather will at last come to the end of their wanderings.
While working on the manuscript for this book, Dickens wrote to his friend John Forster,
I really think the dead mankind a million fathoms deep, the best thing in the sentence. I have a notion of the dreadful silence down there, and of the stars shining through upon their drowned eyes — the fruit, let me tell you, of a solitary walk by starlight on the cliffs.
I love that Dickens came up with this passage while on a walk. (I wrote an article about the many writers who loved to go on daily walks.)
Here’s the technique from Dickens that we can copy:
- Compelling allusions: With this literary technique you reference a well-known person, character, place, or event that you expect the reader to understand. The reference makes your writing thought-provoking, enriching it with another layer of meaning. For example, you might compare the courage of your protagonist to David challenging the giant Goliath or star-crossed lovers to Romeo and Juliet.
3. Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler (1938)
I shared an article last year about this spy thriller Epitaph for a Spy (affiliate link) and examined a scene from the book that showcased excellent dialogue.
This book also had one of the best opening passages out of all the books I read in 2023.
I arrived in St Gatien from Nice on Tuesday, the 14th of August. I was arrested at 11.45 a.m. on Thursday, the 16th, by an agent de police and an inspector in plain clothes and taken to the Commissariat.
After this hook, Ambler details what led up to the narrator’s arrest. He launches into several vivid paragraphs describing the French riviera,
For several kilometers on the way from Toulon to La Ciotat the railway runs very near to the coast. As the train rushes between the innumerable short tunnels through which this section of the line has been built, you catch quick glimpses of white houses among pine woods. It is as if you were watching a magic-lantern show with highly colored slides and an impatient operator. The eye has no time to absorb details. Even if you know St Gatien and are looking for it, you can see nothing of it but the bright red roof and the pale yellow stucco walls of the Hôtel de la Réserve.
Ambler could have opened the book with the paragraphs of description first. However, by including the hook, he ensured that readers would keep reading. They would want to find out why the narrator was arrested. Additionally, they would know immediately that the book was going to fulfill the promise of the title.
Here’s the technique from Ambler that we can copy:
- Enticing Openings: Craft a captivating opening sentence or paragraph for your story that grabs the attention of readers by piquing their curiosity.
4. Demons by Dostoevsky (1871)
This was my favorite book of 2023! Demons (affiliate link) is a gripping, chilling, tragic, and thought-provoking story. (Note: this book contains mature themes.)
If you’ve read and enjoyed Dostoevsky’s other more famous novels (The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment), then I definitely recommend reading this one too.
I want to write a more in-depth post about it (or I might make a video). But suffice to say that Dostoevsky was inspired to write the book by a political murder that horrified Russia in 1869.
The edition I read (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) is over 700 pages, and the murder does not happen until very late in the story. But Dostoevsky strings the reader along with puzzling events that the narrator cannot explain because all of the characters are keeping secrets from each other.
However, the narrator promises that all will become clear later on. He entices the reader to keep reading with paragraphs like this one from part one, chapter seven:
The ‘next day’— that is, the same Sunday on which Stepan Trofimovich’s fate was to be irrevocably decided—was one of the most portentous days in my chronicle. It was a day of the unexpected, a day of the unraveling of the old and the raveling up of the new, a day of sharp explanations and of a still greater muddle. In the morning, as the reader already knows, I was obliged to accompany my friend to Varvara Petrovna’s, at her own stipulation, and by three in the afternoon I had to be at Lizaveta Nikolaevna’s, in order to tell her—about what I did not know, and to assist her—in what I did not know. And yet it all resolved itself in a way no one could have imagined. In short, it was a day of surprisingly converging accidents.
Copywriters call this technique “seeds of curiosity.” Check out my article where I wrote all about this curiosity technique.
Here’s the technique from Dostoevsky that we can copy:
- Seeds of curiosity: Build suspense in a story by dropping hints of what’s to come that invite readers to keep reading. They quicken the pace of your writing and lead your readers along just as if you were holding their hand.
5. “White Nights” by Dostoevsky (1848)
Having enjoyed Demons so much, I decided to dive into a collection of Dostoevsky’s short stories (affiliate link) at the end of December. I’m about halfway through the collection now, but I finished “White Nights” (the first story in the collection) before the end of 2023.
It’s a bittersweet story about a lonely young man wandering the streets of St. Petersburg at night. By chance he meets a young woman crying on a bridge. He learns her sad story, they become friends, and he falls in love.
At the beginning of the story, the young man describes his walks through the city. That’s where I stumbled across this wonderful passage:
The houses, too, are familiar to me. When I walk along the street, each of them seems to run before me, gazing at me out of all its windows, and practically saying to me, “Good morning, sir! How are you? I’m very well, thank you. They’re going to add another storey to me in May”; or, “How do you do, sir? I’m going to be repaired tomorrow”; or, “Dear me, I nearly got burnt down, and, goodness, how I was scared!” and so on and so on. Some of them are great favourites of mine, while others are my good friends. One of them is thinking of undergoing a cure with an architect this summer. I shall certainly make a point of coming to see it every day to make sure that its cure does not prove fatal (which God forbid!). And I shall never forget the incident with a pretty little house of a pale pink hue. It was such a dear little house; it always welcomed me with such a friendly smile, and it looked on its clumsy neighbors with such an air of condescension, that my heart leapt with joy every time I passed it. But when I happened to walk along the street only a week ago and looked up at my friend, I was welcomed with a most plaintive cry, “They are going to paint me yellow!” Fiends! Savages! They spared nothing, neither cornices, nor columns, and my poor friend turned as yellow as a canary. I nearly had an attack of jaundice myself, and even to this day I have not been able to screw up my courage to go and see my mutilated friend, painted in the national colour of the Celestial Empire!
Dostoevsky brilliantly uses personification to add humor and emotion to his story. It also reveals much about the narrator. He’s so lonely and longing for human companionship that he’s imagining the houses as his friends. And we also see how well he knows the city.
Here’s the technique from Dostoevsky that we can copy:
- Powerful Personification: Make descriptions come alive by giving human qualities to non-human things. It’s a wonderful way to make your writing more engaging to read.
I hope these techniques help you to take your writing to the next level in 2024. Try adding several of these techniques to one of your current writing projects. Eventually it will become second nature to include them in your writing.
And be sure to check out my video on close reading where you’ll discover how you can dive into a well-written passage of a book to identify techniques you can use in your own writing.
Also come follow me on Instagram to read more of my book reviews and see what books I’m reading this year.
Let’s close with this quote by Ray Bradbury on the importance of reading for writers:
If you want to write, if you want to create…You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head…You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy head.
Have you read any of these books? What were your favorite books read in 2023? Let me know in the comments.
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Thank you! Wishing you much success with your writing projects this year! God bless.