How do you pick the most beautiful sentences in literature?
Are beautiful sentences full of nice turns of phrase?
Or are beautiful sentences full of wisdom?
Must beautiful sentences be full of risk and ambition, or can they be subtle and simple?
Must beautiful sentences make you feel something?
As I was combing through thousands of lovely sentences to make this list, through my library of books and internet lists and polling my writer friends, I decided that the best sentences accomplished a combination of those four criteria. Still, I was swamped with possibilities.
To limit the sheer number of beautiful sentences, I created some artificial boundaries:
I limited myself to modern authors , authors writing in the last 50 years or so, because there are many websites that list classic lines of literature and I don’t want to repeat them.
I’m also limiting the list to one submission per author .
I’ve also decided to opt for beautiful sentences under 100 words, because anything past that becomes its own beast, and it’s unfair for a 10 word sentence to have to compare to an epic monster sentence (If you want longer sentences, look at the longest sentences in English).
I’m picking virtually all of these from fiction, not nonfiction (with the exception of one — find it if you can), and I’m not picking first lines of books because those deserve their own list.
Let’s dig deeper into these four criteria:
Beautiful Phrasing I find beautiful language necessary but not sufficient. Few sentences below use prosaic language, but if they do, they acheive beauty by the complexity of their construction, the way the sentence unspools. But if a sentence is only beautiful, and doesn’t stretch for anything more, I feel admiration but not love. After all, there are millions of gorgeous lines of prose, and we only have so much attention. Wisdom By wisdom I mean truth, insight, ideas. A sentence functioning as an aphorism. On many of the lists I found around the internet, such as the Buzzfeed list of 51 Beautiful Sentences and the Esquire list of 70 Sentences, this was their main criteria. The language didn’t have to be lovely or ingenious, but they wanted an idea to hoist its flag. For me, wisdom is a secondary consideration after beauty. I would pick a beautiful sentence over a wise sentence any day, because a wise sentence treats language as a mere vehicle while a beautiful sentence elevates language as the primary goal. Ambition Ambition isn’t just length, although it often appears that way. Ambitious sentences attempt new forms, rebel against syntax and grammar rules, and innovate with language. I love ambitious sentences, but it’s not essential for a perfect sentence. In this list I’ve tried to find a mix of both formally ambitious sentences and sentences that stay well within the rules but create beauty in orderly and masterful ways. Sentiment No one talks about emotion as a primary consideration for a good sentence. But I look for whether a good sentence elicits sadness or joy, awe or horror. I don’t just want to admire the lines and curves of the prose, I want a string to be plucked deep inside me. An emotionless sentence can look perfectly fine standing on its own, but line them up end to end and they’re the death of a book. One sentiment that is often overlooked in beautiful sentences is humor — a few of the sentences below are quite funny, but I wish I had more.
I’m trying to avoid one-trick ponies in my selections below: a sentence that does one good thing is wonderful, but it isn’t the best sentence that could be written.
I’m also not going for what I would call an “instructional sentence.” I’d compiled hundreds of great sentences in a file of mine, but when I examined, I realized most of them were designed to teach something to the reader. They contained some technique, some trick, some device that could be learned and replicated. The sentences below can be learned from, but that’s not their primary beauty. They are beautiful for the sake of beauty itself.
One last criteria for longer sentences: I want to see a narrative. By a narrative I mean some kind of turn from the beginning to the end. It doesn’t have to be a surprise, although it’s usually surprising. There needs to be a shift, an evolution, a gradation by the end. If the beautiful sentence ends and I’m still in the same place where I started, that’s a problem.
Check out this first video in my online course “How to Write a Splendid Sentence“:
Lastly, if you like this list you might like some other lists at Bookfox:
- 16 Ways to Write a Sentence
Repeated Sentences: How to Harness the Power of Repetition
- 9 Ways to Write Short Sentences
But let’s stop talking about sentences and start looking at them.
1. “Undressing her was an act of recklessness, a kind of vandalism, like releasing a zoo full of animals, or blowing up a dam.”
2. “Jack put his arm out the window, waving his hat like a visiting dignitary, backed into the street, and floated away, gentling the gleaming dirigible through the shadows of arching elm trees, light dropping on it through their leaves like confetti as it made its ceremonious passage.”
3. “A sudden warm rainstorm washes down in sweet hyphens.”
4. “And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it.”
5. “Within seconds of that thought, the train entered Washington, where she was to come to her end more than sixty-eight years later, a mother to seven living and two dead, a grandmother to twenty-one living and three dead, a great-grandmother to twelve, a great-great grandmother to twins.”
6. “We were all a little drunk with spring, like the fat bees reeling from flower to flower, and a strange insurrectionary current ran among us.”
8. “When he was dry, he believed it was alcohol he needed, but when he had a few drinks in him, he knew it was something else, possibly a woman; and when he had it all — cash, booze, and a wife — he couldn’t be distracted from the great emptiness that was always falling through him and never hit the ground.”
9. “Lizards skit like quick beige sticks.”
10. “Saint Rufina, a famous woman who had been a very lovely young princess with long black hair who decided to give up her jewelry and become a nun and wear only the roughest clothes, and who died in a terrible way, by being eaten to death by wild dogs that ran through the church in the dead of wintertime, was in a special chapel all to herself, where one arm of her was set aside, that someone had scooped up and saved from the dogs, because everyone had loved her for her kindness and her healing ability.”
11. “I heard the sonic rip of a military jet, like a giant trowel being dragged through wet concrete, but saw only blue above, a raw and saturated blue that seemed cut from an inner wedge of sky.”
12. “The sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower.”
13. “His voice traveled like a drug dripped down the spiraling canals of their ears until they had forgotten everything, until they had forgotten their own names, until they turned and offered themselves up to him, their bodies sweet and soft as marzipan.”
14. “Men are like armored things, mountainous assemblages of armor and leather, masonry even, which you are told will self-dismantle if you touch the right spot, and out will flow passionate attention.”
15. “We waited for the taxi beside the Holderlin pump, and by the faint light that fell from the living-room window into the well I saw, with a shudder that went to the roots of my hair, a beetle rowing across the surface of the water, from one dark shore to the other.”
16. “On the ground, in the cave, now wrapped in darkness, they found themselves airborne over hills and valleys, floating through blue clouds to the mountaintop of pure ecstasy, from where, suspended in space, they felt the world go round and round, before they descended, sliding down a rainbow, toward the earth, their earth, where the grass, plants, and animals seemed to be singing a lullaby of silence as Nyawira and Kamiti, now locked in each other’s arms, slept the sleep of babies, the dawn of a new day awaiting.”
17. “Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.”
18. “The Captain’s wife played the harp; she had very long arms, silver as eels on those nights, and armpits as dark and mysterious as sea urchins; and the sound of the harp was sweet and piercing, so sweet and piercing it was almost unbearable, and we were forced to let out long cries, not so much to accompany the music as to protect our hearing from it.”
19. “Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish.”
20. “In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places.”
21. “The circle of an empty day is brutal and at night it tightens around your neck like a noose.”
22. “In any case, at a certain point as she wandered out among the galaxies, among the whirling particles and ineffable numbers, something leaked in her mind, smudging the text of the cosmos, and she was lost.”
23. “And I still have other smothered memories, now unfolding themselves into limbless monsters of pain.”
24. “In our world, that’s the way you live your grown-up life: you must constantly rebuild your identity as an adult, the way it’s been put together is wobbly, ephemeral, and fragile, it cloaks despair and, when you’re alone in front of the mirror, it tells you the lies you need to believe.”
25. “Over the Tsushima Basin, they could hear the powerful clicks, like punches to the chest, of sperm whales hunting below, and nearing the island of Dogo, granite spires rose sudden from the sea, white up top from bird guano and orange below from great gatherings of starfish.”
27. “His fate had taken him off two trains this morning, had raised him to the surface at Whitehall Street, had shown him the spinning atoms, unraveling, the end of life, all of them people tethered by love, and habit, and work, and meaning, tied into a meaning suddenly exploded, because contrary to all he had imagined, being tied, being known, did not keep you safe.”
28. “He knows your name and you know his, and you almost killed him and, because you got so close to doing so but didn’t, you want to fall on him, weeping, because you are so lonely, so lonely always, and all contact is contact, and all contact makes us so grateful we want to cry and dance and cry and cry.”
29. “They were all scarecrows, blown about under the murdering sunball with empty ribcages.”
30. “Everything was still bathed and saturated with her presence — higher, wider, deeper than life, a shift in optics that had produced a rainbow edge, and I remember thinking that this must be how people felt after visions of saints — not that my mother was a saint, only that her appearance had been as distinct and startling as a flame leaping up in a dark room.”
31. “We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.”
32. “As she picked up her shoes from the closet and tiptoed from the room, she felt, for a vertiginous moment, an unlawful excitement.”
33. “What I saw made me want to fell the highest spruce and watch it tip over and fall with a rush and a crash that echoed through the valley and trim it myself in record time and strip it clean myself without stopping even though that was the hardest thing to do and drag it to the river bank with my bare hands and my own back with neither horse nor man to help me and heave it into the water with the strength I suddenly knew I had, and the splash and the spray would rise as high as a house in Oslo.”
34. “He was sensitive to lives that had, beneath their surface, like a huge rock or shadow, a glory that would be discovered, that would rise one day to the light.”
35. “Each of her soothing utterances battered me more grievously than the last—as if I were traveling in a perverse ambulance whose function was to collect a healthy man and steadily damage him in readiness for the hospital at which a final and terrible injury would be inflicted.”
36. “And maybe I tried with too much mettle — my lines might have mentioned the “Latin gusto” of her calves and hips in motion, and how the small blond hairs of her nape quelled my fear of becoming a “non crooning castrato” — because not four days after I posted the letter she arrived at the prison wearing an orange autumn dress, the strapless kind that could reverse a vasectomy.”
38. “It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”
39. “He’d say “I love you” to every man in the squad before rolling out, say it straight, with no joking or smart-ass lilt and no warbly Christian smarm in it either, just that brisk declaration like he was tightening the seat belts around everyone’s soul.”
40. “I came to hate the complainers, with their dry and crumbly lipsticks and their wrinkled rage and their stupid, flaccid, old-people sun hats with brims the breadth of Saturn’s rings.”
41. “Maybe life doesn’t get any better than this, or any worse, and what we get is just what we’re willing to find: small wonders where they grow.”
42. “Around the beginning of this century, the Queen of Thailand was aboard a boat, floating along with her many courtiers, manservants, maids, feet-bathers, and food tasters, when suddenly the stern hit a wave and the queen was thrown overboard into the turquoise waters of the Nippon-Kai, where, despite her pleas for help, she drowned, for not one person on that boat went to her aid.”
43. “Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this.”
44. “As my grandfather went, arm over arm, his heart making sour little shudders against his ribs, he kept listening for a sound, the sound of the tiger, the sound of anything but his own feet and lungs.”
45. “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”
46. “We all owe death a life.”
47. “In the deep gloom he could see the electric white gashes where the water boiled over the boulders.”
48. “We are souls shut inside a cage of bones; souls squeezed into a parcel of flesh.”
49. “Profound was Gary’s relief the next morning as he bumped and glided, like a storm-battered yacht, into the safe harbor of his work week.”
50. “Old lovers go the way of old photographs, bleaching out gradually as in a slow bath of acid: first the moles and pimples, then the shadings.”
51. “I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.”
52. “Coming out into the late night and walking round the building with the secretive grating roll of the stony path beneath his steps, the evening throbbed back through him as blood thumps slowly, reliving effort, after exertion.”
53. “Sometimes, when she’s out here alone, she can feel the pulse of something bigger, as if all things animate were beating in unison, a glory and a connection that sweeps her out of herself, out of her consciousness, so that nothing has a name, not in Latin, not in English, not in any known language.”
55. “Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air.”
56. “Two weeks later, the tape arrived of the race and I memorized it, especially those last hundred yards, Wowie alone, heading for the finish line, his body rhythmically stretching and contracting as his four legs reached and folded, reached and folded.”
57. “He had no right to be there, he had already been profoundly changed, he was no good at small talk, she was half naked, it was dawn and he loved her.”
58. “At a certain point in her life, she realises it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.”
– Lydia Davis (have you ever seen such a beautiful sentence that hinges on tense alone?)
59. “Some nights in the midst of this loneliness I swung among the scattered stars at the end of the thin thread of faith alone.”
60. “Home, we drank a little wine, put on some of that sticky saxophone music we used to keep around to drown out the bitter squeaks in our hearts.”
61. “And so we stood together like that, at the top of that field for what seemed like ages, not saying anything, just holding each other, while the wind kept blowing and blowing at us, tugging our clothes, and for a moment, it seemed like we were holding onto each other because that was the only way to stop us from being swept away into the night.”
62. “I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out.”
63. “We laughed and laughed, together and separately, out loud and silently, we were determined to ignore whatever needed to be ignored, to build a new world from nothing if nothing in our world could be salvaged, it was one of the best days of my life, a day during which I lived my life and didn’t think about my life at all.”
64. “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
65. “Heaven opened and the water hammered down, reviving the reluctant old well, greenmossing the pigless pigsty, carpet bombing still, tea-colored puddles the way memory bombs still, tea-colored minds.”
66. “The torch spit sparks and sent chunks of flaming tar spinning into the air behind her as she bolted across the cosmos — the only body in the heavens who was not held to a strict elliptical path.”
67. “Figures dark beneath their loads pass down the far bank of the river, rendered immortal by the streak of sunset upon their shoulders.”
68. “But it goes from bad to worse, and the moment he sets foot in Black’s room, he feels everything go dark inside him, as though the night were pressing through his pores, sitting on top of him with a tremendous weight, and at the same time his head seems to be growing, filling with air as though about to detach itself from his body and float away.”
69. “They were sorry, they were saying with their bodies, they were accepting each other back, and that feeling, that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you always expanding to encompass whatever new flawed thing had just manifested in you, that was the deepest, dearest thing he’d ever—”
70. “Decisions are never really made – at best they manage to emerge, from a chaos of peeves, whims, hallucinations and all around assholery.”
72. “The love I felt for her on that train ride had a capital and provinces, parishes and a Vatican, an orange planet and many sullen moons — it was systemic and it was complete.”
73. “The week after Halloween had a quality both hungover and ominous, the light pitched, the sky smashed against the rooftops.”
74. “Rather he consoled himself with the fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same.”
75. “For the first time in years, he felt the deep sadness of exile, knowing that he was alone here, an outsider, and too alert to the ironies, the niceties, the manners, and indeed, the morals to be able to participate.”
76. “But these thoughts broke apart in his head and were replaced by strange fragments: This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air.”
– Emily St. John Mandel (a finalist for beautiful sentences, more like poetry than prose)
77. “Life was neither something you defended by hiding nor surrendered calmly on other people’s terms, but something you lived bravely, out in the open, and that if you had to lose it, you should lose it on your own terms.”
78. “There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.”
79. “But in another city, another valley, another ghetto, another slum, another favela, another township, another intifada, another war, another birth, somebody is singing Redemption Song, as if the Singer wrote it for no other reason but for this sufferah to sing, shout, whisper, weep, bawl, and scream right here, right now.”
80. “His toe scuffs a soft storm of sand, he kneels and his arms spread in pantomimic celebration, the immigrant, as in every moment of his life, arriving eternally on the shore of his Self.”
81. “Sleep is no longer a healing bath, a recuperation of vital forces, but an oblivion, a nightly brush with annihilation.”
82. “The only cities were of ice, bergs with cores of beryl, blue gems within white gems, that some said gave off an odor of almonds.”
83. He had no religious belief, but it was impossible not to think of an invisible presence or witness in the room, and that these words spoken aloud were like signatures on an unseen contract.”
84. “And even if I recognized her strategy, her sneak attack, I was afraid that some unseen speck of truth would fly into my eye, blur what I was seeing and transform him from the divine man I thought he was into someone quite mundane, mortally wounded with tiresome habits and irritating imperfections.”
85. “Every person had a star, every star had a friend, and for every person carrying a star there was someone else who reflected it, and everyone carried this reflection like a secret confidante in the heart.”
86. “Memory is a great deceiver, grief and longing cloud the past, and recollections, even vivid ones, fade.”
87. “Over the city lies the sweet, rotting odor of yesterday’s unrecollected sins.”
89. “We need to develop a better descriptive vocabulary for lying, a taxonomy, a way to distinguish intentional lies from unintentional ones, and a way to distinguish the lies that the liar himself believes in – a way to signal those lies that could be more accurately described as dreams.”
90. “She understood as women often do more easily than men, that the declared meaning of a spoken sentence is only its overcoat, and the real meaning lies underneath its scarves and buttons.”
91. “The road ran away westwards in the mist of the early morning, running cunningly through the little hills and going to some trouble to visit tiny towns which were not, strictly speaking, on its way.”
92. “We had loving beautiful sex just as soon as we could get ourselves to stop talking — loving and beautiful in the expressionist, pathetic-fallacy sense in which you might say a meadow was loving and beautiful even if it was full of hamsters ready to kill each other on sight, but only when they’re awake.”
93. “And we know, until they stop their terrible motion, until they cease swooping and darting and banging into the walls, until they alight, come to rest, exhausted, spent, there is nothing at all we can do.”
94. “He was still a handsome man, with a tanned, chiseled face and long, thick, wavy white hair, but his cells had begun to reproduce in a haphazard fashion, destroying the DNA of neighboring cells and secreting toxins into his body.”
95. “You’re an insomniac, you tell yourself: there are profound truths revealed only to the insomniac by night like those phosphorescent minerals veined and glimmering in the dark but coarse and ordinary otherwise; you have to examine such minerals in the absence of light to discover their beauty, you tell yourself.”
96. “In fact, this particular memory is one she’ll return to again and again, for the rest of her life, long after Ralph has shot himself in the head in their father’s house at twenty eight: her brother as a boy, hair slicked flat, eyes sparking, shyly learning to dance.”
97. “Twenty were jammed together on the stoop, tiers of heads made one central head, and the wings rested along the banisters, a raggedy monster of boys studying her approach.”
98. “It was plain as the stars that time herself moved in grand tidal sweeps rather than the tick-tocks we suffocate within, and that I must reshape myself to fully inhabit the earth rather than dawdle in the sump of my foibles.”
99. “Sometimes I wonder if Junior remembers anything, or if his head is like a colander, and the memories of who bottle-fed him, who licked his tears, who mothered him, squeeze through the metal like water to run down the drain, and only leave the present day, his sand holes, his shirtless bird chest, Randall yelling at him: his present washed clean of memory like vegetables washed clean of the dirt they grow in.”
100. “So, as was often the case when he was alone and sober, whatever the surroundings, he saw a boy pushing his entrails back in, holding them in his palms like a fortune-teller’s globe shattering with bad news; or he heard a boy with only the bottom half of his face intact, the lips calling mama.”
– Toni Morrison (it’s suitable to end with Toni Morrison; she could be the queen of beautiful sentences)
If you just finished this list, you’re probably awash in beauty. Soak it up, soak it in, and do one of three things:
Tell me in the comments which one of the sentences above is your favorite sentence. (I know, right? How do you pick?)
What beautiful sentences do you consider your all-time favorites? Post them below. (aka: what did I miss?)
- Lastly, consider taking my course in how to write a sentence. If you love sentences, I guarantee you’ll love this course.