How and Why to Write With Power

In just about any other endeavor, that headline (swapping out the word “write” with the passion of your choice) makes sense.  But for writers it’s a loaded gun, and if misunderstood, not in a good way.

Too many writers misunderstand what it means to write with power.

Too many writers equate power with… eloquence.  With descriptive genius.  With adjectives.

That’s not writing with power, that’s too often writing with gobs of purple prose. 

To fully understand what writing with power really means, one has to know the difference, one needs to get it, and then see it or hear it when it crosses your path.

Let me lay one on you right now.

In the trailer for the upcoming film “We Bought a Zoo,” there’s a line that (IMO) qualifies as powerful:

All you need is twenty seconds of insane courage, and I promise you something great will come of it.”

There’s only one adjective in there.  My jaw dropped into my popcorn when I heard Matt Damon say this in the preview.

We should strive to write sentences like that one.

Power is not about adjectives.  Power is all about punch… sub-text, relevance, illumination, heart and soul… the poignant moment, the ironic, the truly humorous… the truth.

Nothing wrong with colorful writing.  Just don’t confuse it with powerful writing

Here’s another example.

Click HERE to go to the page for a novel called Manhattan Nocturne, by Colin Harrison, originally published in 1997 to astounding critical acclaim, and republished in 2008.  Click the book cover image marked “Click to look INSIDE,” then click through all the title pages and beyond the quote by Luc Sante (I never heard of him, either), to the first page of the novel itself.

Read the first paragraph. The one that begins with: “I sell mayhem, scandal, murder and doom.”

I believe the term OMG! applies here.

There are four adjectives, two sentences with two each.  And yet… this is an astounding example (IMO) of powerful writing.

Colin Harrison, by the way, was once dubbed “the poet laureate of American thriller writers,” and it wasn’t because of his descriptive prose, which in places it certainly is.  It was because of his ability to write with power, which fueled his otherwise solid but arguably unremarkable storylines with a delicious reading experience.

Power depends on timing, cadence and relevance.

You have to really understand what a scene is going for — indeed, what the thematic essence of the entire story is — in order to optimize your ability to write powerfully.

Many times — most of the time — less is more. And certainly you shouldn’t seek to make every sentence something quotable.  Exposition is as important — and separate from — powerful writing… if you season your writing with powerful moments, you’ll imbue the whole thing with a powerful essence.

Sometimes, though, in those moments, it’s time to swing for the fences and hit it out of the park.

It’s hard to really “learn” this. It’s a sensibility, a nuance, a deft touch.  Rather, over time, you can discover it from deep within yourself.  You need to summon your inner poet, copywriter, philospher, favorite uncle, JFK’s speechwriter and Abraham Lincoln, all fused and staged with an equisite sense of timing.

Don’t force it, just understand it.  And then look for just the right moment to go for it.

What are some of the most powerful single lines you’ve ever read… or perhaps even written?


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Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

22 Responses to How and Why to Write With Power

  1. Cindy Hassell

    My favorite power line is from a novel called THE BOOK THIEF by Marcus Zusak. The first-person narrator is Death (personified–think Grim Reaper). It’s a beautiful, horrifying read, a Holocaust tale. The last line of the book: “I am haunted by humans.”

  2. Another great post, and something every writer should really think about and internalize.

    I love reading a book and then coming across one of those powerful sentences that reaches out and hits you in the face. Quick, I need a pencil!

    One of my favorite power lines is from a YA novel by Martine Leavitt called “Keturah and Lord Death.”

    “There is no hell. Each man, when he dies, sees the landscape of his own soul.” (Interestingly, this is also Death that is speaking. I loved The Book Thief too.)

  3. Cynthia A.

    Powerful sentences often have a simple and precise structure. This one comes in the last chapter of The Leopard, as the Prince nears death.

    And he sat there, immersed in that great outer silence, in that terrifying inner rumble. – Lampedusa

  4. Donna Lodge

    I tried to vote for the top 10 blogs by clicking on “add a comment” and nothing happened. What am I doing wrong?

  5. I can’t recall any powerful sentences, but I appreciate you’re defining powerful writing as NOT being purple prose. In my opinion, purple prose draws attention to the writer. Powerful prose draws attention to the story and/or the character(s). I much prefer the latter.

  6. Charles

    Nice article, but the quote, “All you need is twenty seconds of insane courage, and I promise you something great will come of it,” in fact has three adjectives: “twenty”, “insane”, “great.”

    I look to poetry for powerful, concise language. From Ezra Pound, for example:

    In a Station of the Metro

    The apparition of these faces in the crowd ;
    Petals on a wet, black bough.

  7. Great article. I’m glad you didn’t tell me it’s easy to do, because I find it a real challenge to use powerful sentences without getting “purply.”

    My contribution to the list of powerful sentences comes from Jake Adelstein. He wrote a wonderful non-fiction book, Tokyo Vice, that reads like a thriller.

    The story starts with these three sentences:
    “Either erase the story, or we’ll erase you. And maybe your family. But we’ll do them first, so you learn your lesson before you die.”

  8. I’ve always been a big fan of Richard Stark’s (Donald Westlake) Parker novels (especially the early noir ones written in the ’60’s). He’s famous for his opening lines.

    Here’s the first line of “Firebreak”:
    “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”

  9. Donna Lodge

    I know Larry isn’t campaigning for a “Top 10 Writer’s Websites” ranking for, so I’m posting a reminder. If you haven’t voted yet, please do! This site rocks in terms of content and quality. I haven’t seen another site even come close to deconstructing entire books, solid and practical craft-of-writing articles, motivational and esoteric posts, etc. Voting closes soon. (see above for the link to the voting site).

  10. Debbie Burke

    “Power depends on timing, cadence and relevance.

    You have to really understand what a scene is going for”

    True words, Larry. My favorite tool for studying timing is to watch old comedians, like Jack Benny and George Burns. They honed their craft in front of rowdy vaudeville audiences that would just as soon throw tomatoes at them. These classic greats learned how not to get pelted with rotten food by perfecting timing to an art form.

    Timing in writing = placement. I find many authors write perfect little pearls of power, only to hide them in the middle of a long, dense paragraph.

    Don’t bury your pearls. Place them at the end of a narrative buildup. Then drop down a line and give them their own paragraph–a pitch-perfect punchline (alliterative enough for you?). The theme of your scene (“what a scene is going for”) is the punchline.

    This is an advanced concept worthy of a longer blog post, if you’re so inclined. Good post, as always, Larry.

  11. Hugh

    (Licking the tip of his blue pencil)…

    There are actually three adjectives in the sentence you use as an example. No doubt the one you referred to is insane, in the noun phrase ‘insane courage’. The second one is great, in ‘something great’. The third is twenty, in ‘twenty seconds’, though I’ll grant you most might not think of a number that way. Still, it modifies the noun ‘seconds’.

    Pedantically yours,

  12. Margie Larson [] calls these New York Time sentences. Read her analysis of good books on that link. Download her lecture packets & take her online, & in person classes. Her E.D.I.T. system shows you how to do this, turns your entire scene powerful, scene after scene.

  13. Thank you, Charles and Hugh (the ones I spotted), for pointing out what I came here to say. THREE adjectives. Absolutely (adv., ne plus ultra).

  14. Linda, you beat me to it – I was going to recommend Margie Lawson’s classes as well — she took my writing to a whole new level! (and no, she doesn’t pay me a kickback – she’s just that good!)

  15. The most powerful sentences I’ve read are from the beginning of “Prince of Tides” by Pat Conroy where he describes the low country of South Carolina in the voice of his protagonist. I get goosebumps every time I read it.
    “To describe our growing up in the low country of South Carolina I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation, scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocket knife and feed to you from the shell and say, there, that taste, that’s the taste of my childhood. I would say, breathe deeply, and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life. The smell of the south in heat, a smell like new milk and spilled wine all perfumed with seawater. My soul grazes like a lamb on the beauty of in drawn tides.”

  16. spinx

    True, true……hmm…

    I am beginning (really just beginning!) to get an idea of what a sentence, a paragraph or a whole page mean- what they really mean.

    And boy is it ever so hard!
    Last week, I have written something for the very first time. And the voice that dictated me those words was, for the very first time, not mine, not awkward- not forced.

    It came just as naturally as if it had been waiting for me all this time to call upon it.

    What a great feeling!

    And boy is it ever true!!
    Some things you REALLY just have to do first, in order to experience what al those authors were talking about.

    Bahh…whatever, whatever—-may the power be with all of you!

    I´m out- writing ;O

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  18. One of my favorite lines ever, so powerful that Peter Jackson lifted it right from LOTR Fellowship of the Ring book and put it into the movie:

    (From Bilbo Baggins) “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter, scraped over too much bread.”

    I can feel that sensation in my bones when I read that

  19. Olga Oliver

    Larry, Laura Drake and Linda Brighton, in above comments, have mentioned Margie Lawson’s classes. I would like to contact them regarding Lawson’s classes. Can you put me in contact with them? Thanks much.

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  22. The best way to learn how to write with power is to practice writing poetry. And reading a lot of it too, of course.