Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. -Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Those who know me know that the above passage is my favorite to read and recite and imitate. The opening three paragraphs of Lolita often appear on any list of beautiful prose excerpts. But what makes those contenders so beautiful? What makes the above quote better than others? Begin by reading it aloud. Good passages should never go unspoken.
Beautiful passages are not profound—they don't reveal an inner truth about humans or open our eyes; they simply are beautiful to read. "Yes," I said. "Isn't it nice to think so?" is one of those lines, the last of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Within context, it's powerful, but without context, it's beautiful. The beauty which I refer to is the sound of words when placed together, like a musical phrase that begins, grows, and descends to a final cadence. Great writers—not good ones—are those whose writing speaks lyrically. Not every sentence must sound perfect, but a touch of poetry within prose cannot hurt. Writing isn't only slapping words into a story with interesting characters; it's an art and should be treated as such.
Let's look at the opening quote again. Nabokov cuts his first sentence into three parts, mimicking his subject's name. Read it aloud, and you notice it ends where it should: there aren't extra words that prolong the conclusion. It's concise and ends where we expect it to end. Bad writing leads the reader along incorrect inflections, which result in the expectation that the sentence is not over or ends too early. Writers aware of this can take advantage of it, but bad ones cannot. The rest of the opening lines play on titillating alliteration. Read it aloud once more, and this time pay attention to your tongue and how it moves, slapping, against the roof of your mouth.
Unfortunately there is no easy way to learn to write beautifully, just as there is no equation to composing great symphonies. It's a matter of reading the right stuff, listening to the right sentences, and copying good style when the situation is right. You can test whether something works by reading it aloud, thus engaging you ears as well as your eyes. A bad sentence might stick out as awkward or uncomfortable—a clear sign that something needs to change. Perhaps the emphasis is off, or that big word you want to use simply doesn't fit (too long, alliterative, clumsy, etc.). I recently read a Thomas Pynchon sentence I found wonderful, though it wasn't anything extraordinary:
Outside, on a terrace with a view across the canyon, longhaired short-skirted cuties drifted around in the sunlight tending the marijuana plants or wheeling huge trays of things to eat, drink, and smoke. -Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
You can decide yourself if you like it, but I enjoy how it flows from one image to another without separating commas, or how he describes the girls as longhaired short-skirted cuties, which rolls off your tongue like it was meant to.
If this article made no sense and didn't pique your interest in good writing, you may be convinced that I am nothing more than a self-entitled snob who writes about pretty sentences just as you pose for selfies, add silly distortion icons, and send them to all your friends over Snapchat. Fair enough.