A World Made of Words: On Anthony Doerr’s Nouns and Verbs

January 20, 2015 | 1 book mentioned 19 6 min read


Even Anthony Doerr seems puzzled by the runaway success of his second novel All the Light We Cannot See. As Doerr pointed out in a recent interview with The New York Times, the novel, set during World War II, features a sympathetic young Nazi as one of its main characters and contains lengthy passages about early radio technology and carbon bonds. “This book has trigonometric equations in it — it’s really dense,” he told The Times. “The kinds of readers I’m writing for, I thought they would like it, but I didn’t think Aunt Judy would read it.”

Yet Aunt Judy, and all her friends and relations, have rushed out to buy Doerr’s novel by the bagful. In the seven months between the book’s publication last May and Christmas, its publisher, Scribner had to reprint it 25 times, putting 920,000 copies in circulation. According to The Times, Amazon ran out of copies during the peak Christmas book-buying season, as did a number of independent bookstores. As of January 18, the novel holds the #1 spot on The Times hardcover fiction bestseller list, where it has sat for many of the 35 weeks it has appeared on the list.

The Times piece cites Scribner’s deft marketing plan, which called for Doerr to meet personally with independent booksellers months before publication, as a factor in the novel’s success. It no doubt helped that the book is superbly researched, and that the story it tells of the wartime technological advances that helped spark our own digital revolution is rich and intelligent in ways that other recent fictional accounts of this history, like the hit film The Imitation Game, are obtuse and ill-informed. Doerr also knows how to craft vivid characters and spin a compulsively readable tale.

But none of this adequately accounts for how All the Light We Cannot See became a literary sensation. In the hands of most writers, the novel’s subject matter alone would have turned off many ordinary readers. Forget the abstruse math and nice Nazis. This is a 500-page novel about a war increasingly few Americans are old enough to remember, in which not one of the principal characters is American. This is a recipe for a well-regarded literary novel, perhaps even a prize-winning critical darling. But a breakout bestseller so popular it leaves Amazon’s vast warehouses empty of copies at Christmas? Not likely.

So what then explains the success of All the Light We Cannot See? It all, I would argue, comes down to Doerr’s sentences, in particular his masterly use of nouns and verbs.

coverIf I were ever allowed to teach in a MFA program, I would offer a course called “The Nitty Gritty: Sentence Structure for Creative Writers.” In this course that I will probably never teach, we would begin by reacquainting ourselves with the parts of speech and the lost art of diagramming sentences. We would look at more fine-grained points of style, too, like metaphor and simile, symbol and imagery, but first we would look just at the sentences. Students would take passages at random from books they love and diagram the sentences, creating those funny little word trees of nouns and verbs and prepositional phrases that many of us learned how to make in sixth grade and then promptly forgot. Then we would talk about what we’d found. How does William Faulkner construct those big, long baroque sentences of his? What’s the verb-to-adverb ratio in Toni Morrison’s Beloved? What is Leslie Jamison doing with her nouns that allows her to use so few adjectives?

After we analyzed the sentences of the masters, we would turn to our own work. This would make for a painful few weeks, since no apprentice writer, no matter how precocious, starts out writing like Faulkner or Morrison. But the primary purpose here wouldn’t be comparison, but analysis: How do we as writers build our sentences, and why? Taking passages at random from our own most successful work, we would break the sentences down to their component parts, phrase by phrase, clause by clause, to see how they work. How long, on average, are the sentences? What are each student’s go-to tropes? How many versions of the verb “to be” appear per page? Does the diction in the dialogue vary enough that it’s clear who is speaking even when we remove the dialogue tags? What if we changed that noun, made it more precise — would that allow us to strike the adjective?

Our final project would be to rewrite our stories, starting with the sections we analyzed most closely, then taking the lessons learned from those passages and applying them to the rest of the story. No doubt many students would turn in drafts of stories very similar to their originals, just a little tighter and more polished. But a few, maybe one or two per semester, might see their stories mysteriously catch fire, watch their characters do strange and unexpected things, because, as anyone who works daily with language knows, all ideas, all stories and plots and characters that appear in a work of prose, originate first in the sentences, in our choices of nouns and verbs.

Were I a student in my own thought-experiment of a writing course, I would choose All the Light We Cannot See as my case study. I have so many deficiencies as a prose stylist that it’s hard to keep track of them, but right now what’s really bothering me is my verbosity. I am trying to teach myself the delicate art of compression, which is, as I am learning, principally means getting better at choosing nouns and verbs. And Anthony Doerr is a master at picking nouns and verbs.

Let me give an example of Doerr’s prose, chosen at random on page 40 of the hardcover edition, five paragraphs from the top of the page:

Cars splash along the streets, and snowmelt drums through the runnels; she can hear snowflakes tick and patter through the trees.

See what I mean? At the level of pure language, without context, the sentence is beautiful. Each clause is compact, just a noun, a verb, and a prepositional phrase specifying location. Twenty-one words, and not one an adjective or adverb. Why would he need one? The nouns and verbs are doing all the work. A lesser writer, for instance, might have written: “Cars splash violently through puddles along the busy street,” but Doerr understands that if a sentence is vivid enough, readers will supply all that ancillary information. The next clause — “and snowmelt drums through the runnels” — is even more evocative. I don’t need to know what runnels are to hear the expanding snowmelt drumming through them. (Okay, I looked it up: a runnel is “a narrow channel or course, as for water,” which, not surprisingly, was what I’d pictured.)

Doerr is doing here what only great prose stylists can do, tapping all the senses, creating not just a visual image, but an aural and tactile one as well. If you are coming to this sentence without having read his book, you can’t know where this scene takes place or at what time of year. And yet you do. It has to be in a city, probably a big one where cars move fast through the streets. And it must be wintertime, deep in winter when the late-season snows are mixing with the runoff from melting snow of the false spring. If I add that the scene is set in Paris on a Tuesday in late March a few years before the German invasion of France, you are instantly transported to that time and place: you can see it, you can hear it, you can feel that sharp winter cold in your bones. Twenty-one words, three simple clauses, and wham, you are there.

But if you have read the book, you know this is only the beginning of why this sentence — which, hand to God, I really did pick at random — is so brilliant. Much of All the Light We Cannot See alternates between the points of view of two central characters, a young German soldier named Werner, and a blind French girl named Marie-Laure. This chapter, titled simply “Light,” is told from the perspective of Marie-Laure. Read the sentence again, and you will see why it could only be from the perspective of Marie-Laure: cars splash, snowmelt drums, snowflakes tick and patter. The sentence is all verbs, all of them vividly aural. What at first may seem like poetic license (does melting snow really “drum”?) is in fact character exposition: This is a view of the world from someone who must perceive everything through her ears and fingertips.

This is crucial to understanding not just the character of Marie-Laure, but also the broader thematic concerns of Doerr’s book, which, as its title suggests, is about the ways we perceive the world without using our eyes. Marie-Laure’s father builds elaborate scale models of their neighborhood so she can navigate the world without him. Werner, a young German math genius, helps perfect the use of radio waves to ferret out resistance fighters operating deep in the Ukrainian forests. Werner’s friend Frederick sees an owl in a night sky where others see only a pool of blackness. And we all, readers and characters alike, chase endlessly after a famous diamond that we never exactly see, whose value we deduce only by the ardor of those who chase after it.

And it’s all there in that one sentence five paragraphs down on page 40, the world alive and wriggling, captured with a few well-chosen nouns and verbs. I could pick out that sentence at random and build an entire essay around it because Doerr’s vision, and his gift for describing it in simple, striking nouns and verbs, is present on every page of the novel, which contains not a single uninteresting or trite sentence. Here it is, his prose insists, right here on the page: a world made of words, a world we make up in our heads as we read, using all the light we cannot see.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. “This book has trigonometric equations in it — it’s really dense,”

    Doerr seems really proud of the fact that he managed to squeeze in some math into his book, as he mentions it in nearly every interview. But this is not a dense book. Not a criticism per se, it is what it is and has done very well, but this book isn’t Gravity’s Rainbow, so let’s stop pretending otherwise.

    “It all, I would argue, comes down to Doerr’s sentences, in particular his masterly use of nouns and verbs.”

    Sigh. If you really believe this, you have absolutely no understanding of American popular culture.

  2. “If you really believe this, you have absolutely no understanding of American popular culture.”

    Wow. Care to elucidate this?

  3. I would say that Doerr has a pretty good understanding of how popcult works, as his book is about WW2 and has a sympathetic, ie complex, Nazi in it. If that’s not pandering to the masses then I don’t know what is.

  4. That is a nice sentence, but I rebel against the received notion (almost holy writ in writing courses at this point) that the more compressed language is, the better. It all depends on context and desired effect. Adjectives and adverbs are great at revealing character perspective, and for the purposes of achieving comic effect. The British comic tradition is, for example, about half indebted to the use of judicious adverbs.

    For instance:

    “Cars splash along the streets, and snowmelt drums monotonously through the runnels; she can hear snowflakes tick and patter through the trees.”

    Is a completely different sentence with the addition of one word. For that matter, if compression of language is the ideal, the sentence could be a lot more compressed. Certainly, by this criterion, “along the streets” is superfluous (since we know that cars drive along streets). Also, “she can hear” could be struck–it not only adds words, but creates a reported feel that reduces the free-indirect quality of the writing. Presumably, however, Doerr wrote the sentence this way because it sounded better to him. Among other factors, “she can hear” creates more space between “snowmelt” and “snowflakes,” an anti-compression that allows Doerr to use two words he wants to use. Again, context.

    It’s a point well-taken that bad writing tends to lean too heavily on modifiers to do its heavy lfiting. As stylistic cant, however, this “rule” can be suffocating. And I believe it has tended to produce, over the last thirty years, an unobjectionable economical American literary style that is, at once, adequate, and somehow lacking in the stylistic idiosyncracies and extravagances that can make great writing great.

  5. Is anyone more humorless than a Millions commenter?

    Whenever I stoop to reading the comments on an essay I find interesting on The Millions I am always taken aback by not just the negativity, but the seeming universality of that negativity in the comments.

    I shouldn’t cast aspersions on random curmudgeonly literary blog commenters, but some of these comments smack of authorial envy:
    “Doerr seems really proud of the fact that…”
    “If that’s not pandering to the masses…”
    “No one ever went hungry making a movie or writing a book about WWII…”

    Geez. That’s some joyless literary trolling there. Unsuccessful writers among the group perhaps?

  6. Yeah, we’re all just jealous, Marie. That’s the answer. That’s always the answer. The easiest answer, right?

  7. Marie,

    I agree that an accusation of pandering is probably a bridge too far (get it?). It’s a fair observation, however, that American audiences have a seemingly endless appetite for WWII narratives, and that this might have a little more to do with the book’s success than the fact that Doerr writes tight sentences. Especially considering that most bestsellers read as though they were written by victims of head trauma.

  8. I’ve sat through some very bad writing workshops. And I strongly agree that those who would teach the art of writing need to start with the basic mechanics of the English sentence. Leave plot and character for later — first try a little style.

  9. @Michael

    I would advocate for the absolute opposite. Style can’t be taught, while what literature really desperately lacks is storytelling. The idea that the sentence is the basic unit of writing–which this article advocates–is hateful garbage. The story is the basic unit and Anthony Doerr couldn’t tell a story if he had a Luger Parabellum pointed at his head (see? research!).

  10. Esoteric Bob Parsons’ comments on the random sentence stimulated me to notice another thing the sentence does: It enacts the construction of space, space extending beyond any “I”, by a person who can not see, through hearing. Cars splashing along the street are the cues for the street itself, the objects on it, and their movement; the sound diminshing in the distance the vanishing point for parallel lines.

    Americans seem to me to not be hungry for anything without an American perspective. How well did the Kindly Ones do, or Life and Fate, or Tora, Tora, Tora?

    PPP (Purely Personal Perspective): I can see. I did have an experience coming down from peyote, on an overcast night in Big Sur, no moon, under a redwood tree, and in a tent. As the spark of my nightcap-joint died away I had a brief panic at having no visual cues to tell me there was anything but nothing around me. The panic lifted as I began to hear sounds, insects, wind in the trees, and sense a three dimensional space from the sounds and faint echoes. For what it’s worth.

  11. @Don Hackett

    I disagree with the idea that a blind person does not have a concept of space, and does not know what street is, or a runnel, or a tree. The sentence does not disturb the perspective of blindness. But it is clear that the writer is commenting on blindness, not living within it (unlike, perhaps, Saramago’s Blindness, although it has been a long time since I read it).

  12. Andrew

    The idea that a book became a bestseller chiefly on its sentence-level prose is so utterly ridiculous I can’t believe it has been proffered with a straight face.

    Aunt Judy: You should read this book I read in my book club.
    Aunt Sally: What’s it about?
    Aunt Judy: Who cares, the sentences are unbelievable!

    The author seems to suggest that there is a straight-line correlation between quality and sales. Simply write good sentences, and your book will sell like hotcakes. What a quaint notion!

    50 Shades, Harry Potter, Hunger Games: sentence-level masterpieces, all of them!

    We joyless unsuccessful writers trolling the Millions may care about sentences, but the casual readers who have bought this book en masse don’t. At all.

  13. toad,

    Contra my previous comment to some extent, I think you’re underestimating the casual reader. My mother-in-law, for example, read the book in her book club and recommended it to my wife on the basis of its “beautiful writing.” Now, I’m not sure if she qualifies as a “casual reader”–she reads a lot, and widely (plenty of crap and non-crap)–but she certainly is not trolling The Millions comment section, nor are her fellow book clubbers. My wife, in turn felt the same way and has recommended it others on that basis. So, anecdotally, I do think there’s some merit in the author’s idea that the quality of Doerr’s writing is selling copies.

    That said, yes, it seems clear that other factors–subject matter, marketing, book cover–are probably more important than writing tight sentences.

  14. I heartily agree with Marie, and not at all with Benn, who seems to feel that he’s a victim for speaking truths that others don’t want to hear. I don’t think Harry Potter is particularly well written, but it’s a heck of a story, a heck of a creation. It’s wonderful and fun and full of value. Critics often seem to miss the forest for the trees.

  15. Mary: how in any which way shape or form did I come across as a victim? Don’t project your pathologies onto other people, it’s tacky. All I said was that jealousy is not the answer for why someone wouldn’t like this book, but it’s the answer most readily available to people who are can’t or won’t understand why other people don’t like them or what they do. “You’re just jealous.” Very juvenile and very American. I don’t know Anthony Doerr’s work and don’t claim to know the merits of this particular book. All I know is that writing about World War 2 is the literary equivalent of being a slave to fashion. It’s cheap and easy.

  16. Benn,

    Not sure why you are so bent out of shape. You imply Doerr is doing little more than pandering to the masses, and some people disagree with you. You can’t have imagined everyone would agree with that dismissive point of view. I certainly don’t.

    Your postings seem inexplicably angry, which I think is what Marie was getting at. If were to present ideas in a less confrontational way I’m sure more people would see your point of view.

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