Michael Crichton’s Best Sentence
I stumbled upon Michael Crichton’s book Timeline the other night. The movie was ridiculous, but I had a few extra minutes so I read the first 300 pages. (Don’t be impressed. It was the large print edition.)
I like how he respects even his minor characters — that is, after all, one of the better and most well-known pieces of advice for writers — and one sentence particularly stuck out in the “Dordogne” section.
Some young archeologists are toiling away in France, attempting to excavate a small village dating around the mid-1300s. They take a break, go into town for a meal, and are joined by two American stockbrokers who are visiting France with their girlfriends. Here’s Crichton’s description of the girls:
The women were both publicists in the same PR firm; they had just finished a very big party for Martha Stewart’s new book. The group’s bustling sense of their own self-importance quickly got on Chris’s nerves; and, like many successful business people, they tended to treat academics as if they were slightly retarded, unable to function in the real world, to play the real games. Or perhaps, he thought, they just found it inexplicable that anyone would choose an occupation that wouldn’t make them a millionaire by age twenty-four.
Chrichton then moves on to the questions they ask:
“Why are you working there? What’s so special about that place, anyway?” one of the women asked.
“The site is very typical for the period,” Kate said, “with two opposing castles. But what makes it a real find is that it has been a neglected site, never previously excavated.”
And then Crichton writes the sentence from one of the rich girls that I think ranks as one of his best due to its simple understatement:
“That’s good? That it was neglected?” The woman was frowning; she came from a world where neglect was bad.
There are so many ways to go with just that one line — “she came from a world where neglect was bad” — her childhood, her dating and breakups, her property and trinkets, her career disappointments, her sense of personal value. Just think of the enormous amount of weight that single sentence would have over someone’s life. How would that drive a person’s decisions — to never be neglected? What kind of woman would she become? What company would she keep and how would she get rid of those she didn’t want around anymore? He could have unpacked this one phrase with an entire chapter about her alone.
But Crichton moves right along, leaving that statement to hang in mid-air without any resolve. And I love it.