Here’s an almost random sentence from Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer:
We talked about literature and I was in heaven—also in a sweat from the spotlight he was giving me to bask in.
An unassuming sentence at first, but it’s more complex than it looks. We expect our fine writing to be a little flowery or at least descriptive, but this is not: no adjectives! no interesting verbs! (If you’re a real pedant, you can point out that it even ends in a preposition.) Still, this is fine writing. It’s conversational, which hides some of the economy and skill.
Roth is leaning heavily on rhythm here. It’s not quite verse or meter, but you can read this out loud and know exactly how it should sound; there’s really no question of where to put the emphasis. He controls this especially well with the similar structures in the first half of the sentence: “We talked…”; “I was…” Noun and verb out of the way in two words each.
But the real reason this sentence works: it’s a joke. The only reason Roth gets away with the cliche “in heaven” is because he needs it for “in a sweat.” The dash sets off the punchline. It forces you into that joke timing. We have the measured stuff of the first half—but then it’s broken by that dash.
Think about if we phrased it differently. Let’s not even change any of Roth’s words, let’s just jostle some of the clauses:
We talked about literature and I was in heaven—also, from the spotlight he was giving me to bask in, in a sweat.
Isn’t this much worse? Forget the “in, in.” Doesn’t something feel wrong about the timing? It seems like my change should improve the sentence, since we don’t end with the clunky subordinate clause “the spotlight he was giving me to bask in.” But when we shoehorn in it there, the repeated elements of the joke get separated, too far apart to be funny. By the time you get to “in a sweat,” you’ve forgotten about “in heaven.” Roth’s clearly done some work here (or his ability to write in his voice is so good that he doesn’t need to). Even just take out the dash and see how flat it becomes:
We talked about literature and I was in heaven and in a sweat from the spotlight he was giving me to bask in.
Or make it a period, and the sentence changes from something that shows you how to read it into something you’d see on the internet today, on a middlebrow site with lots of snark and lists. A little less subtle:
We talked about literature and I was in heaven. Also in a sweat from the spotlight he was giving me to bask in.
Of course, jokes aren’t funny if you have to explain them. But you have to learn how to tell them somehow, right? We usually don’t think of prose as having timing, but Roth’s showing that verbal comedy isn’t too different. The writer still has tools to pull off the effects that would come across in his voice.