Sunday, July 25, 2010

Questions on the Case of Pronouns

My simple trick for handling pronoun cases in compounds led to a couple of questions. I am nowhere near my shelf full of reference books, so this is off the top of my head. Anyone with other opinions or approaches is welcome to speak up in the comments.

Jami asks,

I'll tell you the one that always trips me up. "It is he/she/I/they." I'm not sure what that form is called. I used to know it, but then it promptly fell out of my head.

An easy explanation for that type of construction? Why should it be 'Woe is I' and not 'Woe is me'?

It's not, "Woe is I." The correct usage would be, "Woe is me."

Here's why. Nominative pronouns (I/he/she/they) are the ones that are used as subjects.
I am
he is
she is
it is
they are

Objective pronouns (me/him/her/them) are the ones that are used as objects. (Get it? Objective = objects.) For example, objects of prepositions:
for me
for him
for her
for them

But also as direct objects.
He loves me.
He loves her.
He loves him.
He loves them.

So far, so good? We do most of this intuitively without ever pondering pronoun cases.

"Woe is me" and similar constructions can generate a little confusion because of an old-fashioned sentence structure, little used today, in which the sentence order is reversed. Instead of SVO, it would be OVS:
I am woe
Woe am I.

Other predicate material continues to follow the reversed OVS:
Grieved am I to learn of your misfortunes.
Happy are they who dwell in the house of the Lord.

How do you know if it's SVO or OVS? Check the verb.

I am woe/ Woe am I.
Woe is me.

When woe is the subject, it takes the third person singular conjugation of the verb of being.

Thomas raises a similar question:

She was born about the same time as me...

Or should that be ...the same time as I?

You thought we were getting all academicky and jargonish with our objective and nominative pronouns? Heh. Here we go now. That right there is what we might call an elliptical adverbial complex sentence.

The adverb "as" is a big troublemaker. For some years now, there's been a rumor going around writerland that we should all cut the word "as" from our sentences. I'm convinced that rumor was started by some poor copy editor who was tired of pulling her hair out over this frequently botched adverb and declared a moratorium on its use. She has my sincere sympathy.

You've used it correctly here to describe a time of an occurrence. So we're good so far. To understand this, let's start by restoring the ellipsis.

She was born about the same time as I (was born).

Now that we have the verb in place, we can see that we need the nominative pronoun. We wouldn't say,

She was born about the same time as me (was born).

The confusion on this probably stems from like/as confusion -- the very same confusion that led some frustrated, bald copy editor to issue her injunction.

Like is a preposition which takes an object, meaning that the pronoun would be in the objective case.

Like me, she was born at City Hospital.


Like I, she was born at City Hospital.

You know I have a cheater's trick for this, too, right? If you don't know whether to use like or as, try substituting when and see what happens.

She was born about the same time when I was born.

Makes a heck of a lot more sense than,

When I, she was born at City Hospital.

It's not a perfect trick, but it will work most of the time.


Friday, July 23, 2010

In defense of modifiers

I just had another student who said, "But I thought we weren't supposed to use adjectives and adverbs!"

Ahem. So I thought maybe I'd perambulate (or percolate?) about modifiers a bit. I'm re-reading a great Georgette Heyer novel (The Reluctant Widow), and marvelling at her adroit use of modifiers to create irony, so of course I'm not going to say that modifiers are bad.

Besides, as you know, I don't think things end up in our language for no reason, rather that every part of speech can add to our sentence meaning and we should never ever ever give up any potential meaning tool. But of course, adjectives and adverbs must be used wisely, and they are more likely than nouns or verbs to be used unwisely.

A couple thoughts about "unwise"--
1) Strong verbs and nouns don't usually need modification or intensification-- you know, you generally don't want "She stared steadily" or "The sky-blue turquoise."
2) "Purple" prose usually is a result of too much intensification: "He immediately felt a passionate upswelling of deep patriotism, and turned adoringly to the bonnie bright flag of his beloved country." What words are essential for conveying your meaning? And be ruthless-- surely they're not ALL essential. We tend to over-modify when we're describing, especially a setting, so pull back and see if you can find other ways to describe, like maybe don't rely so much on -words-. The character's emotional and physical reactions (fear, reverence) can tell a lot, along with positioning (she had to look UP to see the label on the file drawer).

But adverbs and adjectives are useful in many situations. Make them interesting. Couple interesting "emotion" adverbs with action. Heyer has a character "poke rather vindictively at the fire." (The "vindictive" is funny, the "rather" is totally in character, for he's a repressed fellow.) This man also "smiles grimly" and inquires of his brother's health "in his brusque way". In fact, a lot of how I know this man is from the modifiers. Why? Because he is repressed, as I said, and behaves with decorum, and the only way the Real Him leaks out is along the edges. He smiles because that's why you're supposed to do when you're introduced to someone. But he shows his displeasure by smiling grimly.

That is, don't just strew modifiers in there. Use them to tell the reader more about the character. I had a villain once who was coming across as bumbling, which is NOT the way I wanted him to come across. I was on deadline, though, and couldn't afford a full re-write. So I just went through and changed out the modifiers associated with him, and added a few more nefarious ones. So he no longer moved "timidly," he moved "guardedly"- a small change, but an important one. It worked. He now seemed more dangerous, because he was "guarded".

Adverbs and adjectives are part of a process of "modifying" the prose to make it more individual. (He doesn't just smile, he smiles sunnily.) Now of course, you can overdo that, but one suggestion is to use other parts of speech to modify the action or character. For example, look at the verbs and see if they can incorporate a bit of modification, maybe even metaphor. He narrowed his eyes is another way of saying he regarded her narrowly. The point is to make the experience precise and fitted to the character and the action at this moment.

That, of course, and I'm going to say "begs the question," even though we've established in a previous post that I'm misusing the term. It's still a good idea-- that sometimes something is presented that almost requires you to ask a followup question. So how can we say that?? Anyway, the question is, when is it precise and when is it purple? I am in favor of drafting it YOUR way, whether spare or elaborate, and adding or subtracting as needed.

Irony can result from juxtaposing a verb that goes one way with an adverb that goes another. He smiled hatefully. She laughed joylessly. I also like (don't overdo :) imbedding emotion in modifiers, like, "She held out a tentative hand." Modifiers should modify, change the meaning of the unmodified word-- change it to mean what you want to mean.

Now I'm not advising you all to use a lot of modifiers. They show up a lot more in omniscient viewpoint because generally, that level of nuance of observation requires some distance. So if you're in deep POV, think through the urge to modify verbs and nouns and do only what your POV character would do.

But I'm also wanting to affirm the importance of individual voice here. All those edicts about not using adverbs and adjectives? Well, you know, I tend to discount the notion that people can interfere with a writer's voice, that critique groups and editors and teachers can mess with a good strong voice. But then I hear these edicts, and I think, gee, what if I had an editor who told me to cut every adverb? What if my critique group was death on adjectives? Yeah, I think that could mess with your voice.

After all, "voice" isn't about conformity. Yes, of course, conform to the grammatical rules (most of the time :), but a lot of writers are making new rules for each other, rules that aren't rules, that end up limiting narrative and prose options. But we're not supposed to all sound alike! And the stripped-down, unadorned prose that results when modifiers are banned, well, that's not what some of us want to create. So... if you ever tell other writers not to use modifiers, stop. Sure, point out if the prose is verging on purple, if there's a better way to convey the meaning, if the sentence is overcomplicated. But don't impose rules that narrow the allowable WORDS wholesale like that.

I don't want our fictional discourse to be reduced to one type of voice-- clean, contemporary, undecorated. That's a fine type of voice. It is not, however, the best or only voice. We all grew up reading voices that were more elaborate, that reveled in using five words when sometimes one would do, that gloried in intensifying and even exaggerating. The voices were created by writers named Wharton and Faulkner and Heyer and Dunnett and Fitzgerald and Milne, and they're all still read and enjoyed, and worthy of influencing writers for many decades to come.

So never say never. We should all keep that in mind. I know I'm an offender in this regard, because I will occasionally unleash an edict. But at base, there are no rules beyond "make it good." And if we can make it good-- if our voices are strong and individual and convey the story, then our critiquers and teachers should mostly be helping us make it more consistent and more meaningful-- not a different type of voice, just the best this voice can be.

That's not to say, goodness knows, that anything goes, that the fact you typed it with your very own fingers means it's good or even your voice. A writer's voice is no more "natural" than a singer's voice, and is invented and refined more than found. But that's our task, to create a voice. And I hate to reduce our options for producing something new by deeming certain words or parts of speech out of order.

Now I want to ask... I'd always heard about "bland voices" and "generic voices," and being, you know, kind of a bleeding heart liberal type, I would think, "No way! Everyone has a voice! No one is generic!" Then I judged a contest with many entries, and some actually had... no voice. (That is better than a BAD voice, of course, I think.) They didn't take advantage of any technique for infusing more drama and emotion into their sentences. They didn't try to find just the right word or just the right combination of words. The approximate was fine. The voices were mostly characterized by vagueness. I would sort of get the point... but not get the experience. Often the mechanics were adequate (sometimes not), but there seemed to be no attempt to invigorate the very basic prose or select an approach to the scene that would make more than a sequence of events.

It was an interesting experience, and made me think that voice isn't just how we sound, but the choice we make to individualize our understanding and presentation of the story, so that we're the only one who can write it this way. But I think we have to strive to achieve that sometimes, especially if we don't have a naturally intriguing voice.

(And my voice requires adverbs and adjectives, so there.)

Irony! An example thereof!

I came across an example of "dramatic irony," where the reader knows something the character does not. This is from Pompeii by Robert Harris.

"The safest investment is property in Pompeii!"

The reader, of course, knows that all property in Pompeii will shortly be covered in lava.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Withholding for suspense

I'm embarking on a Shirley Jackson read. I like her use of setting-- the sort of unspecified time ("before now") and place ("small town"). She's very specific about detail-- it's a time when they had grocery stores, but the grocer and his wife gathered up the items for you, and it's a place where the winters are hard and the springs cool and fruitful, and where mushrooms (the healthful and the poisonous) grow wild. (Actually, sound like northern Indiana or southern Michigan!). And I'm always up for a good yarn about the insularity and suspicion of a village. (She lived in Bennington, VT, and supposedly The Lottery's village with its geographical features is recognizable as Bennington.)

I'm reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and marvelling at the slow revelation of the central mystery (as in "The Lottery"). It's instructive for writers, I think, to analyze how she does this. I'm well into the book, and still not sure what terrible thing befell the Blackwood family, but I'm not irritated at the crypticness. I'm not inwardly demanding, "Just tell me already!" as I am wont to do with slow reveals. ("She knows what happened! Why hold it back from the reader??") So I'm wondering why this works, why I'm pleasurably gathering clues, why I (who usually early on reads the last page just to make sure that the right person gets punished) am assiduously avoiding spoilers as I gather info about Jackson. What's she doing right here in her withholding?

1. Well, first, she's withholding for a purpose other than withholding. Too many writers, I think, assiduously obey the edict, "Don't reveal backstory!" as if the edict itself is reason enough to withhold. But "tools, not rules!" The withholding of backstory is a tool to the purpose of creating suspense and reader interest, not an end in itself. I have entire confidence that the author here is withholding information because -- when the whole story is read-- it will be clear WHY the backstory is withheld, and it won't be "because I read in a book somewhere that I shouldn't tell backstory." That sort of confidence in the author's choices comes from trust, and the trust comes from recognizing that she knows what she's doing. Establishing that trust-- well, a post for a different day, perhaps.

2. The point of view allows for a lot of withholding. It's first-person, and the narrator is a young woman who is full of anger, resentment, and grudges. She is not an open person, and deception and secrecy are part of her way of interacting. In fact, she does a lot of deliberate if subtle taunting of the villagers, and her alienation makes it plausible that she would be oblivious to what might be consuming the reader-- curiosity. And she is shown irritably fending off the curious if guarded questions of the villagers (who are kind of reader-standins), so fending off the reader's curiosity is another "in-POV" aspect of her narrative.
And first-person, however candid it seems, allows for considerably more secret-keeping and downright lying than third-person, because the "I" narrator presumably has a reason for telling the story, and presumably has a reason for NOT telling it all perfectly straight. "Tell the truth, but tell it slant," as Dickinson put it, and in first-person, the narrator determines just how "slant" you can get before it stops being "the truth".

3. The story starts firmly in the "ordinary world" of the narrator, and it's set up as very ordinary-- a girl living in a small family, in a pretty house surrounded by a pretty garden, going grocery shopping twice a week and withdrawing books from the local library. That ordinariness is lulling, but could verge into boring... so the reader is a bit pleased when a few anomalies early crop up (the library books are five months overdue, the narrator's sister cooks but won't go into the village to shop for food). The ordinary world is established, but so is the mystery.

4. The narrator seems to be perfectly frank (and in a way, she is)-- starting off with an announcement of her name and the admission that she wishes she were a werewolf and is quite acquainted with the Latin name of a poisonous mushroom. "I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amonites phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead." (Now she REALLY knows how to end the first paragraph, doesn't she?) She has no problem sharing all sorts of negative things, like she wishes she could "walk on the dead bodies" of the children who make fun of her, and that she has gotten angry and smashed her mother's favorite milk jug. She reveals a lot about herself, so her withholding one big thing (the secret) actually centralizes it, makes it seem more important and dramatic.

5. Jackson makes it clear that this is an IMPORTANT secret, and it really is. That is, I never had that impatient sense that this was going to end up some stunt or trick, that the big secret was that Constance had not gotten into the college of her choice and that's why she was hiding in the house. Again, the author needs to inspire trust in the reader that she wouldn't go to such lengths to hide something trivial, that the mystery is worth the anticipation. That's a tough thing to pull off, yes, but it helps that the author knew all along that in truth what she was withholding was indeed worth the wait (and also the sort of thing that is withheld in real life).

Let me explain what I mean by "trivial withholds". I was once reading an opening where the heroine was going to meet a man for dinner. She was in a sorority, and as she got dressed and got ready, her sorority sisters kept dropping by to say, "I hear you're going to dinner with Tom! Give him my regards!" and "Say hi to Tom for me!" So her friends knew who Tom was-- no big secret to them. But the author (and narrator) assiduously avoided giving any identifying detail about Tom that would let the reader know who he was. But clearly it was being set up that we were to think that he was a date, a boyfriend, an ex maybe.

In fact, "Tom" was her brother. He knew that, she knew that, the sorority knew that. They all knew he wasn't a romantic partner, and so, in real life, none of them would have given that impression. They wouldn't deliberately avoid using the word "brother," for example, because they wouldn't be trying to give the impression that he was anything else. (Because there's nothing wrong with being her brother, obviously-- if he were her biology professor, her MARRIED biology professor, maybe there'd be a reason for everyone to be cagey. But he's just her brother.) I was annoyed then when -- finally, a chapter later-- it's revealed that, shazaam, Tom was her brother. I don't mind misdirection (I like it), but I do mind useless misdirection, where the only purpose is apparently to misdirect me. Misdirection for the sake of misdirection does not inspire that sort of authorial trust that makes me settle back and enjoy the slow buildup to revelation.

6. There are all sorts of clues. Instead of constant misdirection and blocking and blind alleys, every here and there is a nugget of information, like the rubies scattered here and there in a video game. Mushrooms are mentioned three times in the first chapter. Hmm. Mushrooms, important. Merricat is always nervous about leaving the house, and she's right, as some of the villagers treat her cruelly (especially the children). But some treat her with elaborate casualness, and some treat her with a bit of obsequiousness (the Blackwoods appear to be the richest family in town). The children have a nursery rhyme they chant as she passes, "Oh, Merricat, Merricat, will you take tea? Oh, Constance, please don't poison me!" (Makes me think that this story is based at least in part on that famous true New England murder, you remember: "Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her father forty whacks.") Uncle Julian is writing his memoir, and keeps asking questions-- "Did your father have a cigar out in the garden that morning?"
We never go very long without a ruby-- no time to get frustrated.

7. There are also hints that there's a deeper mystery. There's a real narrative deepening going on. A clue is revealed (the family has closed off a gate once used by the village) that might suggest another bit of info about the secret (which is something to do with poisoning! Hey, I'm not so dumb!). But then comes the deepening-- the gate was closed off not last year (the apparent time of the poisoning), but years ago, when her mother decided she didn't like people nearby. That is, we grab that ruby, and we might be disappointed to find it isn't a ruby at all (a clue to the poisoning secret), but then we realize it's not a lump of rock or something useless (as a meaningless misdirection might be), but an emerald! (I mean, a clue to some OTHER secret.) This deepens the mystery, because just as we start thinking we know what's going on (Poisoning. The parents.), we are faced with some other questions, like "were the parents crazy?"

8. I hesitate to bring this up, because it's probably not something you can control as a writer, but you might be aware of it. Everyone's probably read "The Lottery," another Jackson story about a small town, and in that, the woman is a victim of the close-minded conformity of the villagers. So of course that's in our heads as we read this other Jackson story about a young woman in a small town full of suspicious people. And that's a clue too, isn't it? Jackson often uses the small town setting to explore conformity, suspicion, narrow-mindedness.
However, what's fun here, is in Castle, I am feeling all kinds of sympathy for the woman who is ostracized and shunned by those mean villagers, just like in "The Lottery." However, something is telling me there's more here... that maybe the villagers, nasty as they are, are right this time. That's another way the mystery is deepened, through the "meta" overlay of reality (Lizzie Borden) and the author's other work.

9. There's action here-- concrete, vivid action. I don't mean guns going off and bodies discovered in the tulip bed, but just things happening. Merricat goes into town, and stops at the coffee shop, and someone sits next to her and says significant things. She leaves and walks past a group of children who sing the nasty nursery rhyme. She gets home and a couple ladies are there to visit. She is angry, and breaks the milk jug.
This is action as John Barnes defines it
: Any irreversible event that changes the course of events of the story. The "change" is really important here. Jackson continually sets up that "ordinary world" and then shows how this event is a change from that. It's a fascinating technique, actually-- Mrs. Clark comes and visits them every week, so no big deal that she is visiting this week. But she brings Mrs. Wright with her! That's a change! (And it sets in motion more revelation.) Notice though that Jackson goes to pain to set up the "usual" (Mrs. Clark) so that the "unusual" takes on greater importance.

10. And there's emotion, but as the revelation reveals, the emotional mystery gets more complex. We learn it wasn't just their parents who were poisoned, but their little brother, and Uncle Julian's wife. And we learn that the father was a cruel and miserly, and that Uncle Julian feared him. And in the "now," we learn that Uncle Julian is writing a book about the poisoning, and is not in fact in denial at all. But his emotion complicates-- he is aware of the great crime, but still loving to his nieces. We are drawn deeper into the mystery of this large, loving, murderous family.

11. In that way, the withholding draws us into the story of this family-- it is the bait. But the prize isn't that revelation of what the secret is, rather the ever-deepening mystery of the family love and desperation. That is, there's a reward for letting the suspense build, for not reading that last page, for not seeking for an answer but rather letting it gather-- the reward is the scarier story within the suspense story. How threatening is love, how dangerous is the family.

Whatever, however you withhold, think of the why. And remember-- what you conceal, you reveal. This is too delicate a tool to use to no purpose. Use it to tantalize and taunt, but also conceal something even more important.


Help with terms?

Can you all help? I'm looking for examples of:
a distinction without a difference

begging the question



The Case of Pronouns

Some of you may remember memorizing the cases of pronouns in your grammar classes. Boring. And confusing. And for most of us, something we only need to think about when we're dealing with compounds.

But even then, we don't have to worry about cases.

There's a quick editing trick that will help you figure out which pronoun form to use in a compound. Let's say you're editing this sentence,

When she and Carrie danced on the table in the bar, everyone watched.

Should it be she and Carrie or her and Carrie? Start by isolating the relevant part of the sentence. The relevant phrase is:

she and Carrie danced

The compound is what causes the confusion. If you split the compound into two pieces, you get,
she danced
Carrie danced

That's correct. We wouldn't say her danced.

This also works with other kinds of compounds, not just subjects. So if you had something like,
I wanted to go to the moon with Neil and he.

You could split the compound object of the preposition,
with Neil
with he
and you can see the error. Should be with Neil and him.

Nominative case? Objective case? Who cares? Just break them apart, and the form of the pronoun should be obvious.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Interlocking dialogue

Something I'm working with now is making dialogue sound authentic but also rhythmic in the way GOOD conversation sounds in real life. (I don't mean the slack, empty sort of conversation that's trendy now in commercials: "Remember that... thing we were sort of, you know, working on? Well...." "Hey, awesome, that thing!" Arggh. It's like listening to my cat suck on his paws.)

Anyway, I was writing about a conversation... the man last month suddenly got cold feet and broke off his engagement. He's been thinking and growing, and he's now decided he's ready to commit. The ex, as you might expect, isn't quite as ready. So anyway, difficult conversation, but I want to show that they are right for each other, by using the subliminal technique of making their conversation interlocking, cohesive, rhythmic. Like good sex. :)

So I experiment until it sounds right!

Here are my experiments:

John: What's changed is the value of your love.
Mary: That hasn't changed. It's got the same value as it always did.
John: Well, then, now I realize it. I'm not regarding it as a trap now.
Mary: A trap? My love is a trap?
John: I don't mean it's a trap. I mean I don't think of it that way anymore.
Mary: But you did last month?
John: Last month. Yeah.
Mary: Just last month.

(alternatives for next part)
1. John: Maybe I've learned my lesson.
Mary: No, maybe I've learned my lesson.

2. John: Maybe now I've learned my lesson.
Mary: Well, maybe now I've learned my lesson.

3. John: So maybe I've learned my lesson.
Mary: So maybe I've learned my lesson.

4. John: So maybe I've learned my lesson.
Mary: So maybe I've learned mine.

Anyway, what emendations would you suggest to make this "sound" like interlocking conversation, where the speakers pick up each other's keywords and rhythms? Which of the samples at the end there sounds best to you and why? Does anyone else dwell on this sort of thing as I do?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Finishing What We Started

A couple of weeks ago, we posted a sentence in need of revision and discussed ways to revise the subordinate clause. To refresh, the sentence was:

Although her features remained subdued in the way of most mourners, a small note of eagerness had entered her tone.

We focused our attention on the subordinate clause at the start of the sentence and talked about ways to eliminate the "telling." At the close of that post, I said that there were two things I wanted to change in the main clause, too. Several of you left comments that are worth a look on the front page.

Adrian said,

I'll agree that "remained subdued in the way of most mourners" is telling rather than showing. But so is "a note of eagerness had entered her tone."

_Eagerness_ is an interpretation of how she spoke without giving us the physical detail that leads to that conclusion. By your reasoning, we should get the specific action that leads to that conclusion. Was it the way her pitch rose? Or did she say the words rapidly.

Yes, that was the first thing I was tempted to change in the main clause. It verges on telling a conclusion that the pov character reaches, rather than giving us the information that allows us to reach the same conclusion on our own.

Verges. Doesn't quite land squarely in the realm of telling. The reason for this has to do with the way we describe different physical senses or sensory impressions. Physical action, which we see with our eyes, is generally best narrated rather than summed in "telling." But sounds and smells, in particular, are trickier because they can defy this kind of direct narration. With these, it's not always possible to lead a reader to the right conclusion through presentation of sensory impressions. Sometimes a bit of interpretation is necessary, and in that case, as long as the pov stays clean and focused, it's probably going to pass scrutiny.

I did, after all, leave that main clause alone.

The second thing I wanted to change in that main clause, though, none of you mentioned directly. Why is the clause in past perfect? Do we really need it there? No, we don't. We're not breaking scene time. The simple past would work fine. (In case you're wondering why I didn't correct that, too, it's because the author and I had already been discussing her mad passion for had and how to heal it.)

Murphy said,

I wanted to take out Although too, which put more emphasis on the mourning action - and instead, shifted the emphasis on the back end by using, yet - because I think that's what the writer was going for - for the second half of this to stand out. So, to keep the words and tone of the writer intacted - I'd do a fix like this:

“So do you see why I need your help?” he asked.
“You need my help?” she asked.
Her features were respectfully stoic, yet there was a small note of eagerness in her tone.

This is the opposite of conventional wisdom. Generally, the clause with the most emphasis is the main clause. I wonder if you're circling around another idea here, not one of dominance and subordination, but something to do with the relationship between the ideas. You're setting up the first clause (features) as the ordinary idea and the second clause (eagerness) as the exception to the ordinary idea. That makes a lot of sense in terms of simple logic, the way ideas relate to each other. By framing the exception as the subordinate idea, it fits our general impressions of how things are proceeding in the scene -- in this crowd of mourners, here is something different, an eager tone. It's set and subset.

All of which is to say, we see the same thing but for a different reason.

Kathleen said,

If her features remained subdued, then they became subdued before this dialogue. Therefore, he needs to observe her features first, then ask her the question and get the response.

Not sure I agree with this. I like the juxtaposition of changed/unchanged attributes here. It lends a nice, quiet hint of tension here. It wouldn't be incorrect to do what you describe, but I like the impact we get from these two details in contrast.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Brought to You by the Letters R and U

Today on Romance University, we're talking about flying eyeballs, disconnected feet, and where to put the drumsticks.

The Problem of Wandering Body Parts

Good thing I wrote that post so long ago. Haven't had a spare minute this week for blogging, as we all can see, but I do have some notes for new posts and will resume blogging over the weekend. Yay! In the meantime, come visit me at RU and share your favorite FBP in the comments.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

Just a nice quote

Tim O’Reilly (publisher of the computer tech book series):

Money is like gasoline during a road trip. You don’t want to run out of gas on your trip, but you’re not doing a tour of gas stations. You have to pay attention to money, but it shouldn’t be about the money.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Another Paragraphing Point, Sort Of

A friend emailed me with a question related to the following three sentences, and she has graciously agreed to let me post it here. Here are the three sentences:

“So do you see why I need your help?” he asked.
“You need my help?” she asked.
Although her features remained subdued in the way of most mourners, a small note of eagerness had entered her tone.

The question was whether the third sentence should be a stand-along paragraph. (Dialogue tags were added to clarify the he/she speakers, but we can assume they would not survive editing. We're in "his" pov.)

Right away, I noticed two things about that final sentence.

First, the Progression of Ideas

The second and third sentences progress like this:
Facial expression
tone of voice

The tone is separated from the dialogue by a lot of words. These two pieces, tone and dialogue, do fit together. So it might be work to put both sentences into the same paragraph, but the intervening words were a little disruptive of the link between those pieces. Speech, facial expression, tone of voice.

This, in fact, is probably what led my friend to think of this as a paragraphing issue. Does she attach "his" impressions to "her" dialogue because of the tone of voice reference? Or should those impressions be set off on their own? She was approaching the matter as a pov question, which at first blush makes sense. We wouldn't normally attach a dialogue beat of internal monologue from the pov character to the dialogue of the non-pov character.

So my first thought was to reverse the order of that second sentence, something like:

A small note of eagerness had entered her tone although her features remained subdued in the way of most mourners.

But before I even went so far as to think through whether that sentence was any better, a bigger second problem showed me a different solution.

Second, the Abstraction

her features remained subdued in the way of most mourners

What is this? You might be tempted to call it description, but what does it describe? I bet if we ask ten people what subdued mourning features physically DO, we would get a range of answers. Is the mouth downturned or held tight? Are the eyelids held open or dropping down? What is happening on the forehead and in the jaw? Is the angle of the head affected?

We don't know, and the reason we don't know is that this isn't clear description. It's his conclusion, his interpretation of the meaning of her expression. He sees something on her face, and interprets it as subdued mourning. We don't know what he sees, though. We only get the conclusion.

So is it interior monologue? No, these are not his direct thoughts, his brain's chat reel. It's a summary statement of his conclusion but it's not presented in interior monologue.

This is "telling," in other words, a very small-scale intrusion of narrative summary -- very small, so small that I nearly missed it. And I am a dragon about this sort of break in the narrative, so that's saying something.

My Advice

So here is what I wrote to my friend:

I suspect what's throwing you off is the leading adverbial clause.

IOW, the pov in that clause is diluted because it's summarizing his conclusion rather than reporting what he witnesses. What do subdued features look like? Is she droopy and mournful or stoic and grim? How can we tell the difference when we look at someone's face? What actions or physical conditions key the emotion?

So for example --
Although her lips tightened with the mourner's effort at self-control, ...

Although her eyelids drooped with the customary mourner's sorrow, ...

Or whatever.

But the point is that you would be shifting the verb toward a physical action (tightened, drooped) and away from the abstract summation (remained).

Once you do that, I think you'll realize that the paragraphing choice here has more to do with emphasis than with logic flow. (Because you'll be tightening the logic at the small scale.) So then you can decide whether you want to link the dialogue to the actions as a supplement to the dialogue, or offset the actions for more emphasis on the actions.

My recommended fix accomplishes two things. There's no longer the impression that a character's thoughts are being attached as a beat to another character's speech. And the clause is now firmly in the realm of action, something that makes a much better beat.

Because it's set up like a beat now, she can attach it to the dialogue or not, as she chooses, to create the emphasis she wants.

Yes, I left the main clause alone. And yes, there were things I wanted to tinker with there, too. Two things. Anyone care to guess what those two things might have been?