Cave Men, Sharks, and the Doors of Perception
Photo by Craig Clevenger
Introduction: A Grammar Flashback
I finished my sixth (maybe seventh) intensive toward the end of last year. Throughout all of them, I’ve encountered a few specific and recurring errors that I’ve addressed in the round of critiques subsequent to each week’s lecture. Given the consistency with which these errors appear and, more importantly, how easy they are to spot, I thought it high time I rope them all together for a single discussion.
Everything in this essay falls under my overall approach to rewriting, which is detailed in my workshop lecture, The Weight of Each Word. For our purposes, here’s the condensed freebie:
Let’s start with some bare-bones grammar basics. A sentence has two basic parts: the subject and the predicate. The subject is a noun (or a phrase functioning as a noun), i.e., a person, place or thing doing the action of the sentence. The predicate has a verb, i.e., the aforementioned action of the subject, as well as any other information about the subject, such as a recipient of the action (a verb object).
Subject = Clarissa (the noun; in this case, a person)
Predicate = drove (the verb; the action the subject is performing)
The above example uses an intransitive verb, a verb that takes no object. In other words, the sentence doesn’t explicitly state who or what Clarissa drove.
Clarissa installed the transmission.
Subject = Clarissa
Predicate = installed the transmission
This predicate specifies the action installed; if we ask who or what Clarissa installed, the answer is the transmission. So installed is a transitive verb and transmission is the verb object.
No doubt this is well-worn territory for you, but I recap this fundamental grammar lesson in my intensives for a very specific reason: The subject and predicate carry the core meaning of your sentence. Every other word in the sentence should first contribute to that sentence being syntactically complete; if the word in question doesn’t do so, then it should otherwise significantly add to the sentence's core meaning.
Let’s break it down a little more. Even if a sentence is not grammatically or syntactically complete, its meaning can be conveyed with two or three simple words of caveman-speak:
Bart build fire
We don’t know when Bart built this fire (was it built in the past, is it going to be built or is he building it as we speak?); we don’t know whether it’s a statement, a question, a command or a warning. But we do know its core meaning, that somebody named Bart is responsible for some flames. For this to be grammatically complete, we need to conjugate the verb, add an article and properly punctuate everything:
Bart built a fire.
Bart built a fire?
Bart is building a fire.
Bart, build a fire!
Once the subject and predicate are properly seasoned with articles, conjunctions and whatnot to form a complete sentence, the rest of the words—every one of your adjectives and adverbs; your prepositions; every other verb and noun in your compound, complex and compound-complex sentences—need to be weighed according to their contribution to the core meaning of the sentence.
As elementary as that bit of middle school grammar may be, you’d be astounded how much driftwood you can trim from your writing if you consider each word through the lens of sentence meaning. Do you really need to say blazing inferno or cruel tyrant? Infernos, by definition, blaze; tyrants are regarded as cruel by default.
Once more, in summary: The subject and predicate carry the core meaning of your sentence. Every other word in the sentence should either a) contribute to it being syntactically complete or b) significantly add to the core meaning.
*A quick note regarding Strunk & White's Elements of Style:
That glorious little book does not say to use as few words as possible. What it says is that you should omit needless words. And there’s a huge difference between the two. It doesn’t advocate minimalism (a term I loathe), rather it stresses that every word be necessary. Implicit then, is that an author may sometimes need to add words to convey his or her meaning. Yup, sometimes making your prose as water-tight as possible means adding more prose.
With that in mind, the following errors fall under that category of words that don’t contribute meaning.
Your story is going to have at least one character and at least one point of view. Keep in mind that anything within your character’s scope of perception is fair game to be, well, perceived, by one of the senses. Everything within your character’s awareness will be seen or heard (or smelled, tasted or felt, for that matter; since sight and sound are the senses most frequently invoked in narrative prose, we’ll focus on those two [and for the sake of simplicity, I’ll bypass the contemporary thinking on the senses that expands beyond the traditional five, thinking that included one’s sense of balance, spatial orientation, time, etc.]). So, telling the reader your character saw or heard something is often redundant, and it’s done at the expense of more useful, colorful verbs, and at the expense of your story’s immediacy to the reader. Suppose I’m writing a story in the limited third from the viewpoint of Mary, my protagonist. While she’s talking to her friend Vanessa, I write:
Mary saw Vanessa light a cigarette.
The core meaning, in caveman lingo:
Mary see Vanessa
The missing nuts and bolts to make it an actual sentence not withstanding, those three words give us the critical information according to the sentence. But is that the meaning the writer intended? Vanessa is modified by the adjectival phrase, light a cigarette. And that’s what’s really going on here, not Mary seeing what Vanessa does, but what Vanessa is doing:
Vanessa lit a cigarette.
Are we missing any critical information by excluding mention of Mary seeing this? No, because I’m telling the story from the third-person limited with Mary as my protagonist. We know Mary can see her friend lighting up, so there’s no reason to point it out.
Like the rest, this is not a hard-and-fast rule. There are scores of contextual variables, many with good reason to use a conjugate of see or hear as the core action of the sentence. For example, if Mary were a PI spying on Vanessa, then saw in the original construction might be appropriate. A character alone in an empty house might hear a voice coming from the attic, so heard would likely be the most meaningful verb for the occasion.
Keep in mind that you want your protagonist to be an active, willful being. In the parlance of Storytelling 101, he/she has a goal or desire and takes active measures against an antagonist in order to fulfill that desire. Seeing and hearing are, for the most part, involuntary and passive whereas watching, looking, listening and their sundry synonyms are voluntary and active.
John smelled garbage rotting in the kitchen.
The smell of rotting garbage turned John’s stomach.
Jane heard a siren in the distance.
A siren wailed in the distance.
Again, contextual exceptions abound. Many of these instances are judgment calls for the writer, but what I stress to my students is that you want to make those choices consciously; you want to use words deliberately rather than habitually. Being on creative auto-pilot is great for killing the blank page and knocking out that first draft, but it’s bad for rewriting. So when you are rewriting, determine if the verbs in your predicates are indeed the meaningful action you want your subjects to be doing.
Barring discussions of theology or quantum physics, everything has a beginning and an ending. Every action your character observes or takes on him/herself must be started or begun at some point. But if you translate a sentence into caveman lingo and see that you have began or started as the key action of your subject, you may want to reconsider your verb.
Donald began to unload the flatbed.
The key action here, at least as this sentence is written, is began; it’s used transitively, with the prepositional phrase to unload the flatbed functioning as the verb object. But it’s the unloading, not the beginning, that’s the meaningful action here, isn’t it?
Donald unloaded the flatbed.
Shorter, quicker to the point and more meaningful. Of course, Donald doesn’t unload the flatbed in a blink, and a sentence such as the one above could be misleading to that end. In which case, consider something like:
Donald unloaded the flatbed while I phoned the dispatcher.
However, the beginning or starting of something is significant or meaningful if the action in question is interrupted by another action:
We began to weld another chassis when the lunch whistle blew.
He started to blather his latest excuse but I ignored him and skimmed the sports page.
Infinitives are easy red flags to spot in this case. Scan through your prose for infinitives (as in the examples above, to unload and to weld). Infinitives aren’t in themselves a problem, but when they’re side by side with another verb, ask yourself which verb is really doing the heavy lifting and rewrite accordingly.
A common variation of this misfire is something akin to:
He looked at me and smiled.
Sometimes the writer uses turned to me or a similar verbal equivalent of foam packing peanuts. In any case, parsing the line to ferret out the meaningful bits and rewrite accordingly yields:
He smiled at me.
Same meaning; quicker to the point. In all of the worked I’ve critiqued and/or edited, I’ve seen the looked at, turned to, began to and started to more frequently than most anything else, and they rarely carry their own weight.
Do any of these look familiar?
And then it happened...
Suddenly, out of nowhere...
When all of a sudden...
Before we knew it...
There are numerous other variants of the above. I call phrases like this shark music (or sometimes refer to them as drum rolls) and it should be pretty clear why. And then it happened... precedes whatever’s happening which, if cleared of driftwood, speaks nicely enough for itself.
Or another favorite, When without warning... This one contradicts itself, as it serves to warn the reader. Same goes for Suddenly, out of nowhere... and When all of a sudden... They both add verbiage which delays information meaningful to the subsequent event. In other words, saying something is sudden makes it less so.
I was crossing the street, minding my own business, when all of a sudden this car screams around the corner and damn near kills me.
I was crossing the street, minding my own business when this car screams around the corner and damn near kills me.
First, a loud, metallic grinding came from below us. And then it happened... the elevator started to drop.
First, a loud, metallic grinding came from below us. Then the elevator dropped.
No doubt, John Williams knew what he was doing with his shark music. But there are those the filmmakers who feel they have to steer your emotions at every turn with overbearing music. They’re like your friend sitting next to you whispering, “Okay, this is where Leatherface is about to jump out of the bushes.” Words (and friends) like that are as useful as a glass hammer.
Subject and predicates contain the core meaning of your sentence; the articles, conjunctions, prepositions, etc., suture these basic meanings into cohesive thoughts. Every other word in the sentence should then be judged according to the significance of its contribution to the meaning of that sentence.
Your characters can always see and hear whatever is around them. If the act of seeing or hearing isn’t itself the meaningful action in the sentence, then write that sentence with a different verb that is.
Every action is begun or started at some point, but the meaningful verb is rarely the beginning or starting in and of itself, it's the verb that follows which carries the meaning.
Common phrases which serve to introduce sudden and dramatic action actually do more harm than good. They delay the action, making it less sudden, and serve to warn the reader rather then letting the action speak for itself.
I’ve mentioned how easy these are to spot. I should add that they’re almost as easy to work around and the payoff in terms of your prose quality can be substantial. With a highlighter, take a good look at your manuscript and mark any instances of seeing, hearing, smelling, starting, beginning, turning, looking at, as well as any shark music. Some of them will indeed serve their purpose, but decide this on a word-by-word basis. What you can’t outright nix, you’ll likely have a solution jump to mind immediately. And the before/after in your prose will be drastic in all the right ways.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your Underwoods.