Night of the Living Syntax: Disembodied Action

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Night of the Living Syntax: Disembodied Action

Stories are about people doing shit. Yeah, take a minute to let that soak in. Feel free to quote me, too. Allow me to elaborate: a story has somebody who wants something, goes for it and gets cock-blocked. Our hero, let’s call him “Somebody” (because I’m creative like that), then redoubles his effort with a Plan B. Each new attempt means greater and greater effort on Somebody’s part, with greater risk each time, and greater consequences with each action. The cycle repeats itself up to the climax, where at which point the consequences are the most significant.

Pardon the sarcastic recap of the craft, but the notion of character volition is one of the guiding principles in this piece. Your protagonist must have a desire; your protagonist must also behave willfully to bring about that desire. This goes for the action hero who desires to rescue the hostages from the fortified building and willfully takes the appropriate action to do so; it also goes for the daughter working up the nerve to face her estranged mother who’s on her deathbed.

Even if your protagonist is a perennial couch potato, that character’s desire to do nothing is an act of will. He or she consciously chooses to ignore the phone or take a shower; to watch television instead of scan the classifieds for a job. As lazy as he or she is, they are still choosing one set of behaviors over another; the laziness is not choosing them. If it is, you may be writing about a character with serious depression, in which case he or she has different sets of choices—likewise a battle of will—waiting ahead.

Some stories are driven by protagonists who start a chain of events by their own hand, others by protagonists who are reacting to the circumstances and events around them. In every case, your protagonist wants something and takes measures to get it. If your protagonist has no will, your reader finds another book. Critical in establishing your character’s will is putting as much conscious action within your character’s scope of behavior as possible.

Here’s this lesson’s lab rat:

Twelve flights of stairs and my lungs were heaving for air. My eyes darted about the dark hallway, then my body went still as my sight adjusted. I felt my heart pounding in my chest as my arm groped for the wall to steady myself.

“You’re late.”

I recognized the voice. My hand was at my holster when the light hit me straight on. My eyes clamped shut as my fingers curled around my pistol and I heard Martin speak again, just one word:

“Don’t.”

When my eyes opened I saw Martin standing in the wash of bright light, a pistol leveled at my chest.

Here we have a nameless protagonist/narrator. We might not know the entire story at this point, but it’s fair to say that he’s urgently on the hunt for a nemesis named Martin. And since Martin has the drop on him, it’s also a fair bet that his immediate, compelling desire is to gain the upper hand or, at very least, not get shot. No problem, so far.

Common wisdom says that good writers build sentences around nouns and verbs. I agree with that bit of common wisdom. Nouns form the subjects of sentences; verbs specify the action the noun is taking, i.e., the predicate. Sometimes another noun contributes to the verb’s object, rounding out the predicate. Solidly crafted prose is about action and the things doing those actions; good prose has a sense of movement. The rest—the conjunctions, prepositions and articles—form the connective tissue of your prose; the adverbs and adjectives are the lipstick and swanky handbag. Looking at every word’s contribution to the core meaning of each sentence, as conveyed by your subject and verb, determines which words are driftwood and which are not. With that in mind, let’s review the action* from the above scene:

heave

dart

go

adjust

feel

grope

steady

recognize

are

hit

clamp

curl

hear

speak

open

see

stand

level

*I’ve cited the present indicative form of the verbs, hence “go” and “are” for the use of “went (still)” and “(hand) was (at).”

That’s a lot of action for such a short passage. As there should be, what with the chasing and the guns and whatnot. And what’s doing the action? Some lungs, some eyes, a body, some sight, a heart... the list goes on. Which is odd, because there are only two people in the scene and one of them doesn’t move a muscle except to utter three syllables.

Making a body part the active subject of a sentence might make some sense at first, but ultimately it distances your character’s actions from his or her will. Placing conscious, willful action into a disembodied piece of anatomy ("...his eyes scanned the room..." "...her hand fumbled for his in the dark...") takes the action away from your character, which undermines your character’s ability to carry the story. After so much finger drumming and fist clenching from even the most stalwart superhero, you risk your protagonist coming off as unintentionally weak or pliant. If the short-order cook Lou is about to rip some whiny diner's head off—

Lou clenched his meaty fist around the spatula's gigantic handle until his knuckles turned white.

—I want to show Lou on edge, not Lou’s hands. Yes, fist or jaw clenching, finger drumming and toe tapping are somewhat, sort of, maybe, kind of involuntary (certainly the emotions that precede them are). But a character's conscious, physical response to an involuntary emotion is a mixture of habit, temperament, self-control, maturity, and a host of things which define that character. Thus, a character's action should reveal something about that character, and not that character's appendage. Think of Sin City. Do Marv’s fists clench? Or does Marv clench his fists?

Back to the lab rat. Ladies and gentlemen, start your scalpels:

Twelve flights of stairs and my lungs were heaving for air.

Okay, he’s out of breath, so “lungs heaving for air” is involuntary and thus appropriate.

My eyes darted about the dark hallway, then my body went still as my sight adjusted.

He has control over his eyes, in this respect, as well as this facet of his body’s activity. How about:

I glanced about the dark hallway and kept still—

His eyes adjusting to the dark is indeed out of his control, so it can stay.

—until my sight adjusted.

I felt my heart pounding in my chest as my arm groped for the wall to steady myself.

A pounding heart is certainly involuntary, a result of either the hike up the stairs or his sense of panic, or both. In the interest of both “submerging the I” and pairing the action with the appropriate subject:

My heart pounded in my chest—

This takes care of those two issues, plus it swaps out the limp and redundant verb “felt” for the more robust “pounded” (which was previously wasted as a gerund). I say redundant because if he says his heart is pounding in his chest, we know he feels it.

—and I groped for the wall to steady myself.

A compound sentence, so the “I” stays nicely submerged.

I recognized the voice.

No problem, but if you want to make certain that your “I” stays submerged, you could just as easily say something like, “The voice was familiar.” Passive, yes, but that’s a call you can make depending on how many uses of “I” you need to tackle, and whether or not a single, four-word sentence in the passive voice is going to wreck the scene as a whole.

My hand was at my holster when the light hit me straight on.

If this were a zombie story, or a story with an amputated hand crawling toward his holster, it might work. But it’s not, so our hero—not his disembodied hand—needs to reach for his weapon:

I reached for my holster when the light hit me straight on.

We’ve done a good job so far with submerging the “I,” so this one won’t hurt. After all, it’s a mighty handy pronoun to have when writing in the first person.

My eyes clamped shut as my fingers curled around my pistol and I heard Martin speak again, just one word:

Okay, “eyes clamped shut” could be written as either voluntary or involuntary. It’s a judgment call for the writer, in this case. Let’s leave it, but nix the zombie hand in the second clause:

—as I curled my fingers around my pistol—

And since we want to bury the “I” and keep the actions as close to their nouns and possible, with those nouns as the subjects:

Martin spoke again, just one word:

And as with the above line, “I felt my heart pounding”, the fact that he hears Martin speaking is a given, since they’re standing in the hallway together, so “I hear” is redundant.

When my eyes opened I saw Martin standing in the wash of bright light, a pistol leveled at my chest.

We let “eyes clamped shut” slide, but not this time. Nobody’s prying our hero’s eyes open but his own will:

I opened my eyes.

Let’s leave that as a complete sentence. Because you know what’s next... the useless “I” and the redundancy of saying he sees Martin when they’re the only people in the scene:

Martin stood in the wash of bright light, a pistol leveled at my chest.

Before:

Twelve flights of stairs and my lungs were heaving for air. My eyes darted about the dark hallway, then my body went still as my sight adjusted. I felt my heart pounding in my chest as my hand groped for the wall to steady myself.

“You’re late.”

I recognized the voice. My hand was at my holster when the light hit me straight on. My eyes clamped shut as my fingers curled around my pistol and I heard Martin speak again, just one word:

“Don’t.”

When my eyes opened I saw Martin standing in the wash of bright light, a pistol leveled at my chest.

After:

Twelve flights of stairs and my lungs were heaving for air. I glanced about the dark hallway and kept still until my sight adjusted. My heart pounded in my chest and I groped for the wall to steady myself.

“You’re late.”

I recognized the voice. I reached for my holster when the light hit me straight on. My eyes clamped shut as I curled my fingers around my pistol and Martin spoke again, just one word:

“Don’t.”

I opened my eyes. Martin stood in the wash of bright light, a pistol leveled at my chest.

And one more spit polish:

Twelve flights of stairs and my lungs were heaving for air. I glanced about the dark hallway and kept still until my sight adjusted. My heart pounded in my chest and I groped for the wall to steady myself.

“You’re late.”

A familiar voice.

I reached for my holster but the bright light hit me straight on. I blindly curled my fingers around my pistol then Martin spoke again, just one word:

“Don’t.”

The afterflash faded. There stood Martin stood in the wash of light, his .9mm leveled at my chest.

And conversely...

There’s one final, very significant reason for nitpicking at all of this. When it's time for your character to have a genuinely involuntary physical reaction, such as passing out or vomiting ("... his stomach emptied itself onto the rollercoaster..."), then making the limb/organ the sentence subject—instead of the character—will indeed create a true feeling of your character not being in control. Save the involuntary action for those times it’s truly involuntary. With too much finger drumming, foot tapping and eye darting, the real out-of-control actions (sneezing, fainting, vomiting, gasping) lose their intended punch. But when the writer is mindful of those phrases, then our above scene can end like this:

...the hallway went dark again and my knees buckled beneath me.

And the sense of peril is real. That's exactly what you want when your character is wounded, injured, poisoned, possessed or gravely ill. Those things are all plot turns, and you want those turns to have plenty of torque.

Summary

A good story is carried by the actions of a willful protagonist, whether that protagonist is initiating the events of the plot or reacting to circumstances beyond his or her control. A critical part of establishing your protagonist’s volition is minding your syntax so as to have all of your character’s conscious actions occur within the scope of their own will, and not their disembodied anatomy.

It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an “I.”

Post Script: There is No Such Thing as a Passive Verb

People often mistake the above point for making a character passive or using the passive voice, just as often as I hear the term “passive verb.” This is one of the most universally misunderstood concepts in writing.

In brief, we’ve got action verbs and being verbs. Action verbs express, well, action. John sat on the chair. Action verbs are either transitive or intransitive; Transitive verbs take an object (i.e., there’s the verb and there’s the thing being verbed). John threw the ball (threw is the verb; ball is the verb object). Intransitive verbs have no object: John ran. Both threw and ran are action verbs, nonetheless. When someone refers to a “passive verb,” what they usually mean is a being verb, i.e., something that expresses a static state of being: am, are, is, was, were. Sometimes they’re used as linking verbs or helping verbs.

Don’t confuse verb tenses with verb types. I will eat versus I have eaten are different statements, and neither is passive. Verb tense is vital to a reader's sense of chronological navigation. Keeping your reader on point involves copious uses of have, will have, had, was, were and the like, none of which have anything to do with being passive, but have everything to do with your reader not getting lost.

If your protagonist is late for work and lighting a cigarette while he watches an ambulance drive away with his neighbor in the back, you've got a sequence of circumstances all occurring simultaneously: The past– what made him late, what put his friend into the ambulance; the present– the act of being late, lighting a cigarette and watching the ambulance drive away; the future– he has to run for the next train or try to hail a taxi at rush hour. The way to keep the sequence clear while conveying a single narrative instance is via multiple verb tenses:

Bob lit a cigarette as he watched the ambulance drive away. He had been late for work three days in a row, so he'd be sprinting to the subway for a fourth, thanks to his neighbor who had said the wrong thing to a very pissed off repair man that morning.

Past simple, past simple, future progressive, past perfect.

Being verbs get a bad rap, since they’re often the quickest way home if you want to convey information without breaking narrative flow. Too often, I see simple and clean sentences get mutilated by a desperate attempt to rid them of being verbs, when “It was raining” would have sufficed. Used judiciously, simple phrases like “It was raining” will carry their weight as much as any other. A well-placed being verb is the dramatic pause; the silence after the distant scream (and the before chainsaw); the feather duster between riding crop lashes.

If you check Strunk & White, you will find no reference to the term “passive verb.” Seriously. Check it out for yourself. I’m not kidding when I say “there’s no such thing as a passive verb.” People confuse the above use of being verbs with the real culprit, the passive voice. And the passive voice has nothing to do with the type of verb being used, but everything to do with the who or what is doing the action. The passive voice is a matter of syntax, not vocabulary. It happens when the person or thing being verbed assumes the role of subject in a sentence, i.e., your syntax is backward.

The rain hammered down onto Bob.

The subject is rain, the verb is hammered, the object is Bob, receiving the hammering. Hammer, when used as a verb, is by no means passive, but to say, "Bob was hammered on by the rain" is to use the passive voice, no matter how “aggressive” your action verb.

His boss was shot by him.

Passive voice. The verb object assumes role of sentence subject.

He shot his boss.

Active voice.

He had shot his boss through the face—

Active voice with an action verb, but the verb did its business before the current narrative action,

—and now he had nowhere to hide the corpse.

He had shot his boss.

Still active voice, but told in the past perfect.

Ad infinitum. There are no passive verbs, only passive voices. One last thing, Strunk & White says to “avoid” the passive voice, but nowhere is it expressly forbidden. When to make the exception is up to you.


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Comments

Pablo Ortiz M. O''s picture
Pablo Ortiz M. O' from México is reading Stephen King, Dark Tower series June 21, 2013 - 9:46am

Thank you. Great article. Just one question the last review of Martin´s story, when you write "then" it sounds/fills like a pause. im having probles with this (the word then placement) and am thinking of just cutting all the then words out of my writing (maybe not all) but what do you think about this. 

Before

I reached for my holster but the bright light hit me straight on. I blindly curled my fingers around my pistol then Martin spoke again, just one word:

"Don´t"

The afterflash faded. There stood Martin stood in the wash of light, his .9mm leveled at my chest.

What if you took the then away.

After

I reach for my holster but the bright light hit me straight on. I blindly curled my fingers around my pistol. Martin spoke again, just one word:

"Don´t"

The afterflash faded. There stood Martin in the wash of light, his .9mm leveled at my chest.

Or maybe:

I reach for my holster but the bright light hit me straight on. I blindly curled my fingers around my pistol.

"Don´t" 

The afterflash faded. There stood Martin in the wash of light, his .9mm leveled at my chest.

Nathan Scalia's picture
Nathan Scalia from Kansas is reading so many things May 7, 2013 - 5:57pm

Oh wow, this was a good article. Time to edit.

SarahElizabeth's picture
SarahElizabeth from Pennsylvania is reading All the Light We Cannot See; Monster October 16, 2012 - 6:12pm

This has got to be one of the BEST articles I've read on action. I'm thinking of a lot of action paragraphs where my character does very little; all the while his body parts have taken over and are flying around on their own. It gives you the feeling the character's body has been taken over by a mysterious force... 

Christina Re's picture
Christina Re from the United States is reading something a friend wrote June 10, 2012 - 7:12pm

billy_pilgrim- I think your idea sounds very interesting and the transitions are exactly "the exceptions" Mr. Clevenger mentions.  Also, if your character ever refers to prior events when he was the "alpha male type" maybe he could briefly use active voice.  You'd just have to be very careful to stick to passive voice for your fragile, disjointed character and active voice for your emerging hero.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel January 25, 2012 - 4:20am

Rachel I agree with you. I have so many stories that I have not finished because I absolutely hate editing. I would rather leave it in my blackhole of a computer and know what I saw in my head rather than take the time to fidget with them. I'm not disciplined enough now.

This was a very good article that makes me realize how much time it is really going to take to edit my work(s). I will need to give myself a lot longer than anticipated to fix all the problems.

Trudging on.....trudging on...

billy_pilgrim's picture
billy_pilgrim from Virginia is reading Canary Row, Call of Cthulhu January 7, 2012 - 4:24pm

This was certainly enlightening and should serve to break me of a habit I wasn't really aware I possesed.

While I certainly agree with the assertion that displacing the action of the verb to the extremities and faculties of the character gives the effect of making the character appear passive and weak willed, my question is this: is that always the wrong move? Are there not times when that is precisely what we want the reader to infer about the character, and if it is better to show that the character is weak vice simply tell it, than isn't it better still to show them using mechanisms that fall below the readers radar so that they receive the intended insight without really knowing where it came from? Could this not be an effective form of literary neuro linguistic programming?

I had a specific context in mind: I'm working with a character that, while formerly a willful man-of-action alpha type, responds to certain traumatic losses by retreating from life, switching to social auto-pilot, and resigning to slowly drink himself to death in a passive hermit existence. The inciting event for this story comes along and drags him out of his self-imposed social exile more or less against his will, forces him to get his shit together, take action, and become the man he was. 

It seems to me that both sides of the effect described above could be used to great effect, starting out with the misplaced verb subjects to illustrate the passive and apathetic nature of the character in exile while gradually introducing the character himself as the subject and using more powerful verbs to underscore the character arc.

So is disembodied action syndrome all around bad writing or is there a context for it?
 

Rachel Harris's picture
Rachel Harris from Cumberland Basin is reading mindless fluff (god, its so hard to get through, ugh) January 5, 2012 - 9:25am

ahhhh... narrative theory.  for me, only works if i have written the story first, before falling down the rabbit hole of theory; it can get messy in there.

Zelda Zeezeewriter Markowicz's picture
Zelda Zeezeewri... from Chicago is reading Holdays on ice. David Sedaris December 28, 2011 - 8:40am

Thank you for this informative article and your ability to convey the information.  I need all the help I can get.  Zee Zee

Daniel Donche's picture
Daniel Donche from Seattle is reading Transubstantiate, by Richard Thomas December 23, 2011 - 11:42am

Excellent article. Another trick I like to use, I think I lifted it off Stephen Graham Jones, is to just get rid of the I and make it an incomplete sentence. So maybe you're choosing between "I squeezed the trigger, poking a 9mm sized hole through his spleen." and "My finger squeezed the trigger, poking a 9mm sized hole through his spleen." but you don't want either one. I'll just say: "Trigger squeeze and a 9mm sized hole bores through his spleen." or something like that. I try not to overuse it though.

Bekanator's picture
Bekanator from Kamloops, British Columbia is reading Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter November 11, 2011 - 6:08pm

I have to agree with you there, Bill.  Out of all the Chuck essays, it's the 'Submerge the I' one that everybody really seems to cling to, because it's so simple, but it's also a dangerous lesson, because I also slipped into replacing "I" with "my whatever".  It's confusing, because Chuck's method of submerging the I is switching to the second person You, which is fine, but anybody else that does that comes off as a copycat.  This lesson is so important because it shows us how to solve the "I" problem, but also how to avoid being so damn passive about it.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words October 25, 2011 - 4:46pm

great essay Craig - appreciate the fact that you present this with a good dose of humour as well.

The passive voice can be a useful tool when you're looking to hide the subject of the sentence. "Bob was shot." by who?

as far as the before & after lab rats, - great examples to illustrate the point - really appreciate it - and it will give me one more thing to obsess about on the rewrite.

just curious - how do you feel about e-prime?

bollybolshevik's picture
bollybolshevik from Sheffield, United Kingdom is reading A Clockwork Orange October 24, 2011 - 10:30am

I seriously can't stress enough how helpful this relatively basic bit of advice actually is. I'm guilty of pretty much everything you denounced in this essay, often without even noticing. Though I feel that the passive voice can be very effective now and then, I definitely overuse it.

I'm returning to my old school at some point in the next few months. I shall also have to pay a little visit to my English teachers and castrate them (metaphorically speaking, of course...) for instilling the term 'passive verb' into my vocabulary.

_'s picture
_ October 22, 2011 - 7:29pm

"so my fingers will change that while my eyes will be scanning and scanning for such offenses."- haha, nice.

I wish I had read this at the same time as the "Submerge" essay. I'm afraid to see how many loose limbs I have in my first short story here. Hopefully my brain will find them all.

Americantypo's picture
Americantypo from Philadelphia is reading The Bone Clocks October 22, 2011 - 10:30am

Back at the Cult I took a writing intensive under Craig Clevenger and was fortunate enough to get a one on one phone call due to scheduling conflicts. One of the things we talked about was the idea of objects performing actions, such as "my hand clenched" etc. I feel that, particularly at the Cult, this stems from the attempt of "submerging the I". Rather than say "I did this, I did that", people would cut the "I" and replace it with a limb instead. But I feel that, ultimately, the idea of submerging the I has more to do with avoiding repetition in how we start our sentences. Also, a lot of noir, style wise, has frequent use of "I", so what the hell, why not just write "I did this, I did that"?

Liana's picture
Liana from Romania and Texas is reading Naked Lunch October 22, 2011 - 7:48am

I'm glad I know some fair amount of grammar to grasp such advice. Thanks Craig for pointing out that it is important to know your transitive verbs from your intransitive verbs, your active from your passive voice and so on. I do believe a writer has an obligation to know how language works. Maybe this site could add some links to grammar info, the basics at least. 

I take it that if a character loses volition and control (such as if the character is very drunk or in some state of semi-consciousness) it would make more sense for action to be attributed to body parts?

I think I know a story of mine that is guilty of body part action, so my fingers will change that while my eyes will be scanning and scanning for such offenses.