Thursday, January 14, 2016

coolkayaker1

coolkayaker1, can you email me? I finished that Conflict booklet and want to email you a copy. Rasley@juno.com

Alicia

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Call to Action: Some Strategies to Make It Big

The Call to Action: Some Strategies to Make It Big  
I was discussing a friend's manuscript, and I suggested she pump up the "call to action." That's usually in the first chapters, and is where the protagonist is given the incentive to act. It doesn't have to be a big high-stakes event, or some insistent demand, but I think a good "call to action" (Vogler calls it the "call to adventure," which is more intriguing!) can entice the reader to keep reading and also launch the story into the second act of rising action.
Sometimes the call is rendered a bit too subtly to provide enough motivation for the protagonist to get off her duff and get moving.  However, we don't necessarily need a Wizard of Oz style tornado call to action. It can seem minor and become more important later, or actually be minor but end up dragging the character deeper and deeper into danger. Point is, whatever the incentive is, it should be enough to motivate the character out of her routine and into doing something.

I came up with a few suggestions that might help power up the call, and give the reader a clue that conflict will be heating up.

1) Make it matter to the protagonist.  The main character is usually our surrogate in the story, so it has to matter to him/her for us to feel that it's important. I was just reading a pretty good book, a police procedural, that could have benefited from a stronger call to action.  The detective saw the central crime as just another murder of the 20 or so he investigates a year. There wasn't anything special about this murder, at least as far as he was concerned, and his "just a job" attitude made it easy not to get really invested in the conflict.

So what's different about this conflict event? Why is it a "call to action" that's more imperative than "get to work on time?" How can you show that either when the event is initiated, or as the character gets more involved?

2) Place it early. Don't make the reader wait too long. The call to action is the signal to the reader that the plot is getting underway. But it's also the event that tells the character to do something, to get started on the goal or overcoming the obstacles. In the classical dramatic schema, it's the end of the setup and the beginning of Act II. It means things are changing.
Even if you want to ease into the conflict-- it seems like just another murder at first-- think of having some little signal that this particular one is just a bit different, like the police commissioner calls right after the body is discovered in Chapter 1, oh so casually, to ask who caught the case. That way, when the victim is revealed in Chapter 3 to be the commissioner's mistress, the reader will experience a certain glee-- aha! I knew something was up!

3) Make it new. The police procedural never really overcame the "just another job" problem you see often in books where the protagonist's job is taking care of this problem. The call to action might SEEM routine-- just another murder for the homicide detective!-- but think about how you can pretty quickly make it more than just another job. Maybe the victim is the mayor's college roommate, or the evidence points to the police chief, or the modus operandi reminds an old-timer in the department of an unsolved murder, or.... What's different about this event? How is it not just routine? How can you show that early enough that the reader's attention doesn't wander off?

4) Make it demand some action. The "call to action" means the protagonist should act or react because of this, and not just the usual or routine (opening a file, stopping at the bank). What does the protagonist have to do in response to this event that's different than usual? Maybe he agrees to call the police commissioner back after the autopsy. Maybe he stays late to wait for a call from the Pacific Time parents about their daughter, and so misses the pickup at his kids' daycare center and gets into trouble with his ex-wife.  Or he has to call her at 5 pm and ask her to do the pick-up, even though it breaks his heart to hear her voice. The call to action should quickly disrupt this person's life and call for some unusual activity.

5) Use scene placement to show that however negligible this might seem, it's actually important. Anything placed at the end or beginning of a scene gains importance just from the position, from the pause that comes before or after, and from the sense that all builds up to this event or ripples from it.  So put it at the end of the first or second scene, or the end of the first chapter, and you'll give it some subtle emphasis.

6) Use another character to elicit some notion of "specialness".  The police commissioner is elaborately casual in his inquiry... too casual. The ex-wife remarks that the detective has always picked the kids up-- what's wrong?  The detective's partner passing by the desk picks up the file and mentions that this is the third "Brittany" killed this year-- weird, huh?

7) Don't be too gradual. This is my mistake every time. I think I want to make it entirely plausible, completely logical, and so I spend three scenes carefully setting up the interlocking clues that This Is Special. (I also keep telling myself to "bury" the big clues in the middle of other clues, so I have to create all those other clues, hence more scene detail, more scenes.) In the first scene, maybe the detective notices her charm bracelet. In the second, he has to call her parents to tell them that she's dead, and they weepingly tell him that she had a new boyfriend, someone important. In the third scene... you get the idea.  By the time the reader has carefully picked through the minefield of event, clue, detail, I might have lost her interest.
Stack.  Get more than one big moment into the "call to action" scene.  Start with the charm bracelet, have him call the parents, let the partner notice something-- all in one scene. Let the small event build into the larger revelation or realization that.... "this is different!"

8) Show the change soon. Again, don't be too gradual in the opening. (I think in the middle of the plot, you can probably take things more slowly and meticulously, but in the opening, you want to get underway.)  The call to action changes things not three scenes later, but right now. If you can make the change clearly a result of his taking this unprecedented action, all the better. As soon as he agrees to keep the commissioner informed, he gets caught up-- the commissioner is "casually" calling him the very next morning.

9) Show the character having to change-- that is, how does this skein of events make his actions and/or attitude different right away?  For example, he might be sort of flattered that the police commissioner is paying attention to him, but he knows that his captain won't approve, so when the commissioner calls, he lowers his voice and takes the phone into the hall so no one, not even his trusted partner, overhears.

10) Let this call to action open to a new world or a new opportunity.  Say the police commissioner is grateful to be kept informed, and invites the detective to his club where the mayor and the judges hang out. Or the trail of clues leads to Los Angeles and he has to board a flight and leave the frozen Midwest for the beach.

11) Notice what you set up in the call to action scene and use that later in the book, to deepen characterization or develop new conflict.  If you want him to get back together with his ex-wife, for example, in the end, how can you let the call to action and aftermath set that up? Like instead of just abandoning the kids at daycare (not conducive to later getting back with ex!), he uses this as an opportunity to call her, get her to do the pickup, and... this is the important thing... promise her in exchange a nice dinner out. That last in the chain of actions will set up the much later "date" that resolves the romantic conflict.

Again, you're in control here. You're the one who determines what the event is, and how it first appears. You can turn up or down the emphasis. You can move the initiating event earlier or later. You can use dramatic or understated prose. You can select detail that adds to the suspense or narrows the focus. You can show the ripples of the event on the character's life and the setting.  Challenge yourself to use the tools you've got to make this event a real call to action, for the reader as well as the character.

Alicia

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Three Acts: Three "Things' That Can Increase the Coherence of Your Conflict

 Try this exercise if you're afraid your conflict is lagging!

This uses the 3-act Structure to organize your plot events into setup, rising conflict, resolution, and that structure provides propulsion and the progression of events within the story arc. Willy-nilly eventing won't build up the dramatic power that intensifies the emotion.  In fact, effective plotting is all about cause and effect. Events matter because they cause something else to happen and something to change and the characters to feel. The accumulation of events is what propels the reader to read on, and organizing this cause/effect sequence into acts will help you build tension and cause change.

Three Acts:
Act 1 -- Set up conflict.
Act 2 -- Make conflict rise.
Act 3 -- Make conflict explode, and then resolve it.


Try breaking these acts into 3 big events of ascending emotional risk: Examples-
3 times she needed help
3 times he got stuck
3 attempts to deal with the conflict
3 attempts to reach the goal
3 heartbreaks
3 secrets
3 lies
3 failures
3 betrayals
3 times she didn't ask for help

Just try it-- ascending risk, remember!
Then consider: What are the risks he/she is afraid of?
Why is this a risk?
What might this risk cause, and what might be caused by their trying to AVOID the risk?

THREE ACTS. THREE SECRETS.
For example, let's take one that is just full of emotion-- secrets. Three secrets.
Kept or revealed? Or both? Maybe the attempt to keep a secret leads to revelation.
Let's think of ascending risk --
Act 1: This sets up the first secret. She's an FBI agent, and she's sent undercover into a small town. So the first secret is that she's secretly an FBI agent.
There's not a lot of emotional risk in this secret because it's her job. But it sets in motion all the rest of the risks.
What does this cause? It causes her to be placed in this small town to investigate the local bank, and it causes her to have to take on a disguise—she's pretending to be a bank teller.

Act 2: The next secret comes when she meets and is drawn to the son of the bank president. This is just the sort of guy she despised when she was growing up, rich and polished and educated. But she's supposed to investigate his father, and she's supposed to be a bank teller who would be flattered by his intentions, so she has to keep the secret from him about who she is... and the secret from her boss that she's falling in love with one of the "targets".
What does this cause? She's getting deeper entrenched into deception. It's going to be far, far worse now when her secret is revealed. She's also becoming alienated from her job, from her old self, from the FBI, as she's not reporting her contact with Junior. Maybe she's even started lying to her boss, withholding information that could get Junior in trouble.

Act 3: What's the final secret? It's probably her real identity, not just FBI, but her former identity. Maybe she's never told anyone that she grew up as "trailer trash," the daughter of a small-town prostitute or drug dealer. Her final secret is her shame, which has caused her all along to hide her past and her true self, to cut herself off from her old friends and her family, maybe even to make up a more generic and acceptable past.
(The big task would be—and I'm too brain-dead now to come up with an idea!—make the revelation of that secret in the start of Act 3 happen and affect the plot.)
REMEMBER TO TRY AND ASSEMBLE THIS IN "ASCENDING ORDER OF EMOTIONAL RISK." THE RISK OF THE LAST SHOULD BE THE GREATEST RISK TO THE CHARACTER'S EMOTIONAL SECURITY. SO IN THIS CASE, WE'RE SEEING THAT THE BIGGEST SECRET IS HER PAST, AND THE GREATEST DANGER IS SHAME.

Let's try another "Three Acts, Three Somethings."
Remember the film Casablanca? Rick is a symbol of the United States before Pearl Harbor, isolated, uninvolved, as the world crashes around him.
This is a tightly plotted story, and there are several "3 things", but the one I like to focus on is "Three Times Rick Refuses To Help." (Tip: To determine “ascending risk,” you want to ask after each of the 3 things: What is the risk? What does this cause?)

Act 1: Ugarte asks Rick for 2 things—to hold the letters of transit for the evening (he agrees), and later to help him escape from the police (Rick refuses this time).
What is the risk? There's some emotional risk from refusing to help—a few hours later, he drunkenly refers to it—but he can shrug it off as kind of a cost of doing business—sometimes, to run a successful saloon, you have to sacrifice a friend.
What does this cause? It's very important externally because with Ugarte dead, Rick is now stuck with these letters of transit, and as he says drily, "As long as I have them, I'll never be lonely." (I tell you, this film is SO well-written, because in fact, he is alone, and his loneliness is ended only because he has those damned letters of transit!)

Act 2: The news of his having the letters spreads, and he's approached by Victor Laszlo, a Resistance leader who will be arrested by the Gestapo if he can't get out of Casablanca. When L offers to buy the letters (which will get him and his wife to safety—do NOT ask why! Because, that's why. These are magic letters :), Rick refuses, and when asked why, says bitterly, "Ask your wife."
Much more emotional risk here! In refusing to help, he is acknowledging that the wife (Ilsa) hurt him earlier, and he's using this as a means of revenge. His hard-won isolationist wall is beginning to crumble. Also, weirdly, he's sort of letting himself hope that Laszlo will find out about the earlier affair and cast Ilsa out so that she will come to Rick again.
What does this cause? Well, one effect is, paradoxically, to reconcile Laszlo and Ilsa. She's been keeping the secret of the former affair (she'd thought L was dead), and this actually lets Laszlo understand what happened and gently indicate that he doesn't blame her. (This becomes a huge part of her conflict, actually, as she realizes she still loves both of them.)
For Rick, this causes him to get more and more involved in Ilsa's dire situation and make it that much clearer that he's still in love with her.

Act 3: Ilsa herself comes to him and asks for—no, demands—the letters of transit to save Laszlo so he can continue to fight the Nazis. She is so determined that she pulls a gun on him, and he is so determined to refuse to help her, that he invites her to shoot him. Rather than help her, he will commit suicide! Talk about emotional risk. Helping her would be worse than dying?
(She as always ends up acting with love, putting the gun down and confessing that she still loves him, and he ends up embracing her—this is one of the greatest scenes in the history of film.)
What is the risk? That he will fall in love with her again (as he does), that he will lose all his defenses, that he will be hurt again, that he will lose her. This ALL happens. (That is, sometimes the greatest emotional risk should explode.)
What does this cause? Rick’s refusal causes her to confess her love, and that leads to their tacit decision to use the letters of transit. But here's the amazing thing. Ilsa says to him, "You'll decide what's right? For all of us?" That is, she is telling him that whatever he decides to do, he has to help Laszlo to safety. (She assumes that he will give Laszlo one letter of transit, and she and Rick will escape together some other way. And you know what happens, or if you don't, go watch the film!!!!!)
The real result is Rick's return to the family of man, actually. He accepts responsibility for other people, and joins the war effort. He gives up his isolation and accepts the power of love.

Notice that a powerful place to put 'the thing' is close to the end of the act, so that its repercussions propel into the next act.

So look at your own story, and see if you can identify "Three Things", or invent them, and center each act upon this thing.
1. What is the "thing" in "Three Things" in your story? If you'd like to speculate about what this means, how it relates to a deep internal issue or theme (like Rick's refusal to help is an aspect of his fear of getting too involved again and getting hurt), have at it.

2. Where can you put some manifestation of "this thing" in each act?
For each occurrence, ask:
    a. What is the emotional risk here (and remember to assemble these three in ascending risk)?
    b. What does this thing cause to happen?

3. How can this thing near the end of the story (maybe the dark moment?) cause a great emotional change?

As I contrmplate a whole season of Manhattan DVR'ed, and then there's still Jessica Jones on Netflix?

I read that we've reached "Peak TV," where there's always a good show you don't have time to watch.
No one will ever be bored again. Remember back when sometimes you had nothing to do, and you couldn't just pull out your phone and watch a video?

I actually found myself bored a couple days ago after the kids left (everyone home for the holiday). It kind of felt refreshing. "What do you mean, I have nothing to do?"

When was the last time you let yourself be bored? Is there a use for that? What would have happened if Isaac Newton was lolling under that apple tree, bored, and then hopped up and thought, "I can go in and get my phone and listen to that audiobook!" The apple would have fallen and just hit the ground, and would we ever have learned about gravity?
(For the literalists among us, how Newton actually used the apple to understand gravity.)

Alicia

Monday, January 4, 2016

You and Thou and the Swedish "du"


 Here's an article about how the Swedes succumbed very late (1967) to the trend towards the informal "you" to refer to the person spoken to. Imagine if we still distinguished between "you" (someone familiar) and "thou" (the more formal "you").


Alicia

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sequencing action in a sentence with verbing

(I think I made the word "verbing" up.)

One task of revision is to make sure that sentences make sense. There's the semantic sense-- the reader understand easily what you mean. (Harder than it sounds, ain't it?) Then there's the sequence of action. I try to revise sentences to be coherent, that is, if there would be a pause between actions, then I try to put them in different clauses or different sentences.

This isn't a rule or anything, but there's some sense here. If you have a group of actions that take a couple minutes to perform-- getting the groceries out of the car, carrying them up the stairs and into the kitchen, unloading them and putting them away-- well, the reader isn't going to get much sense of the experience if you jam all that into one long sentence that takes two seconds to read. If you group the actions together (carrying upstairs and into kitchen could be a one-sentence group), then you'd have two or three sentences which would take a longer time to read, echoing the longer time it would take to do that sequence of actions. If this long sequence of action isn't important enough for three sentences (and the grocery sequence probably isn't), then consider skipping the earlier actions and use the latter one as a quick narrative bridge, relegated to a dependent element connected to a more meaningful main clause, like:
(The reader will assume she somehow got the groceries into the kitchen.)
Halfway through putting the groceries away, she found the wine underneath the 12-grain bread and sat down to get moodily drunk.

There's an interrupted action there, then a new action coming out of the initial action/interruption. I notice that I've got verbals (a verbal is a form of the verb which won't be a predicate, like "putting" and "to get") which refer to the things that don't happen right then-- the "putting" is interrupted, and she "sits down to get drunk"-- that is, we know she's going to get drunk, but within this 10 seconds or so, she just sits down TO GET drunk.

Is this important? Well, maybe not, but using verbals rather than actual verbs is a subtle way to indicate un-actions-- things that don't quite happen or don't fully happen. Would there be a difference if we stressed the actions that weren't completed in the original? I don't know. Let's see:

She put half the groceries away, then found the wine underneath the 12-grain bread and sat down and got moodily drunk.

In this case, the main clause action is putting half the groceries away (She put) rather than "she found" the wine as it had been in the previous version. Which is more important? For my purposes, what was more important was this almost accidental "finding" of the wine which leads to her quitting what she'd been doing (putting away the groceries) and embarking on a, shall we say, less productive plan.

What happens when the drunk part stops being a intended/prospective thing (to get drunk) and becomes a certain thing (got drunk)? My main problem with that is that getting drunk takes some time, while the earlier part of the sentence could be measured in a minute or so. So we'd have a sequence of actions that might take a minute (stopping the grocery putting away, finding the wine, (presumably opening it-- probably it's a screwtop :), sitting down), and then at the end of the sentence, an action (getting drunk) that would on its own take, well, even if she's very determined, ten minutes.

In contrast, "sat down to get drunk" -- that is, sitting down with the intention to get drunk-- would take only the amount of time it takes to sit down. (Intending, alas, takes no time at all.)

So... no rules here! But as you revise, look at a sentence or sequence of sentences where there is a group of actions. How can you give the reader the experience of this span of time and motion? What actually happens, what almost happens, what might still happen, what was meant to happen but never did? Is there some way to indicate which action falls into what category?
And what is the most important action? Should that be in the main clause?
Do you have too much for one sentence?

I am puzzling right now over a sentence where the man takes several actions in sequence. They're important in aggregate (he's coming forward to confess to a murder), but one isn't that much more important than another. 


Before she could answer, Winstead rose suddenly, pushing back his chair with a clatter, and stepped in front of his wife.   
Right away I see the problem that "she" (who couldn't answer in time) and "his wife" are the same person, so .... ugly....! And heck, why not dialogue it, huh?
"Don't answer that!" Winstead rose suddenly....
Hmm. Suddenly-- to convey that, I think I'll make it the harder-sounding word "abruptly" and put it first so that it's an interruption--
"Don't answer that!" Abruptly Winstead rose....


I have "rose" and "stepped in front" as equal in importance (both are verbs/predicates, which is fine), and pushing the chair back relegated to a participial phrase, so that's okay too, I think. The sequence wouldn't take long physically, so one sentence would be about right. I do notice that the rising and the pushing back are probably actually one motion-- or? Let me act it out. (One moment please. :) Well, you can push the chair back a bit by the act of rising, but you can't really push it very far, and I do mean this to be emphatic. 
Question for me: Look at the "and". Does the pushing back motion go better with the "rose" or better when the stepping in front?


"Don't answer!" Abruptly Winstead rose, pushing back his chair with a clatter, and stepped in front of his wife.

or


"Don't answer!" Abruptly Winstead rose, and pushing back his chair with a clatter, stepped in front of his wife.

I like the feel of the second, but I don't think it's entirely logical as the participle means that he's more or less simultaneously pushing and stepping.

I think I'll get rid of the pushing. :)

"Don't answer!" Abruptly Winstead rose and stepped in front of his wife.

Not much of a sequence of motion, but at least it's physically logical. 

You can see why it takes me so long to edit my books. I fret about this sort of stuff.

What are some motion-sequence sentences of yours? Can you make them more logical and coherent?

Alicia

Little words and meaning

Came across this in writing a letter.

"Worse than just failing was trying and failing."

That "just" makes all the difference. It emphasizes the contrast between the two options (1 and 1+1), and implies that there is something worse than "nothing."

One of our tasks in revision could be "just" this: To find places where one little word, not a big significant word like "forever" or "power", but one of those little words we use every day, will make a big difference.

After all, the reason we use "just" and "then" and "now" and "only" and "this" and "these" and "because" and "so" every single day is because they are so useful in underlining or undercutting or emphasizing our ideas. They also echo our spoken English, first because we use them in conversation, and second because they provide the emphasis in written English that tone of voice would provide when we speak.

Less is more, of course, or we'll end up with something unwieldy and poke-y (poking the reader with the constant emphasis, I mean). But this is why I read my sentences aloud, to hear when I would emphasize this phrase with a stronger tone-- and that might be where I need to insert an emphasis word.
Who is revising now? What's an example of where you've added or subtracted from a sentence or paragraph? And why?

 Alicia

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Want lots of free writing and publishing material?

Calling all writers! There are a lot of free resources here (just for a few days-- click now!), including some free courses in publishing basics. There's so much you can pick and choose. And free! If you click on my link here, supposedly I get some free $. smile emoticon And it really is free (for now). I got it for myself just now.

Alicia

Commas to set off introductory elements-- rationale for the "always"



I've been working with students on the purpose behind punctuation, so that they can feel like they don't have to learn a bunch of arbitrary rules or else spend the rest of their life kind of randomly sticking commas here and there.

The purpose of punctuation, at bottom, is to tell the reader what goes with what. So in that last sentence, I set off "at bottom" by a comma before and after because the whole term goes together, and it's meant to interrupt the sentence in order to emphasize something about the subject (the purpose of punctuation).

While there are a lot of rules (and some dispute about them!), I do think it will help writing students to keep in mind there is a purpose-- this is not arbitrary-- and the purpose is grouping words and phrases that belong together in the sentence.

One of the most common "dropped comma" opportunities is the introductory element in a sentence. More and more, I'm seeing students (and other writers) discard what I think is often essential for the reader to get what goes with what-- what the real meaning is.



Punctuation's main purpose is to signal to the reader what parts of the sentence go together.  For example, in this sentence done without the comma (which is, cough, becoming all too common in magazine and web articles):
 After he completed the fields in the application document all the software apps he needed for regeneration were automatically downloaded to his brain.
 (Yes, I know, ugly sentence, but it's a close copy of an actual sentence I came across, and is a good illustration of my point. We'd all rewrite that, I know! But just for now, let's let it be there in all its ugly so I can use that introductory element.)



That long a sentence, really, I'd be looking for a place to punctuate (a GOOD place) even if there weren't an appropriate rule. That many nouns all in a line-- the reader will get lost. And the most important of those nouns (for our purpose here) is "document" (at the end of the introductory clause), and that can also be a verb, especially when followed by "software." ("One of my jobs at Compudesign was to document the software.") Hang on to that thought about nouns that can also be verbs, as that's a common problem with these sorts of sentences.

We don't want the reader to get lost! Fortunately, I don't have to invent an excuse to punctuate and slow down that cascade of nouns. I can figure out what the elements are in the sentence:
Introductory element supplying some condition or information: After he completed the fields in the application document
Main clause explaining the important action of the sentence: all the software apps he needed for regeneration were automatically downloaded to his brain.
... and add a comma in between to separate.
 After he completed the fields in the application document, all the software apps he needed for regeneration were automatically downloaded to his brain.
...the introductory clause After he completed the fields in the application document creates a different "unit of meaning" than the main clause beginning "all the software apps". If you separate those with a comma, the reader won't run the two together --  document all the software apps. Sometimes without the comma, when we let the last word of the intro element run into the first words of the main clause, the reader will get confused. It’s especially confusing when the word at the end of the intro element can be either a noun—a thing or name—or a verb—an action. "Document" would generally be assumed to be a noun... but not when it's right by "all the software," because "documenting software" is an actual task.

In English, there are many words that started as mere nouns and then became also verbs, and vice versa. Here are just a few that I've seen at the end of intro elements:
time
report
comment
mention
demand
command
order
walk
talk
sight
survey
transport
bus
carpool
pool
harpoon
polish
...
Can you think of more? I know that you can. :) Hey, "CAN" would apply also.
And we don't even want to get into adjectives that can also be past-tense verbs (because a past participle, which is often identical to the past tense, can be used as an adjective, like "brushed" and "enlightened" and "solicited). 
When a intro element ends with a word like “time” or “report” that could be either a noun or a verb, the reader might automatically connect it as a verb to the next word—time it, report that….)  

So if we don't routinely use the comma to separate intro from main, quite often the reader will rush past the end of the intro to the start of the main and stop. Confused. What? 
At that time the swimmers...
In the report your comings and goings...
When she read through the survey the new highway....
After I started to walk down the street was the store where...
Since I already had everything in order the children....

Eventually the reader will go back and pick out what goes with what, and, well, mentally insert the comma we left out. Because I deal with so many student papers, I see many such sentences, and every time, I -- a trained reader, teacher, editor, writer-- pause, regroup, re-read. If I'm confused even when I'm carefully reading, imagine how confused the skimming reader will be.

We want readers to pause over our brilliant insights, not our confusing syntax.  And even a moment where the readers are confused and have to re-read brings the danger of losing their attention, and, indeed, their trust in our ability to control our own meaning.. 

Hence the rule: Introductory phrases and clauses should be set off from the main sentence with a comma:

This is pretty easy to fix as you revise, once you get used to recognizing these introductory clauses and phrases. They'll be at the beginning of the sentence, but the main part of the sentence, the main subject and verb clause, will be after that. It's just a matter of finding where the intro phrase or clause is, and where the main clause begins, and putting a comma to separate them. Some examples (intro phrase or clause bolded):
Intro phrases:
Therefore, Napoleon's invasion of Russia led to his doom.
In 1815, Wellington won the battle of Waterloo.
Well, I don’t know about that.
After that, she went to the university to study biology.
Already knowing everything, my teenaged son won't listen to me.
Garish with red and blue stripes, his shirt clashed with everything.

Intro clauses:
Even after Jane drank the warm milk, she couldn't fall asleep.
When she was 16, her parents bought the house in Surrey.
When I asked, he couldn't explain.
Before it starts to rain, let's finish painting the garage door.


Recently, I've been seeing many writers discard this in most of their sentences. I really don't get the rationale of not using this comma routinely.  Running together your intro and your main clause will almost always create confusion, and most of the time you won't want to create confusion.

Then-- if you usually follow this rule-- when you choose NOT to use it, to energize the flow of the sentence to create more of a sense of action say, your choice will stand out as meaningful. There's no meaning in breaking a rule you never follow anyway... so if a writer wants the additional speed and flow of NOT using that comma, following the rule most of the time will make the occasional rule-break stand out as significant.

 To restate:
Breaking a rule you don't follow anyway provides no additional value or meaning.
Rebels need something to rebel against. :)
"Always and never" make the exception possible.


I would love some better examples of sentences that confuse, so if you come across some in your reading, can you let me know? Real examples are so much more... real... than the ones I make up.
Also, if you have examples of sentences where you've broken a rule (esp. this rule) for a particular effect, can you post that too and why you did it? I need good rule-break examples also, to show the contrast between accidental and intentional. Thanks, all!

Alicia