Sunday, February 24, 2008

Another question-- answer-- Bo

I've used overuse of a certain construction with some of my critting partners. It's one of those things that isn't necessarily wrong, although it isn't particularly right either. When people use it every time they want to signify an emotion, say every paragraph or so, it really stands out.

The construction I mean is this one: "Anger rose, constricting his throat." "Frustration dictated…" "Hurt made him speechless."

I notice this most when used to "tell" emotion, as you can see from the above examples, but it could be used for other moments. I think. Or not? "Bricks made him halt." "Door closed." "Water rising prevented him from crossing the river." That last one sounds okay, I think, although rising water sounds better. So it doesn't seem to be inherently evil.

What do you think about this construction? Is it as hateful to you as it is to me, you don't care either way, do you love it? Tell me!


Hmmm… I think this can be useful occasionally to provide a new rhythm, and maybe a way to start the sentence without "he" or his name.

However, it's a construction I'd use sparingly, and probably only for the physical effects of emotion. There's nothing wrong with "He was speechless with hurt," after all, "he" presumably being more important overall than the emotion he feels.

So… so why do you dislike this? I suspect it's because it seems contrived, first off, kind of self-consciously precious.

But I also think that this construction places the emphasis on the emotion rather than the character, as if all we are is emotion-carriers. I sometimes see something similar: His hand reached out and touched hers, which skittered away… you know, like they're both these passive entities whose hands operate of their own accord. In fact, we're the ones who reach out and touch, and we happen to use our hands for that, but we could also stretch out our foot and touch hers, right? So WE are doing the touching.

And WE are doing the feeling of anger. Yes, occasionally anger rises unbidden in us… and I guess I'd reserve that construction for when there really isn't much choice, when there's physical evidence of the emotion and otherwise the character wouldn't know she's angry or hurt or whatever.

The subject position in a sentence is meant for the "actor," the person or thing that is going to commit the action in the verb. You r crit partner can indeed say, "Well, 'hurt' is 'welling' in him, so the subject is the actor of the action…." But too frequent use of that construction, of putting the emotion as subject and the character as indirect object ("in him") diminishes the centrality of the character's actions and reactions. If readers find him "passive," this might actually be the fault not so much of the events as the sentences!

Anyway, Bo, what else do you find objectionable? I like your modification of other sentences to show the oddity, really, of the construction. We do see that sometimes—"The window rattled from the wind," say. And, as I said, I can see doing this occasionally, just to vary the rhythm. But what is wrong with "The wind rattled the window?" ;)



Maria Zannini said...

This construction always bugged me too and I never knew why until you said this: "I suspect it's because it seems contrived, first off, kind of self-consciously precious."

That is it on the head.

It's so pretentious. I don't mind the occasional use, but when it's used as the writer's "style", it makes me want to stop reading.

There's an artificiality that jerks me right out of the scene.

Thanks for answering this question.

Edittorrent said...

Yeah, I think that when we can identify something as the author's "style," he/she might be using it too much!