Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Combining elements in sentences

How you combine sentences is an aspect of voice. Now I know some writers want voice to be spontaneous expression, and sometimes it is. But if a passage isn't working, if it feels jagged or incoherent, look at the way you've put together the sentences. That is, be conscious, not self-conscious.

What you put together in a sentence is what readers read as going together, and they'll subconsciously try to come up with a reason these go together, or at least mentally read them together as a single thought. So this process of putting together sentences shouldn't be arbitrary. You don't have to plan every sentence, of course-- most of us can trust our instincts most of the time-- but do be aware that you are making meaning by combining certain elements, and as you're reading over, see if that's the meaning you want. (Rhythm also is a factor here-- "jaggedness" might be the result of combining the wrong elements so the flow is interrupted. You might or might not want that. Do you? You will sometimes, but not always.)

So here's a string of sentences that can be combined various ways (coordination, subordination):

Helena sailed into the ballroom (the verb, btw, is important-- she could sail in or glide in or stroll in or stalk in or stroll in, and each tells us something different about her and her attitude at the moment).
She looked around the crowd.
She came to me.
She bestowed an air kiss on me.
I started to say something seductive and witty.
She moved on to another party-goer.
She kissed him the same way.
I felt rejected and cheated.

Now one of the marks of the amateur (another!) is inappropriate sentence combining, where elements are linked presumably because they came out of the pen in that order. This is what I sometimes see in submissions:
Helena sailed into the ballroom, and she looked around the crowd, and she came to me. She bestowed an air kiss on me, and I started to say something seductive and witty. She moved on to another party-goer, and she kissed him the same way. I felt rejected and cheated.

The problem with that is that the elements are put together without regard for what belongs together, and without the coordination or subordination that adds meaning (like cause/effect and contrast). It's all just linear: This happened and then that happened, and then that happened. ("And" is a useful connector, but it really just implies addition, and that doesn't add a lot of meaning.) So let's move beyond the linear and simply chronological. Also notice that even chronologically, not all sequential events belong together. For example:
She moved on to another party-goer, and she kissed him the same way.

The moving on happens before -- "is happening," that is, it's a progressive event, like "crossing the street." It takes more time than a single-moment event, like kissing. Not a big deal, but because of the time differential there, I don't know that I have them linked with "and" (or linked at all).

But most important, the meaning of this passage isn't the sequence of events, or rather, the sequence only matters because some of the events are cause-and-effect, and cause-and-effect requires sequencing. But the cause-and-effect conjunction isn't "and;" it's "so." And the contrast conjunction, where you want to show a conflict between two things, isn't "and" but "but." I'd look at each clause and think about which one causes another, and which is in contrast to another, and experiment with the pairs in the same sentences. (That isn't always best-- if the second clause is an important action or conclusion, you might try it in a sentence of its own.) AND... some of the independent clauses can be reduced to dependent clauses if they are in fact sequential or simultaneous, if "time" is the most important link to the next event. So maybe-- and as I said, I always experiment to see which assemblage conveys my meaning better.

As Helena sailed into the ballroom, she looked around the crowd. She came to me and bestowed (notice we lose one of those many "she" words, good) an air kiss on me. I started to say something seductive and witty, but she (just? had already? was already moving?) moved on to another party-goer. When she kissed him the same way, I felt rejected and cheated. (Or I might say, Then she kissed him the same way, and I felt rejected and cheated. Not sure.)

This shows more of what's really going on, not just the events but the meaning too. Helena is special to him, but he's not special to her, and we (and he) learn this in this paragraph.

If you fear that your passages are too choppy or too unsophisticated, if you're told by an agent or contest judge that you're not showing the emotion, see if you are overusing "and" as a conjunction between sentence elements. (Transitions aren't just conjunctions, of course, but here they happen to be.) (BTW, you might be told, if you use a lot of transitions, that you're explaining too much. That is one of the major differences you see in modern litfic-- there's often not much transition or conjoining, so the reader determines how to relate the events or ideas. I err more on the over-explaining side... how surprised are you? :) The major coordinating conjunctions are: and, or, but (or yet), so, for (because-- in the US, we're more likely to go with "because"). The major subordinating conjunctions, well, there are too many to list, but these are the words that start dependent clauses: As, although, when, beside, because, after-- many are time/space connectors, showing how this relates to that in time or space.

These lists reflect the most important relationships between events and thoughts and actions and such:
Chronology, Addition and sequence (and, moreover)
Causation (so, for/because, therefore)
Contrast and conflict (but, yet, however, although)
Alternation (or)

Transitional words do more than just smooth the flow of the passage (though they certainly do that-- supple prose usually depends on transition). They show the relationships of events and actions and thoughts, going beyond a mere collection of sequence into a textured skein of causation.

And they also help to make a paragraph a paragraph, which is something I want to explore in depth in the future.

11 comments:

green_knight said...

I'm sorry, but I don't really see a significant difference between the 'and then and then' and the revised version. To me, the conjunctions are window-dressing - and the fact that you _can_ render it as 'and then and then' points to deeper problems with the passage.

To me, it reads like scaffolding - the bit that I need to write down in order to work out what happens so I can write the passage properly. Instead of I started to say something seductive and witty. I would, for instance, _show_ him starting a phrase, and the telling phrase I felt rejected and cheated. also needs to be replaced IMHO - what, *exactly* is his reaction?

John Harper said...

The difference was subtle, but i still felt it. These guys have nailed me before on my choppiness so maybe i'm a bit more aware of it.

Just another thing to keep in the back of my mind when doing my editing. Of course I have so many things in the back of my mind that i'm forgetting them all. there are so many thigs to remember when you are editing. too hard!

rachelcapps said...

Brilliant :) I love the use of the word "sailed".

"When she kissed him the same way, I felt rejected and cheated. (Or I might say, Then she kissed him the same way, and I felt rejected and cheated. Not sure.) "

I'm inclined to say "When she kissed...", because the "when" instantaneously connects his emotion to her action. I hope that makes sense.

Edittorrent said...

GK, yes, showing is better than telling. But given this particular paragraph, transitions really matter to deepen what's being presented. In fact, transitions are PART of showing, I'd say.

I think perhaps also that in first-person POV, there simply is a lot more telling. He's interpreting his own feelings-- resentful and cheated.

But I really meant the paragraph as a paragraph, not a POV exercise. Do you have another paragraph that might work better? I'm in one of those brainfogs where I can't come up with good examples.

Rachel, yes, "when" works better for me, but I think maybe the other is a little longer, and for some reason, that felt okay too. But the "when" gives a tighter connection (time) that is also a causal link.

John, yes, I think transitions help get rid of some choppiness. Not to say the occasional short, unadorned sentence isn't good.
Alicia

green_knight said...

John, for me the 'after' is a three instead of a two when I'm looking for a seven. (Not every paragraph shines, but it needs to pull its weight.)

Alicia,

for me 'I felt rejected and cheated' has no place in a first person narrative - because people don't think that, it's an outside description, a narrator's opinion - and if there's no obvious narrator, it becomes a point where the writer's voice intrudes into the character's.

'He felt rejected' is the equivalent of 'she looked beautiful' - a phrase that does not really mean anything at all. Does rejection depress him? Anger him? Confuse him? Does he think 'the little bitch' or 'what have I done wrong'?

And I'm sorry I can't think of a better example, because anything I can think of moves too far away from what you wanted to show, how to liven up and control the rhythm of a paragraph by using the right connections.

Adrian said...

This is my new favorite Edittorrent post. Of course, I say that about once a month. ;-)

I'd leave the "I felt rejected and cheated" as a standalone sentence. In my mind, it's the entire sequence that produces that emotion, so to tie it just to the second air kiss seems to short change it. The bluntness of the statement deserves the spotlight. It shouldn't have to share it with the dependent "when" clause.

alicia said...

GK, okay, we have a different approach. I do think people interpret their own feelings. They feel them and they give them a name. In first person, you have to follow what they're thinking and have that come out. HE is the narrator, and if he thinks he feel resentful and cheated, that's what the narration should say.

Would he think that? Well, sure. How in first person do you mark emotion? I mean, you could have him say, "My mouth turned down and I stomped my foot--" but that's saying that a person has no more ability to know what he's feeling than an outside narrator (who can SEE the signs of emotion and translate them-- but the narrator is actually feeling them-- so why wouldn't he notice them?)

First person is different-- you simply do more telling. The POV character is truly the narrator.

But anyway, gee, I really would have written that more fascinatingly if I thought it was going to critiqued for content. I just wanted to show how sentences can fit together. If you'd like to write about POV, we can go with that, but this really is supposed to be about combining sentences. :) And I do think that is a matter of voice. You might not use transitions as much-- that's why your narration will "sound" different than mine, which is good, right?

So can you maybe talk more about transitions in your own prose? Otherwise we'll go into emotion and POV, and that's not really what this post is meant to be about, or I would have come up with a better example of those aspects. :)

Adrian, good point about "highlighting" the emotional conclusion there. I have seen writers put something like that in its own paragraph, but I almost feel like that would be too much emphasis? What do you think?

Alicia

Dave Shaw said...

Alicia, wouldn't the choice of separating it be a matter of the degree of emphasis required? If this is the trigger for the character to murder Helena as she's leaving the party, maybe it deserves the emphasis. If it just makes him go off and sulk with the wallflowers, then it probably doesn't. I guess I'm trying to say that it's a matter of just how big a part of the plot it is. If it's minor, it's a good candidate for tying in with a transition, if that would fit. If it's moderate, maybe a separate sentence is best. If it's major, and you want the reader to know it, then do the paragraph. Does that make sense?

Edittorrent said...

Great point, Dave== a new paragraph for his "feeling" would give it additional emphasis, which might only be justified if it led to something important.
Alicia

green_knight said...

Alicia,
we'll definitely have to agree to disagree on this one. I don't think people think 'I am [emotion] very often, at least not in the moment - they might want to analyse it afterwards, but then you lose the immediacy of the narrative.

For some narratives that might be fine, but I find that most of them can be improved by more immediacy. (Well, lack of the same is one of my big problems, so I'm actively paying attention to it.)

I don't think 'I feel rejected and cheated' works as internal monologue, and at this point, I *want* the characters thoughts, in his own words. Whether the words are 'how can she do this to me' or 'the little BITCH'.

I am very much of a school of reader (and by extention writer) that does not demand the presence of an explicit narrator. I'm happy to ride along with the feelings of either first or tight third PoV as things happen. I want the immediacy, the internal monologue, at some point - 'I felt rejected and cheated. I should have walked away from her at that point' would work for me, because then it's clear that he's relating things from a distance and had time to analyze what he felt like that day.

this really is supposed to be about combining sentences.

I know, and I'm sorry to distract from that, but I think it's an important point: you need to get the substance right before you can use transitions to their full advantage.

I wouldn't say it's a guideline, probably more than a gut feeling, but if I find myself grappling with transitions, I tend to go back to review what I've written. At least in my own writing, needing several transitions in a row means that I haven't rounded a passage off enough.

(I'm not trying to distract from the importance of this skill. I think it's useful for writers to make themselves aware of the whole spectrum of available transitions, lest they always reach for the same. As Word Perfect's spell check said to me one memorable day: You have started eight out of the last ten sentences with the word 'But'. You should consider varying them.

Edittorrent said...

But... but... but... :)