Monday, May 9, 2011

Solving a Sentence

Some time ago, we looked at a tricky sentence -- evocative and beautiful, but not perfectly balanced -- and I asked for feedback from all of you on how you might edit it. Or if you would edit it. Here's the sentence again:

But it felt so good to be out in the open land, sunlight pouring on her head and arms, bees buzzing in the anemone, the scent of pine tickling her nostrils.

I have to start by saying, again, that this is a good, evocative sentence, but bits of it nag my eyes when I read it. In the original post, I broke the sentence down, or started to, anyway , which I think I ought to re-post here:

But it felt so good to be out in the open land,
(1) sunlight pouring on her head and arms,
(2) bees buzzing in the anemone,
(3) the scent of pine tickling her nostrils.

If you've been reading this blog for any stretch of time, it probably won't surprise to you learn that my eye first snagged on the present participial phrases. (If you aren't familiar with our long rants against PPPs, I'll just suggest you read this post and this post. And maybe this one, which is long but excellent.) Whenever I see a PPP, my eye immediately searches out the sentence for the noun modified by the PPP. In this case, pouring modified sunlight, buzzing modifies bees, ticking modifies scent. So that's all fine.

But something about that sentence still made me pause, so I went to the next check. What did that list of three modify? Open land. And the series lines up in neat order after open land, so that seemed to work just fine.

And yet, I wasn't satisfied. So, if we can see that everything is in the proper order, the next check has us look at the relationships between the parts. And this is where I started to dither, and it's also where I get to touch on another old rant. You see, all those little words that we think of as mostly invisible -- the conjunctions, the relative pronouns, the prepositions, and the like -- are crucial for creating relationships between the "idea" words in a sentence. We could have a list of idea words:

sports car, zoomed, grocery store

And not know the relationship between the parts. There's a world of difference between,

The sports car zoomed to the grocery store.


The sports car zoomed through the grocery store.

Right? Changing one word, one tiny little preposition, changes the entire meaning of that sentence because it changes the relationship between the parts. When we skip those relationship words (as when we substitute a semicolon for a conjunction), we might still be getting the right words down, but we sacrifice our ability to control the reader's interpretation of the relationship between the parts.

Sometimes the ambiguity is exactly what we want, as in Alicia's favorite semicolon from Auden:

I thought love would last forever; I was wrong.

He could have said,

I thought love would last forever, AND I was wrong.


I thought love would last forever, BUT I was wrong.

Either of those would signal a slightly different shade of meaning, but in this case, the semicolon creates an ambiguity that works strongly for the sentence -- because it could be BUT, it could be AND, or it could even be both or neither. The nature of the relationship between those clauses is ambiguous for a purpose, and the ambiguity actually adds meaning to the poem.

But that's another issue, and frankly, it's a rare semicolon that adds more than it detracts. And this sample sentence is not about semicolons, but about the way we glue pieces together with tiny words. And in this case, I think we need some glue. It's not technically necessary, but it would add clarity and precision. Maybe something like,

But it felt so good to be out in the open land with sunlight pouring on her head and arms, bees buzzing in the anemone, and the scent of pine tickling her nostrils.

Adding two words -- the preposition with and the conjunction and -- converts that series into a prepositional phrase with a compound object. Note, too, that now we can get rid of the comma after land, which was previously used to signal the ellipsis. (Ellipsis = missing word = the preposition with)

Or maybe we want to make it adverbial.

But it felt so good to be out in the open land when the sunlight poured on her head and arms, bees buzzed in the anemone, and the scent of pine tickled her nostrils.

Now we have a compound adverbial clause, and notice that we can again eliminate the comma after land. We also can shift the form of the verbs in the clauses to past participles, which always read a little more easily. Of course, now the clause signals something different about the nature of the relationship between the main clause and the dependent clause. Where before we had a preposition indicating something about the nature of the land, now we have a temporal adverb indicating something about the moment in time spent on the land. It's a different relationship between the parts.

There might be other ways to solve that sentence, too, and shore up the relationship between the parts. Or it might be that the author will choose to leave the relationship ambiguous. Worked for Auden, right? In any case, it's a good sentence, and it's a good example of how to tinker with pieces using those little relationship words.



mooderino said...

While I think your alternates are all perfectly acceptable, I don't think there's really that much wrong with the sentence. It's meaning is clear, and if you read it out loud it has a rhythm to it, one that gets thrown a bit off by adding conjunctions and whatnot.

In this particular case I think it comes down to a matter of personal preference. Personally I had more issue with 'tickling her nostrils' which I found to be an ugly phrase.

Digging the blog.

Chapter One Analysis: Hunger Games

Bren said...

I’m with Mooderino on this one. I like the poetic layering of the original sentence. The way it piles on sensations creates immediacy, a perfect-moment feeling. With the conjunctions, it has less impact. Having said that, I do think it’s a technique that can overwhelm when overused.
These structure posts on Edittorrent are my favorites. I’ve learned so much about the craft of writing from them and the comments they generate.

Edittorrent said...

Mood and Bren, that's a legit choice. There's nothing technically wrong with that sentence. It's all in the effect we're trying to achieve. This kind of writing calls attention to itself, so it's probably best to save it for moments in the story that need that kind of subtly heightened attention.


Tatum Flynn said...

Interesting post. I actually like the mechanics of the original sentence, it's other things that feel very slightly clunky to me. The use of 'pouring' feels not quite right with sunlight, just because we naturally associate it with rain and this is another type of weather.

The main thing that felt off to me was that out of the three clauses, the first and third refer to the character (head and arms; nose) but the second refers to the anenomes. As you read it, you jerk from the character to the flowers and back to the character again, and thus it doesn't flow as well as it could. Just my 2 cents.

Annette said...

Ack! It's my sentence again!

Ha, I saw your twitter "page" for me on your blog -- I don't have a Twitter account, but I do check your blog religiously. Been busy with work, unfortunately.

How I wish I could go back in time and change nostrils to something more, um, appealing. :)

Yes, I was going for a certain rhythm. I do know that when I want a passage to have more of a poetic feel and flow, I tend to list clauses with commas such as I did there. Perhaps this grates on people, but my crit group has never told me that.

I was definitely going for an immediate feel - I wanted the narrator, who blew out her knee running in the Heraia (the equivalent of the Olympic races for women in ancient Greece), to be caught up in the sensate experience of at last being able to walk outside after being cooped up healing. So I tossed in what I imagined she'd notice in those first moments of pleasure. And I didn't want it to be too structured, if you know what I'm getting at, because I wanted it to seem almost stream of consciousness - she isn't taking the time to construct a full sentence of thought, LOL, because she's too busy in the experience. Does that make sense?

But I understand the problems people have with this construction, and I do wonder if, like Girl Friday mentioned, people are thrown off by being pulled from the narrator to the bees in the anemone and then back to the narrator.

Would the sentence have caused problems if I'd written:

But it felt so good to be out in the open land, sunlight pouring on her head and arms, dragonflies whizzing around her bare legs, the scent of pine tickling her n*******.

(Note, I changed from bees so that the reader wouldn't be pulled out of the narrative worrying she would be stung, LOL)

Of the alternatives Theresa offered, I like this one:

But it felt so good to be out in the open land with sunlight pouring on her head and arms, bees buzzing in the anemone, and the scent of pine tickling her nostrils.

That's probably what I'd go with in revision.

How fun! I'd like to thank everyone for taking the time to give help and input. Learning how to write a novel can offer so many challenges, that these sorts of details can get lost in the process. It's truly fascinating to now be able to break things down at the sentence and word level. Your blog does this so well, and that's one of the main reasons I've loved reading Edittorrent.

arbraun said...

I often want to use a lot of "-ing" suffixes, but always edit them out at the advice of critiquers. I like the last version of the sentence a lot better.

Edittorrent said...

Girl Friday, I loved the use of pouring to describe the quality of the light, but I can see why it might read as self-contradictory.

If you think of the anemones and the buzzing as having to do with things happening in the air rather than things happening to her body/not her body, does that resolve the middle clause for you?


Edittorrent said...

Annette, you're a good sport. Thanks for letting me run with your sentence like this. The cool thing about this particular sentence is that the finest changes can have a pretty big impact. That can happen with graceful writing.

Jhumpa Lahiri does that thing with chained clauses, too, but hers are independent clauses. Do you read her? She's lyrical.


Edittorrent said...

Arbraun, that's the way. Murder those PPPs. You won't ever regret it.


Ruth Donnelly said...

How about an em-dash?

But it felt so good to be out in the open land--sunlight pouring on her head and arms, bees buzzing in the anemone, the scent of pine tickling her nostrils.

Works better than a comma for me, but retains the free-flowing quality.

Edittorrent said...

Ruth, an em dash is used to signal an interruption or an abrupt change, so I would say no to the em dash here.


Thomas Sharkey said...

This is how I would write it to bring more life into the description.

But it felt so good to be out in the open, with the afternoon sunlight bathing her head and arms, hearing the bees buzzing in the anemone, enjoying the scent of pine tickling her nostrils.

In my opinion that is.

BTW, I wouldn't recognise a PPP even if I sat on one, sorry.


Vaylon Kenadell said...

The term you are looking for is "absolute phrase."