Monday, June 23, 2014

Back to sentences

We're both still alive! Just distracted. Anyway, I came across a sentence construction that made me long to blog again. Here it is--

Josie, whose experience with the police department had given her a jaundiced view of City Hall, nodded agreement to her friend Bill's admiration about the mayor.

I know, too complex, too wordy, all that. That always happen when I try to riff on an actual sentence to disguise where I got it. (Sure, the Major Author I'm paraphrasing probably isn't following this blog, but once I discussed a poem I'd read -- fortunately not negatively-- and the poet popped up and commented... so I'm spooked. This internet thing sure ruins the secrecy of sniping.)

But what I want to talk about is how we can use sentence construction to amplify or clarify the meaning. The context on the page is that Josie need Bill's help but hasn't broached the subject yet. But the way the above sentence is constructed, with the "conflict" kind of encapsulated in the relative clause (whose experience). The conflict is the point of the sentence, to show that Josie is going against her own beliefs to agree.

One way I (and many readers) mentally distinguish sentence and sentence parts is "positive and negative," or as I actually think of it, "Plus 1 and minus 1."  Basically, is the message sent by this a yes or a no? For example:
Josie, whose experience with the police department had given her a jaundiced view of city government, 
That's negative, in that she is "jaundiced" (cynical) about this.

About this same thing (City Hall, that is, mayor?), Bill is "positive". And Josie is positive also suddenly:
nodded agreement to her friend Bill's admiration about the mayor.

The reader has to get the idea of the conflict, or she'll say, "Huh?" and go back and read to find out if she missed something ("Did I misunderstand what 'jaundiced' means? I'll go look it up").  Here, Josie's shift from negative to positive (about the same subject) in one sentence would usually indicate the need for a "conflict signal," that lets the reader know that the author knows that this is a conflict, that there's been a shift. (Hang on there-- I'm anticipating your objections, and I'll get to at least one, but this book didn't do what could have made this right. Anyway, I want to make this one point first. :)

Another issue is that the negative (her cynicism) is as important as her action-- the juxtaposition makes them both important. The point is  not that she's cynical or that she nods agreement, surely, but that she's cynical and yet she nods agreement. The juxtaposition can be more evident if one element isn't buried in a relative clause. That is, as you revise sentences, think about what the "weight" of each element is. Generally (there are exceptions, as when you want to trick the reader or be ironic), important things are in the main clause. (Putting important things in minor sentence elements can create subtext-- but "subtext" exists because we have "text" first-- we might have to know how to do things conventionally in order to do the unconventional really well, at least those of us who aren't naturally unconventional. :) (BTW, my husband just reminded me of the single greatest recognition I ever got in my whole life -- except the boys telling me that I was the best mother evuh, and I suspect a lot of other mothers got something similar in their Mother's Day cards-- was that at Blacksburg High School, senior year, I was voted "most non-conformist" in the class. You can tell what a repressed class we were, if I ended up being the wild one.)

By far the most common way to signal a conflict is to use the word "but". "But" usually introduces an independent clause, so I'd merge the relative clause with the subject and make that an independent clause, so we'll end up with two independent clauses of the same "weight," thus syntactically the same importance:

Josie's experience with the police department had given her a jaundiced view of City Hall, but she nodded agreement to her friend Bill's admiration about the mayor.

(Consider the different "feel" if we used "so" as the conjunction-- ironic? Grim?)

Now both parts of the sentence are of equal importance, and the juxtaposition (negative/positive) of both creates the joint sentence experience. It will cause the reader to pose the right question, which isn't "How does the dictionary define 'jaundiced'?" It's "What's her purpose in pretending to agree with him about the mayor?" Getting the reader -- with a single sentence-- to ask the right question helps create that "narrative propulsion" that keeps the reader reading (to find the answer).

Readers can be quite sensitive to nuance, and a sentence that doesn't create the experience you want them to have-- yes, a single sentence-- can throw them out of the fictive world. It's often hard to find those "clunker" sentences, but once you put on your reader hat and read like a reader and find them, they're usually easy to fix.

But... exception! Objections! As I said, the book I paraphrased this from didn't supply the context-- this was in fact the first sentence of a scene. But if there had been some context (like that she needed to stay on Bill's good side or get him to give her an introduction to the mayor) set up in the passage above, or the paragraph above, then the original sentence:
Josie, whose experience with the police department had given her a jaundiced view of City Hall, nodded agreement to her friend Bill's admiration about the mayor.

... would have been a lot more understandable (in the right way). It would have been like Josie Smiling Very Hard-- we would probably have understood quickly that this action of nodding was both against her own inclinations (revealed in the relative clause-- see, relegated to secondary "weight" because it is now less important) and in furtherance of the previously identified or intimated goal. If we had a bit of context, we'd know she's "not herself" because she's playing a part, not because the author screwed up the characterization. :)

Context is all, and we don't have to supply enormous buckets of it. But in the absence of context, our sentences should say what we mean, or rather, say what they need to say to give readers the experience we want them to have this very moment. In this case, it might be "asking the right question;" in another, it might be "understanding the context." 

We are the ones in control, and control of prose is based on the sentence level. Lots of writers are quite intuitive and don't need to second-guess themselves... but the rest of us might need to check to make sure we're creating the experience we want the reader to have-- at that very moment, and in accumulation of moments of the story.



Anonymous said...

(Hurray, the blog is back!)

The 'positive/negative' filter is an interesting one, but not one I've ever considered.

If I wanted to fix the sentence in place, I'd look at other conjunctions like _despite_ or _even though_.

But a sentence in which two largely contradictory ideas are expressed seems like a perfect candidate to be split into two sentences, or even turned into a beat:

"We haven't seen such inspired leadership in this county in thirty years!" Bill's eyes were shining.
Josie's experiences with the police department had given her a jaundiced view of City Hall, but if she interrupted him, they'd still be here next Thursday. She nodded politely.


Edittorrent said...

GK, I think that there are some sentences where -- I'm going to write this up, there are two elements, neither of which are completely true, but when put together are completely true. So they might be best together.

Despite and even though are both also good "contrast" conjunctions-- they will introduce a "left-branching" subordinate clause, however, instead of an independent clause (which "but" would start). The subordinate clause would mean that the information or thought in that clause was subordinate or lesser than the main clause. That's great if that's what we want, but if we want (as I did) the two thoughts of equal weight, then "but" would be better (or ; however, for a more formal sentence). Another example that shows that sentence order or construction follows (and creates) the meaning.

Your meaning is interesting, just more obvious perhaps than I was aiming at. Different strokes! You always seem to prefer more ornate styling than I do, so naturally we will use different constructions.

Adib Khorram said...

I'm glad to see a new post here, too.

By sheer chance I happened to be reviewing Robert McKee's Story recently, and one of the things he talks about is the use of reversal - from positive to negative, or vice-versa - in narrative. Here you've nicely summed up that entire dichotomy in a single sentence change.

This is awesome.

Edittorrent said...

Adib, I'm trying to work up an article about conflict shown within a sentence, and "even though" or "but" is a sign of that.

I think some focus on that-- "how can I show a bit of the scene conflict in this sentence?"-- can help alleviate that "flabby sentence" problem we often have in non-action moments.

John Harper said...

Another great blog. Looks like you have been away as long as I have. So many million tiny things to look at when editing. I hope I did this ok in my book!