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.


"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?



Deb Salisbury said...

Now I need to check for verbing. Tonight I realized I've developed a different verbal tic in my WIP - using 'when' in the middle of a sentence, with the action out of order. "I jumped when Bob entered the room." Once in a while it's not too bad, but frequently? That's a disaster. The last couple of hours vanished in getting that problem straightened out.

Edittorrent said...

And I always wonder if the "when" clause should come first, as it would in acting out:

When Bob entered the room, I jumped.

i know-- time just vanishes when we're struggling with these essential problems!
I think of a surgeon. In half an hour, she can remove an appendix, stitch the stomach up, send the patient to recovery.
During that time, I might delete a verb, and put it back.


Deb Salisbury said...

> During that time, I might delete a verb, and put it back.

ROFL! I have days like that, too.

Peter Bunzl said...

Just reading some of your great articles, thanks!

I am terrible at grammar but one thing I think of when parsing a sentence - or whatever it's called - is the first part of this writer's digest article:

It's all about action->reaction and how you should try and sequence the various actions/clauses in the order they would occur in life - just like continuity cuts in a movie - because it helps create the illusion that this is actually happening. So--

When Bob entered the room, I jumped.

Seems slightly better in that respect than:

I jumped when Bob entered the room.