Monday, December 17, 2007

Fixing Your Nasal Passages, Part Two: Changing Predicates

As you may have noticed in the first post about fixing nasal passages, sentence combining sometimes requires a bit of finesse to achieve good results. And it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Not all nostril-plugging sentences will be immediately followed by an action which results from the scent. Sometimes, other material will interrupt the stimulus and the response, or maybe the scent is purely descriptive and there is no response.

The scent of fresh-brewed coffee permeated her nostrils. Could it really be six a.m. already? She opened her eyes slowly.

In this case, the order of the sentences could loosely be labeled as: description, interior monologue, action. The rhythm of this paragraph is better than our original example from the other day, but it still contains the problem of the permeated nostrils. In this case, to preserve the rhythm, I might connect the scent to a different action and forget about combining sentences:

The scent of fresh-brewed coffee teased her awake. Could it really be six a.m. already? She opened her eyes slowly.

Now the order is: action, interior monologue, action. The paired actions highlight her resistance to getting up and, as an added bonus, bracket the related complaint in her interior monologue. This is a paragraph with some integrity, but it still keeps moving forward with new actions.
It’s worth noting that the new predicate describes a response to the subject. The scent causes her to wake up. As we’ve mentioned before, one of the most effective ways to leverage the sense of smell is by linking it to a chain of causation.

One other thing I have to point out here. We’ve replaced a sentence of description, which is passive, with a sentence of action, which is, well, active. There’s a body in motion now, a character whose physical state is changing from asleep to awake.

What we had before was an intangible (a scent) permeating a hole (nostril, from the Old English, literally means nose hole). (Side question: is it even possible to permeate a hole? Doesn’t permeate imply some intermingling of elements, such as water permeating a cloth or chemicals permeating a membrane? I don’t know -- just thought I’d throw that question out to the wordsmiths.) You might think that the first sentence was actually an action rather than a description, but I think that if you have a non-object in an empty space, it’s a stretch to call it action.

In any event, the best storytelling focuses on bodies in motion, people and things caught up in a chain of actions and reactions, stimuli and responses. So as a general rule, you’re better off with more action and less description.

So change your predicate to something more active, and then you can leave the rest of the sentences alone.


1 comment:

Kate St. James said...

I am now petrified of writing anything to do with nostrils, LOL. I know I have committed the "filled her nostrils" offence on more than occasion. You're making me chuckle with the posts. Keep 'em coming. We never stop learning.