Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Dynamic Change: The Reversal's Kid Brother

We've looked at sentences that contain reversals -- concepts which are the opposite of each other -- as a way of building immediate interest.

There's another kind of sentence which can produce a similar effect without turning ideas in an about-face. Any sentence which contains action describing a change in circumstances -- dynamic change -- will also be very interesting to readers.

Let's start with an example.

At the intersection, the light was red.
At the intersection, the light turned red.

These sentences describe the exact same concept, a red light at an intersection. They are identical but for one word. We can probably all agree that the second sentence is the stronger of the two, but why should that be true?

I can't pretend to understand the medical science behind this, but our eyes and our brains are hardwired to be alert to change. It's physiological, and probably a survival mechanism, but whatever the scientific reasons, it's certain that our eyes and our brains work together to sense change.

This sensed change can be movement, as the blur of motion in your peripheral vision that triggers you to hit the brakes and swerve to avoid an accident.

This sensed change can be static, as when you enter a room and know that something has been moved from its rightful place, even if you can't immediately see what's different.

This sensed change can also be fictional, as when your eyes scan a page and your brain interprets the words to create a story picture in your imagination.

Eyes and brains working together to identify change. They're always alert for change.

So when we write
At the intersection, the light turned red.
what we're really doing is tapping into that almost primal alertness. The eyes are saying, "Yo! Brain! It was yellow, but now it's red! React if you need to!"

And the brain says, "Red light! Change! What do we need to do about this? Hey eyes, give us some more visual clues."

In other words, it's a motivation to keep reading.

Smart writers leverage this all over the place -- scene action and dialogue, of course, have dynamic elements built in -- but it's also useful in opening scenes and in description.

As to his face, whose rapid changes of expression bespoke him of a southern race, there were in it both tact and power of character. His eye, which could express every feeling, seemed to read the soul of any one on whom it rested. His complexion, naturally dark, had been rendered darker by exposure to a warmer sun than ours.
- Alexandre Dumas, Memoirs of a Physician

Dumas could have said, "He was tactful and powerful, observant, and suntanned." But instead he delivered those descriptive elements in the context of change -- changes of expression, eyes which express every feeling, skin that becomes darker. There's a feeling of movement and change in all of this.

I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.
- Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants

The narrator's age changes, then changes back, wavering between two numbers, a much more dynamic way to give a character's age than the simple, "I am ninety." Worth noting: even though age itself is static, this description works on the same principle of dynamic change because the reader's eyes are still perceiving a change and communicating it to the brain. Age is not a thing in motion, but the change element makes it dynamic.



Ian said...

Basically it's the passive voice versus the, uh, not-passive voice, right?

When I'm going back through my first drafts, I make a special effort to replace as many of the cardinal SOB verbs (that's State of Being, silly, not Sonuva...) with more active verbs. Thanks to a ridiculous little meme from back in elementary school, I'll never forget them: (sung to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) Am Is Are Was Were Be Been (and then you shout) Being!

As far as other types of reversals go, they can certainly be incredibly useful. Or not, as the case may be. ;)


Edittorrent said...


Oh boy. Now you've done it. I may have to do a post on passive voice next.