Friday, March 14, 2008

Redlines Five: Description-itis

Recently, we have looked at ways to structure short passages for a variety of effects. This month, we’re going to change directions and look at sentence mechanics. Specifically, we’re going to look at how to create descriptive impact within the parts of a sentence.

Let’s start by reviewing the structural parts of a sentence. For our purposes, there are three parts of a sentence: subject, verb, and object. The subject is the actor within the sentence. The verb is the main action taken by the subject. And the object-- when there is one-- is the receiver of the action.

Here are a couple examples, with and without objects:
The dog ... barked.
subject ... verb

Sometimes dogs just bark.

The dog ... barked ... at the intruder.
subject ... verb ... object

And sometimes, the dogs bark for reasons we can identify. The action is directed at something. This is the object.

(Note to grammar gurus: Yes, “intruder” is the object of a preposition. But for our purposes, we are breaking the predicate into two pieces, and for convenience, the second piece will be called the “object.” Please forgive this sleight of hand-- this is not a grammar lesson, but an attempt to provide writers with practical tools to control the flow of their sentences.)

Both examples are simple sentences with clear action, but not very descriptive. Sometimes, we want to convey more descriptive information. Description, after all, brings readers into the scene in a vivid way, and helps them visualize the scene events.

But not all description is good. Here’s what happens when we add description to all three parts of the sample sentence:

The brown mangy dog, his spindly legs trembling as his paws scrabbled at the packed earth, barked loudly and wildly in a series of staccato bursts at the black-cloaked intruder who moved like a shadow against the fence.

The subject, “dog,” is loaded with adjectives (brown mangy) and dependent description (his spindly legs ... packed earth).

The verb is still “barked,” but we have added adverbs (loudly and wildly) and a descriptive phrase (staccato bursts).

And the object, the intruder, now sports a black cloak and moves in a certain way in relation to a certain object.

Let’s consider the impact of that string of words on a reader. C’mon, now, be honest. Your eyes glazed over before you reached the end of the sentence, right? It’s information overload, plain and simple. Description-itis, an inflammation of the sentence caused by too much information and leading to bored readers and bad reviews.

Luckily, there is an easy cure for description-itis. All you need is a bit of authorial judgment, and a decision about which of the three parts of the sentence is most important.

If the subject is most important, then keep the description about the dog and cut the rest. The sentence becomes:

The brown mangy dog, his spindly legs trembling as his paws scrabbled at the packed earth, barked at the intruder.

All of the descriptive focus is on the dog, and the reader’s mind stays on point. A sentence like this would be useful if, for example, the point of view character is more concerned about the dog than about either the barking or the intruder.

But that’s not too likely, is it? The intruder seems more interesting. So let’s look at how the sentence reads when the descriptive impact is focused on the object.

The dog barked at the black-cloaked intruder who moved like a shadow against the fence.

Not a great sentence, but it illustrates the point. The description focuses the reader’s attention on the object -- the intruder, who now seems both intangible and threatening.

To complete the example, let’s say that the most important part of the sentence is the verb. Maybe the point of view character isn’t concerned about the pending battle between the intruder and the dog, but really wants some peace and quiet. In that case, loading the verb with description highlights the noise.

The dog barked loudly and wildly in a series of staccato bursts at the intruder.

The sentence is a little clumsy. In fact, it suffers from having the subject and object separated by all those words, but that is a topic for another column. The main point here is that modifying the verb keeps the reader’s attention focused on the action of the sentence, the barking. We know what is most important in this sentence -- the noise.

Here is a simple process for fixing overly-descriptive sentences.
1) Identify the most important part of the sentence. Where do you want the reader’s attention focused? What is the most important purpose of the sentence?
2) Identify which words in the sentence link back to that important part. If this gives you trouble, it may be because you have two ideas competing for supremacy. Pick one.
3) Now cut everything that’s not linked to the most important idea. Leave the subject, verb and object intact. But otherwise, be ruthless. You can always put things back in, and see how they impact clarity, once you are sure that the sentence is clear to begin with.

Now that we have had our refresher course on the three main parts of a sentence, next month we’ll look at passive and active constructions and how to manipulate them for impact.

This is the fifth in the series of my dusty old Redlines column.
Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.



Liane Gentry Skye said...

Great column. :) Now where did I put that red pencil????

Anonymous said...

Thanks. That's putting stuff in terms even this grammar nonce can understand.


Anonymous said...

A much more enjoyable presentation of the material than John Gardner's treatment of the same. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I'm having one of these 'why didn't anybody explain this earlier?' moments, because when you put it like _that_ - put the the detail in the part of the sentence you want to emphasize - it's so logical that it's hard to imagine doing anything else.

Thank you. And wow.

Edittorrent said...

Alicia and I were just talking about whether anyone would like this back to Gardner. Well done, anonymous!


Dave Shaw said...

My German shepherd is more concerned about who let the dog get mangy. She thinks that's a very bad thing. ;-)

Seriously, it's nice to read articles about writing that make sense to me in only one pass. Thank you.