Thursday, August 28, 2008

Sentence sequencing

Okay, finally have a moment to post. You know it's almost Labor Day? Where did the summer go? This is not just a rhetorical question in the North. In a few months, it'll be cold and I'll be thinking, why did I waste the last days of warmth sitting inside writing a blog post?
Anyway, I wanted to discuss a bit about sequencing sentences and paragraphs. As the commenters pointed out, this can actually reflect character. That is, you might have an impulsive character who usually speaks before she thinks, and showing that:
"What an ugly baby!" Molly cried, and then, realizing she'd spoken aloud, clapped her hand over her mouth.
That shows her impulsivity in a subtle way. If you're planning on changing that—for example, having her start out impulsive and then, as the plot events transpire, get more judicious and careful—you can demonstrate this gradual change in a similar way in the latter part of the book:
"Your painting is—" Molly caught herself, and finished, "Very interesting. So much red!"
So... the sequence of action/reaction, thought/speech, and so on can reveal something about character, and that's great. That's something the reader will probably pick up subliminally and apply to the mental collage that reflects what you have told of the character.

However, as usual, I'm going to say-- difference is only noticeable if we usually get the convention. The fragmentation of a sentence has no meaning if most of our sentences are incomplete. It's like cussing. If you generally turn the air blue with your profanities, any single f-word is not likely to register. If, however, you are like my mother, whose most fervent curse is "Oh, Lordy!" then a single cuss word is going to have an outsized effect. (I have yet to hear my mother utter the f-word, but I assure you, when she does, the world will end.)
So an unconventional sequence is only going to resonate if you generally, with other characters, go with a standard, logical sequence. So let's deal with some examples—please provide some in comments!—and maybe that'll help establish the convention. That's what makes sense to readers, so that when the order is messed up, the reader will intuit the reason as something other than "this author is always so hard to follow."

I call it "sequence," because we are dealing with two dimensions here, words being displayed in a linear way. "Order" or "organization" works better, maybe, as what we're actually trying to do in a sentence is show the logic of the experience, or at least show the experience in a way that makes sense to the reader.
I hasten to add that none of this is a "rule," that context is all, that sentence order can and should be varied for reasons that have little to do with logic (rhythm, emphasis, and such). And two supple wordsmiths could very likely create different organizations with the same sentence elements... because they have different purposes, different voices, different contexts. An author aiming for a comic effect will structure a sentence differently than an author who is trying to explain a concept. So what I want to explore here is how an ordinary sentence might be structured in a conventional way, so that we can make variances for greater meaning.
Now of course, every sentence should be as meaningful as you need it to be. But there are a lot of sentences, perhaps the majority, that have a single big purpose— giving the reader the most appropriate experience of whatever is going on at that moment. That is, if your character is crossing the street, the reader experiences the crossing of the street, knows it's happening, doesn't think that the character is still there on the sidewalk. (For some reason, many writers have trouble with blocking out simple character movement like that—maybe because we're always preoccupied with our stories and characters as we ourselves move, and we don't actually know how we got across that street. :) Or maybe this sentence is meant to give the reader a visual understanding of why the heroine can't easily escape from this room. In other words, many sentences have rather prosaic purposes, and those sentences will probably benefit from following a logical order of words and elements.

Logical patterns
There are two major logical patterns that affect order of elements within a sentences and sentences in paragraphs: Time and cause/effect. Most other order patterns follow the example of one or the other of these.

Let's start with chronology—time order. First things first. This doesn't mean that a sentence should always proceed in time order—first she did this, then she did that, and she finished up by doing this. But that's a good way to start crafting the sentence. Make the time sequence make sense, and then innovate. The more complicated the process of the action, the more chronological order helps the reader understand what's going on. This can make all the difference with action scenes, and also within the sentences of action, when you want the reader to experience what's happening. Block your action. Act it out, maybe, or close your eyes and visualize it. Decide what needs to be narrated and what doesn't. There are inclusive actions—actions that include other actions—and those can be very helpful in trimming and clarifying action.
She crossed the street.
rather than...
She put one foot off the curb and felt for the street with her toe. Finding the road surface, she set down her heel and transferred her weight to that foot, then swung the other foot from the sidewalk to the road. Once balanced there on the road, she moved her right foot forward and then her left, and repeated the motion, and repeated it again, and....
That second "crossing" could be used if she's very drunk and has to remind herself how to walk. Otherwise, it's probably more than a bit too detailed. The more words you expend on something, the more important the reader is going to assume it is.
Just watch out for constructions like:
She sat down on the bench after she crossed the street.
The reader is visualizing the action as he reads, so he sees her on the initial side of the street, sitting down on a bench. But when he gets to the end of that sentence, he's going to have to regroup mentally and visualize what happened FIRST—she crossed the street, then after that, she sat down on a bench. You don't want to frustrate your reader with the wrong sequence of action. So watch the "before" and "after" clauses and make sure that you aren't using those to present a paradoxical sequence—the before introducing what really happens after, and vice versa. ("Before she crossed the street.... after she crossed the street.") Try putting the actions in the right sequence: After she crossed the street, she sat down on the bench.
Watch out for those smaller elements, the dependent clauses, the participial and prepositional phrases, when they give some time indication. Experiment with placement. Often these elements can be moved around, but that doesn't mean each placement is equally effective. Try this one for an example:
History teacher John Caruso returned to the high school as the new principal where his teaching career began fifteen years earlier.
Now you probably immediately identified that "where" clause as a dangling or misplaced modifier because it's placed as if it modifies "principal" when of course it doesn't. But there's another coherence problem relating to time: "Fifteen years earlier" is at the end of that sentence though it's actually the first thing that happened. How would you fix this? If I were editing it, I'd probably opt for two sentences—you don't have to jam everything into one sentence, after all. Maybe:
Fifteen years ago, John Caruso started his career as a history teacher at the high school. Now he has returned to that high school-- as the new principal.

Another common problem I see is reaction before action:
Ginny gasped. A puppy dashed out into the street, just in front of her cab.
Ginny presumably is reacting to seeing the puppy. So the puppy running out happens first, then the gasp. This, by the way, is also a point of view issue. If you show Ginny's gasp first, you are distancing the reader from the experience—the reader is watching Ginny, not being Ginny. So reaction first can work if you are in another POV, or an omniscient POV, and the first signal that something is happening is Ginny's reaction. But show it then:
Ginny gasped. Hand on her heart, she pointed as a puppy dashed across the street, just in front of her cab.
Notice that you might have to narrate a bit farther along in the event to make the time passage clear—that is, the puppy is no longer dashing OUT INTO the street, but ACROSS the street, which can be (across is inclusive) happening a bit later, after the gasp.

Action/reaction is both time and cause/effect (the action causes the reaction). In this sentence, reaction comes before action, and effect before cause:
Chas sniffed his disapproval. Paige’s motel room smelled like two weeks of fast food dinners.
Again, that can work if you're in the point of view of someone else, maybe someone following Chas, who hears his sniff and only after that gets to the motel room door and gets a whiff of the smell. But in that case, BE in that POV character. There's a different cause/effect happening from that perspective, like:
Chas sniffed his disapproval. When I pushed him aside and entered, I understood why. Paige’s motel room smelled like two weeks of fast food dinners.

Okay, on this historic evening, I probably should be watching the speeches more closely, especially since the Obamas live in my neighborhood in Chicago and Michelle works for my university there and Barack used to teach in the law school. I really had a lot more to say about sequence, but I can't remember what all that was. :)

So how about some examples of sentences where you have confronted sequencing issues, and explain how you fixed them? And also if you can, provide sentences where you diverged from the conventional sequence to change the meaning.

I actually meant to deal with action, speech, introspection, paragraph-level stuff. Don't know how I got diverted! Oh, I do know. Sentences always divert me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

[aside: Alicia, you must find the Obama speech. I watched it live online on MSNBC because no Australian tv stations were carrying it live.]

Your points about logical order are dealt with well in Swain's book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. He calls them MRUs - or motivation/response units. When I studied that concept, it made perfect sense and I remember it often when writing to test the sequence. It's amazing how many times I screw it up at first, but can fix it easily when I re-read.

The other sequence issue that Ray Rhamey talks about on Flogging the Quill is putting the intended inflection or speech aspect before the dialog. That way the reader is in the mind set for the interpretation of the speech as the writer intends. What do you say to that concept? EG: Taylor lowered his voice. "Did you see that guy?" instead of "Did you see that guy?" Taylor whispered.

We do quite a bit of visualising when we write [we meaning me and my writing partners]. This week I was typing and one of the girls was moving in the way the text described to be sure it was possible.

another question: what action detail level is needed and not 'walking the dog'? At the beginning of your post you mention that moving a person around is needed, but I've received crits that suggest those stage directions aren't necessary and slow down the story pace. Thoughts?