Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Which is more striking?

I'm reading Relentless by Dean Koontz, and it's a sub-genre I love, where evil book reviewers get what's coming to them.

No, really, I love books about writers. That's sort of sad, isn't it?

Anyway, I don't know why, and I don't even know if it's real or the writer/hero is imagining it. But the reviewer who panned his book is in the hero's bedroom. Hero wakes up and senses him, but it's dark and he can't see. He reaches into a drawer where he keeps a flashlight.

Here's the next line:

The flashlight wasn't there.

Now my head sort of edited that to:

The flashlight was gone.

Now just with that little bit of info, which-- if you were writing the same passage-- would you do? And why?

I've been trying to put things positively in my own writing, because that feels more active somehow. But Koontz knows how to create suspense and shock a lot more than I do, so I bet he's right. What do you think?


Leona said...

I think it depends on your focus. In Dean Koontz' writing, he tends to focus on the scarier aspect, which would be the negative because it reinforces the bad. I'm assuming he thinks it's a bad thing to be without a flashlight with an intruder in the house.

The way you put it, to me, reinforces the idea that someone else is responsible, also bad. But, that's an impression without knowing the rest of the story.

Anonymous said...

My husband the therapist says that if you want to give someone an order, you should put it in the positive - instead of "don't hurt your brother" you say "be nice to your brother" because humans tend to edit out the "not" part of the "do not" in their brains.

I don't know if that translates to writing, but, at least in the example you gave, I don't like the "there;" I prefer your edit.

MeganRebekah said...

To me "The flashlight was gone" sounds better (and more proper), but I think that's exactly why "the flashlight wasn't there" is better for the suspense. If I was panicking in the middle of the night my thoughts wouldn't be proper but more simplistic (and negative).

Just my thoughts

MissyM said...

I prefer "there." To me, it draws attention to the "Oh god. What now?" thriller feeling, like he can't get past the fact to decide what to do next. "Gone" seems a little more vague, like the next thought would be "Oh, that's right, I left it in the car."

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I'm with you. Gone. It has this finality to it. It's a hard sound. And it's creepy. Not there... eh, it could be anywhere.

But gone?

Sheesh. How many love songs are about the fact that the love is gone? The emotion, the physical person.

Gone's a word that evokes strong emotions. There... it just isn't there.

Casey Something said...

I guess it would depend on the context, but I almost interpret them differently.

"The flashlight wasn't there" leaves more room for interpretation, like the character could have left it somewhere else and forgotten. It lacks the solidity.

Whereas, "The flashlight was gone" makes me feel like it's definitely been removed.

So, personally, "gone" builds more suspense for me.

Peter Cooper said...

While I agree wholeheartedly with the need for active writing, I think "the flashlight wasn't there" is infinitely stronger. Why? Because he needed it to be "there" - his hopes of survival hang on it being "there" - and it ISN'T "there". The wind has just been sucked out of his lungs - he expected salvation, and found only empty air. Bummer.

"the flashlight was gone", in contrast, is little more than a statement of fact.

Just my four-cents.

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

I think it depends on what type of creepy you're going for. "wasn't there" seems to me to be better for the Things Have Unexpectedly Gone Wrong kind of creepy, the way that things escalate by coincidence. After that sentence, I doubt the bad guy was behind the curtains. However, "was gone" implies to me Things Are Going Wrong And Now I Know The Killer Has Come For Me sort of creepy. When I hear 'was gone' I figure the bad guy took it and know he's hiding behind the curtains.

Cook said...

What Scribe said.

Unknown said...

I'm with Scribe. "gone" is strong writing, and it's final. But "wasn't there" leaves open the question - "where is the flashlight?" As a reader, I read the desparation in the line. My head goes "where is it? where? WHERE?" - even though Koontz hasn't written the words.

Unknown said...

argh - "desperation"!

Anonymous said...

Personally, neither. My sentence would be about the empty drawer.

Edittorrent said...

Anon-- "The drawer was empty." That what you mean?

Everyone, great ideas. It's amazing how much difference such a little change can make in meaning.

Julie Harrington said...

I had a hard time with this so I just quickly jotted out a scene like it just to see what I'd say when I wasn't thinking so hard about it. I was surprised because I ended up with "the flashlight wasn't there." Which is weird because my first instinct when reading this was the "was gone" option.

I'm still trying to figure out why.


Jordan McCollum said...

In my usual writing style, it would probably end up either "Where was the flashlight?" or, after establishing that the character was reaching for his trusty flashlight, simply an entire paragraph of:


(Hm. . . Maybe "Empty." if we're talking about the drawer most recently.)

I know, that's probably a mortal sin.

Laurel said...

wasn't there.

As in, did I leave it somewhere else? Did it roll away? If I could turn on the lights and look for it would it be next to the lamp instead? It must be somewhere, right? So is there a bad guy really in the room with me, stealing flashlights while I sleep and waiting for me to wake up so he can get a kick out of my fright or is my stupid overactive writer's imagination running away with me?

"wasn't there" denotes an uncertainty while "was gone" sounds definitive. The flashlight absolutely WAS where I thought it should be and something nefarious happened to it.

The not knowing exactly why/where the flashlight is seems creepier.

green_knight said...

I'll add my voice to 'wasn't there' - simply because of the questions it raises. Where is it? Did I put it somewhere else? Did someoone take it?

'Was gone' means that the narrator is certain it was there, and since flashlights don't vanish by themselves, someone must have taken it - halfway to solving the problem and leaving fewer options.

For me, the questions that follow either sentence are different. The first one leads to 'where is the flashlight' and keeps the mind focussed on it as a solution. 'The flashlight was gone' to me indicates that the next beat will be about what else the narrator will do - The flashlight wasn't gone (and the next sentence can't be 'maybe it had slipped under the [whatever]. His fingers scrambled frantically' - flashlight beat over, something else needs to happen now.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the Scribe school and would use "The flashlight wasn't there" because "wasn't there" has a harsher sound if you say it out loud. It's more abrupt and indicative of the tension and violence that Koontz is working to build in the scene.

"The flashlight was gone" has almost a gentle feel to it primarily because "was gone" are softer sounding words.

I think it also would have to do with Koontz's character and how that character has been developed over the course of the book. The character's "voice" can sometimes dictate your sentence structure. I have one character who uses "Gonna" and a different character who is educated and would say "Going to".

There are a lot of great ideas here, I really enjoyed reading them all. ;-)


Wes said...

Your edit! Gone is a strong word that comveys loss and vulnerability.

It's no knock on Koontz. He's obvioiusly very successful, and I enjoy his writing. I'm reading one of Grisham's books now, and I'm struck, once again, with what a great storyteller he is and how I am sucked into the lives of his characters. No one will accuse him of being a great wordsmith, but who cares? This book is another great example of how the story trumps everything.

Kathleen MacIver said...

I haven't read everyone else's comments, but I think his is more suspensful. The reason (I think, at least for me) is because "The flashlight was gone" focuses on the flashlight, where as "The flashlight wasn't there" focuses more on the empty spot...the absence. And that's what he wants to reader to be impacted by.

I also think the rhythm of "wasn't there" settles into you and gives you a fraction of a second to realize the implications a little more, rather than just hitting you with a fact.

Monica said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Monica said...

My first reaction was to go with you, to edit the phrase to use "was gone." But after reading the previous paragraph to get the context and mood of the phrase, I "felt" Koontz's wording worked better. Using "wasn't there" made me more tense and scared. It felt more final and made me feel more desperate.

"Wasn't there" focuses on the absence of the object, while "was gone" points to the location of the object - it's gone, so where is it? That seems to be my thought process with that wording. With "wasn't there," the thought is more like, it's not here, now what?

I think that's more what Koontz was aiming for.

Glynis Peters said...

Wasn't there,indicates a panic question,to me.

Gone gives me a sense of fear.

I would have written gone, if I didn't need to know where it was.
If I wanted to follow through with, a 'where is it?';wasn't there would be my choice.

Debbie said...

Choosing between the two, I'd say "wasn't there" for all the reasons previously stated.

"No flashlight." That would probably be the way I'd write it. It's stark and more the way people in that situation think.

Catherine Bybee said...

I'm a writer... not an editor. My take is: The flashlight wasn't there is much more powerful than the other. 'Wasn't there' draws me in! Puts a chill up my spine and opens my eyes wide.

The flashlight was gone. Sounds like a fact - telling -


Shalanna said...

The test for me has always been, "What's idiomatic in English?" There are ways of saying things that are natural to a native speaker of English, including the use of the construction "there is" or "there are" (which so MANY crit groups and editing manuals disapprove of), and those ways are usually better, IMHO. I'm not talking about circuitous phrasings (except in dialogue to show character and such like), but about the natural way to say "It's raining" or whatever. You can over-analyze anything, I think, and it's the general drift of the entire passage that's going to matter.

"The flashlight wasn't there" lets me know that he's groping for it and he expected it to be there and it's ALWAYS there and what the H**L is it doing not being there and WHO moved it and . . .

"The flashlight was gone" is just a statement of fact. I don't think it comes across as more positive or active. In fact, the idiomatic thing (for ME, anyway) is usually to say, when I'm looking for something, "The keys aren't there." Meaning, they're not where you said they were . . . where they're supposed to be.

"Where are my keys?"
"In your pocket."
"They're not there."

It's how you'd hear it in conversation. We don't want to replicate dialogue, sure, but this kind of thing is more understandable at first glance to a native speaker.

~~I've been trying to put things positively in my own writing, because that feels more active somehow.~~

This was a biggie in critique groups for a long time, but there are shades of meaning and connotations as well as denotations. "It was not unlike being frisked by a Doberman" has a certain wry Brit-com Wodehousian feel to it, whereas "It was like being frisked by a Doberman" does not. "It was not unlike" and "I was not exactly opposed to" are "negative" phrases that often get yelled about--but they're all about how they come across. It's got to do with the voice/personality of the POV character, for me. I have often argued that the voice is more important than "saving a few words" or whatever it is that is getting cited in these cases. I've also argued (futilely) with people who insist that "The tire was flat" is in passive voice and that there is some other "active" way to say that. (There isn't, at least not idiomatically.)

But then you know how much success *I*'ve had, so take this solely as a personal reaction.

ted said...

There is no there there. I always wanted to use that phrase in a way that made sense, sort of.

To me, "gone" is much stronger. It implies that something happened to the flashlight. "Wasn't there" just sounds like a state of non-being.

Dave Shaw said...

You know, what would work best for me would be entering the character's head.

What? Where's the flashlight?

Or maybe,

Oh my god! Where the hell's the flashlight?

Maybe ya just had to be there...

Genella deGrey said...

I love watching movies about writers. :)

The flashlight sentence - OK, sorry, but they both mean the same thing to me. However, if my editor says he/she wants one over the other, that's fine with me.

Now if it were more of an action and I were trying to coax a reader to creapdom - the worm slithered . . . or the worm inched its way . . . both descriptions elicit different feelings - one creep, one not so much. But to me a missing flashlight is a missing flashlight.

Of course, if you want to get REALLY picky - The flashlight was gone sounds like the flashlight grew legs and walked away. Is that creepy or literal?


Chris Eldin said...

What Dominque said...

Jue Lee said...


I think it depends on the state of mind Koontz wants to show.

"wasn't there" elicits a sense of confusion, so the hero would spend precious moments trying to figure out what happened to it, while we know the evil reviewer is lurking in the dark. This makes tension and dread for the reader, hoping the hero will get the fuzz out of his head in time.

"was gone" jumps right to the assumption that someone took it, and would let him react much sooner to whatever the intruder is up to. This leads the reader to expect action, a fight scene.

If it were mine, I'd choose according to how I set up the moment and what actually happens next.

-- Jue Lee