Monday, July 19, 2010

Finishing What We Started

A couple of weeks ago, we posted a sentence in need of revision and discussed ways to revise the subordinate clause. To refresh, the sentence was:

Although her features remained subdued in the way of most mourners, a small note of eagerness had entered her tone.

We focused our attention on the subordinate clause at the start of the sentence and talked about ways to eliminate the "telling." At the close of that post, I said that there were two things I wanted to change in the main clause, too. Several of you left comments that are worth a look on the front page.

Adrian said,

I'll agree that "remained subdued in the way of most mourners" is telling rather than showing. But so is "a note of eagerness had entered her tone."

_Eagerness_ is an interpretation of how she spoke without giving us the physical detail that leads to that conclusion. By your reasoning, we should get the specific action that leads to that conclusion. Was it the way her pitch rose? Or did she say the words rapidly.

Yes, that was the first thing I was tempted to change in the main clause. It verges on telling a conclusion that the pov character reaches, rather than giving us the information that allows us to reach the same conclusion on our own.

Verges. Doesn't quite land squarely in the realm of telling. The reason for this has to do with the way we describe different physical senses or sensory impressions. Physical action, which we see with our eyes, is generally best narrated rather than summed in "telling." But sounds and smells, in particular, are trickier because they can defy this kind of direct narration. With these, it's not always possible to lead a reader to the right conclusion through presentation of sensory impressions. Sometimes a bit of interpretation is necessary, and in that case, as long as the pov stays clean and focused, it's probably going to pass scrutiny.

I did, after all, leave that main clause alone.

The second thing I wanted to change in that main clause, though, none of you mentioned directly. Why is the clause in past perfect? Do we really need it there? No, we don't. We're not breaking scene time. The simple past would work fine. (In case you're wondering why I didn't correct that, too, it's because the author and I had already been discussing her mad passion for had and how to heal it.)

Murphy said,

I wanted to take out Although too, which put more emphasis on the mourning action - and instead, shifted the emphasis on the back end by using, yet - because I think that's what the writer was going for - for the second half of this to stand out. So, to keep the words and tone of the writer intacted - I'd do a fix like this:

“So do you see why I need your help?” he asked.
“You need my help?” she asked.
Her features were respectfully stoic, yet there was a small note of eagerness in her tone.

This is the opposite of conventional wisdom. Generally, the clause with the most emphasis is the main clause. I wonder if you're circling around another idea here, not one of dominance and subordination, but something to do with the relationship between the ideas. You're setting up the first clause (features) as the ordinary idea and the second clause (eagerness) as the exception to the ordinary idea. That makes a lot of sense in terms of simple logic, the way ideas relate to each other. By framing the exception as the subordinate idea, it fits our general impressions of how things are proceeding in the scene -- in this crowd of mourners, here is something different, an eager tone. It's set and subset.

All of which is to say, we see the same thing but for a different reason.

Kathleen said,

If her features remained subdued, then they became subdued before this dialogue. Therefore, he needs to observe her features first, then ask her the question and get the response.

Not sure I agree with this. I like the juxtaposition of changed/unchanged attributes here. It lends a nice, quiet hint of tension here. It wouldn't be incorrect to do what you describe, but I like the impact we get from these two details in contrast.



Adrian said...

I'm still confused on the showing/telling point. I'll grant you that sounds and smells give the POV character more leeway. But isn't describing her features as stoic still telling rather than showing?

Not that I think this is a problem. I still believe the point I was originally trying to make that whether you strictly show then interpret, it's OK to jump right to the interpretation (depending on the cirucmstances and the mode of POV character).

Riley Murphy said...

T says: This is the opposite of conventional wisdom.

Murphy says: Yep, that would be me. :D

Jami Gold said...

I missed this post the first time around, as I was in website design mode.

If the author really wanted to emphasize the dichotomy, would rewording to utilize a 'despite' or 'belying' fit better than the 'although'?

Anyway, back to the point of this post. Yes, it would be hard to show an eager tone. Even if you describe her pitch rise and/or speak quickly, that's not definitive enough to get the same meaning. A rising pitch is often used to accompany a rising temper.

Since one of our highest purposes in choosing words and sentence structures is to ensure clarity, this is one time when clarity=telling.

Jami G.