Monday, April 9, 2012

Question from the mailbag

We do answer questions sent to our email address (, and I would have answered this one a couple weeks ago but for an astonishing chain of tech issues chez Theresa. Thanks for the question, and sorry I've been so scarce, but the mercury retrograde smote my communication devices with a fire sword of vengeance.  (Yeah, I watched Game of Thrones. Two computers, three phones, and a truck died, but my cable still worked. *ggg*)

So here's the question from Coleen.

I know PPP’s are dear to your heart, so I have a question regarding them.Recently I found the following two examples in my wip:

1) She hesitated, groping for something to say.

2) She craned her neck, trying to catch a last glimpse of him.

I’ve tried rewriting the first as:

She hesitated.


She groped for something to say.


She hesitated as she groped for something to say.

As an editor, which sounds better?

Is example 2 a cumulative modifier?

Let's take the second part first, because that's the easy one. No, that is not a cumulative modifier. There are two actions in that sentence: craning and trying. The first action serves the purpose of the second action. It's the reason she cranes her neck. So I would replace that with an infinitive phrase:

She craned her neck to catch a last glimpse of him.

I would kill the weak verb "trying" unless the fact of the trying is relevant to the action. Usually, it's only relevant if it results in a failure. That is, if she tries and fails to catch a glimpse of him, then you might want to keep it.

She craned her neck to try to catch a last glimpse of him.

I would expect this sentence to be followed by a reaction to the failure to see him. The first rewritten example might be followed by a reaction to seeing him depart. So it's all in what you want to emphasize, her reaction to his departure or her failure to connect with him one last time.

Okay, so that's the second one, and it's a fairly easy, clean, routine sort of line edit. This kind of edit becomes easier to spot with practice, and it won't take a huge amount of thought to correct. But the first example might require a bit more work. The original is:

She hesitated, groping for something to say.

Now, before I get into my comments, I have to point out that we know nothing about the context. This could be a fleeting moment in a dynamic scene, or it could lead into a long passage of introspection. It might be perfect for the moment and the context -- but in my experience, this kind of sentence usually sounds better in an early draft than in a finished scene. It's a conceptual issue rather than an editing issue.

What's the problem with the concept? Often, this kind of sentence signals that the writer didn't know the character's true response in this moment. The sentence describes the writer's frame of mind during drafting more than the character's frame of mind during the scene action. Often, after some contemplation and revision, the passage containing this kind of sentence will be revised so that the character does have something to say. In the finished scene, if this were followed by a line of dialogue, it would be clear that she had figured out what to say. Again, we don't have a context, but just for example's sake, let's say it is something like--

She hesitated, groping for something to say. "Nigel, I need you to trust me. I can't explain why I was at the bank this afternoon. I made a promise, and telling you more would break that promise."

In this case, it's clear from the dialogue that she can't say  exactly what she wants or needs to say. This makes the first sentence redundant, which means it can be cut.

"But wait," you say. "Maybe we need to indicate a pause before she speaks."

Okay. Maybe so. Do it with an action beat.

She curled the long paper from her straw around and around her index finger. "Nigel, I need you to trust me. I can't explain why I was at the bank this afternoon. I made a promise, and telling you more would break that promise."

The action is futile in that nicely symbolic way that supports the dialogue -- wrapping that paper around her finger is ultimately as meaningless as the words she speaks. The paper is disposable, and so is the explanation she gives him. Her promise to someone else is more important than her need to explain herself to him. And so on. Using a resonant action beat will add subtext to the moment, and it will still indicate the pause we wanted to preserve.

So my advice, with this kind of sentence, is not to tinker with it at all. Get rid of it. Look at what happens around it, and decide if you should replace it with something stronger. But if you really need this sentence -- chances are, you don't, but if you do, replace it with this:

She groped for something to say.

The act of hesitation is implied in the groping.

Good question! Thanks for sending it in!

1 comment:

Susan Taylor said...

Great insight and, yes, so helpful in the recognition of what to keep, what to change, and what needs to be thrown out. Thank you.