Sunday, June 29, 2014

Don’t dangle your participle at me, buddy!

Writers must make sure that descriptive phrases modify what they’re supposed to modify. Scribes must pay particular attention to sentences that begin with verbs that end with -ing and -ed (participial phrases), which often lead many writers to construct sentences with a misplaced modifier called—oh, horrors!— the dreaded dangling participle. Other types of misplaced modifiers, including dangling elliptical adverb clauses, may be camouflaged so well that they’re hard to spot in your own writing.

Here’s a sentence that contains a misplaced modifier (a dangling participle):

Walking through the cheering crowd toward the dressing room, people slapped Tony’s back.

The modifying phrase Walking through the cheering crowd toward the dressing room is misplaced because it modifies the noun that follows it—people—instead of the person who walked through the crowd—Tony. That is, Tony walked through the crowd, not the people. Rewrite this way:

As Tony walked through the crowd on his way to the dressing room, people slapped his back.

Some sentences with misplaced modifiers, especially dangling participles, are hilarious. I found this howler in the dining column of a local newspaper:

Stuffed with ham and served with black beans and rice, Mom would never recognize her Saturday night special.

Poor Mom!

Paul Thayer

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Show, Don't Tell

Writers should have the word Show tattooed on the back of their left hand and Don’t tell on the other, and they should chant those words like a mantra while they work. What do I mean by Show, don’t tell? As Chekhov said (Anton Chekhov, not the guy on Star Trek), “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” To take a larger view, we could modify show, don’t tell to scenes versus exposition. That works, too, because the concept is the same. That is to say, writers should build stories as a succession of dramatic scenes (showing) connected by whatever essential information the reader needs (telling). The most acceptable form of telling, however, is always couched in the thoughts of a point-of-view (POV) character, as in writing something like this:

David knew that he could blame his father for his sudden attack of conscience. All through his childhood, that domineering man had drilled into him lessons about . . . blah, blah, blah.

By writing "David knew," the writer is telling readers that the information that follows comes via the POV character's thoughts, not from an off-stage omniscient narrator.

Showing draws the reader into the story by providing mental images; telling asks the reader to sit still and listen while you drone on. Showing offers dramatic effects; telling does not.

All writers struggle to comply with this basic rule to one extent or another. Those who do more showing than telling are way ahead of the game, while those who tell too much are cheating their readers and risking losing them. When the author tells the story by using point of view-less narration (omniscient exposition), the reader is one step removed from the action and the characters because the author places himself in the middle. As a result, the reader becomes an observer and a recorder of information, simply taking in the data, and his emotions are not engaged. Therefore, much of the impact and immediacy is lost because readers can react emotionally only to an act. “People read fiction for emotion, not information,” as Sinclair Lewis said. Never forget that story means drama, and drama requires character in action. Both action and reaction to action advance the plot and reveal the strengths and weaknesses of character. Action does not have to be vast and violent, but whatever form it takes, it must be shown, not told.

Important: Keep in mind that plotting serves largely to arrange a story in ways that allow the writer the best and most logical ways to show rather than tell the story.

Aspiring novelists should make a special effort to avoid value judgments, which are perhaps the most onerous form of telling. For instance, a writer may say in narration that it is “an ugly house” or that she’s “a wonderful teacher.” If you want readers to respond emotionally to people, things, and events (you do), then such things should be shown, not told.

Telling instead of showing often weakens the opening paragraphs of a chapter or a scene in the work of new writers, especially if the narrative fails even to establish the time and place of the action (two of the requirements of scene framing). Beginnings are much more focused and effective if you start with a single POV character doing something at a specific place and time—if you showed your readers a scene as if it were a stage set, with a person or people in action instead of feeding them dry information. Once that’s done, then you can slip in some description of the setting, some background info, a character sketch, a bit of history, or whatever you need through the consciousness of the VPC (viewpoint character).

Bottom line: Let your story and your characters reveal themselves through action (including dialogue), allowing your readers to witness the action as it occurs, scene by scene. Write like this, and you’ll find that if the scenes—the showing parts—are done well, then you won’t need so much exposition—the telling parts, which is a good way for writers to tighten their novel. As you rewrite, you’ll often find that most of the vital information you thought had to be spoon-fed to the reader by exposition can be inserted more artfully into someone’s thoughts (interior monologue) and dialogue. The best-selling writer Elmore Leonard, who was a real old pro, has said that all the information you need to communicate can be included in dialogue. His crime novels may not be your cup of tea, but he’s one writer who really knows what it means to show instead of tell.

Paul Thayer


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Compound words

Ninety percent of all spelling problems, the writing gods say, concern compound words. Should it be selfseeking or self-seeking? Is it taxpayer, tax-payer, or tax payer? In other words, is the compound closed, hyphenated, or open? Who knows? Not many of us. That’s why we all need a good dictionary such as Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and The Chicago Manual of Style. I have made a long list of compound words that I’ve encountered often so I don’t have to keep pawing through these books. I have better things to do such as debating foreign policy with my cat, Mr. Cody. I swear he makes more sense than most of our presidents.

Be careful about how you tack the word like on to the end of words with more self-respect. Some combos are written as one word, including catlike and trancelike. Words using the suffix -like are generally closed unless they end with l or ll (sail-like, ball-like), contain three or more syllables (basilica-like), are compound words to begin with (vacuum-bottle-like), or are proper nouns or other words that are difficult to read when written as one word (Whitman-like). One exception, though, is Christlike.

Also beware of words that begin with co-. Such compounds are usually written as one word, as in coworker. Even after editing and proofing, go back through your text and double-check the compound words you’ve used, because spell check doesn’t catch all of them—or give you the correct way to write them if it does—and because the pain associated with compound words tends to make copyeditors hallucinate after about a hundred pages.

In addition—and I hope you know this already—do not hyphenate a term that combines an adverb ending with -ly with another word. For example, don’t hyphenate the word pair heavily guarded.

Paul Thayer

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Clause for Celebration

Even many good writers must have been absent from school the day their English teacher discussed the independent clause, the basic sentence unit.

What’s an independent clause? This is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb, expresses a complete thought, and can stand alone. Example: “Barbara shouted.” If a sentence has two independent clauses that are connected by a conjunction—often and or but—it is called a compound sentence. Example: “Barbara shouted, and Steve turned around.”

Notice the comma after the word shouted and before the conjunction and. This is the way you should punctuate a compound sentence. If you can’t identify the subjects and verbs in this sentence, then you probably should consider giving up writing and becoming a fish farmer.

Pop quiz: Where do you place a comma in this sentence:

She wanted to run but her legs wouldn’t move.

Got it? Lord, I hope so.

Here’s another point to note when dealing with compound sentences that is an exception to the comma rule: When the subject is the same for both independent clauses and is expressed only once, you should use a comma if the connective is but. If the connective is and, you should omit the comma if the relationship between the two statements is close or immediate. Examples:

He has had several years’ experience and is thoroughly competent.

I have heard his arguments, but am still unconvinced.

Also keep in mind that you should avoid writing loose sentences that string together several independent clauses. Such constructions should be broken into separate sentences, or you can separate the independent clauses with a semicolon.

Paul Thayer