Monday, February 20, 2006

Depend No More

The dreaded –ing or as phrase. I love them. It’s an easy way to achieve sentence variation and show simultaneous action.

“Grabbing the ice pick, she plunged it into the vampire.”
“As she plunged the ice pick into the vampire, he squealed in agony.”

What’s wrong with these two sentences? the beginning writer asks. Nothing, really. But experienced writers know to use these sentence constructions sparingly because these phrases act like adjectives and adverbs. They are modifiers to the verb phrase. And while most writers know to prune back the adjectives and adverbs, they are less apt to do so with these dependent clauses. Overuse of these clauses, like overuse of all modifiers, robs your prose of power.

“She grabbed the ice pick and plunged it into the vampire.”

I’m the first to admit this is not scintillating prose, but see how this version keeps the reader with the action. It reads at a faster pace; it has the power of immediacy. Renni Browne and Dave King, in their must-have book “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” calls this ‘sophistication’. Admittedly, the writer can’t have a book loaded with subject, verb, preposition phrases, to read a novel constructed solely of these phrases would be like listening to a dripping faucet. But careful and judicious use of my beloved –ing and as phrases reads more professionally and sets your writing apart from writers who gum up their prose with modifiers.

Don’t believe me? Pick up the work of a favorite author, one who keeps you glued to the page. Notice how often they use these phrases. When I did this, the lesson was learned.

Not that pros—even best-selling pros—occasionally forget. Browne and King offer an enlightening exercise in their book. See if you can guess who wrote this (it was a mega-bestseller when I was a teen):

“Grabbing up a pelt she pulled it close about her and gave him an impishly wicked look as she grinned. Turning on her heels with a low laugh, she went to the hearth, there to lay small logs upon the still warm coals. She blew upon them but drew back in haste as the ashes flew up and sat back upon her heels rubbing her reddened eyes while Wulfgar’s amused chuckles filled the room. She made a face at his mirth and swung the kettle of water on its hook over the building heat as he crossed to the warmth of the fire beside her and began to dress.”

The answer and the suggested edits will appear in my next blog entry. Take a stab at fixing it yourself. You could only improve it.


Blogger Elena Greene said...

Hmmm... I'm probably (no, make that definitely) guilty of some of these crimes. Motives pure, of course--to vary sentence structure. Glad my CPs catch me when I overdo it! :)

Though some of your examples make me feel better.

The first, “Grabbing the ice pick, she plunged it into the vampire.” is incorrect because it doesn't give a proper sequence. I think she'd have to grab the ice pick BEFORE plunging into the bloodsucker.

To me, it would be a valid use of "as" if the events really were simultaneous and it was important to show that. What do you think?


2:01 PM  
Blogger Therese Walsh said...

I agree with you, Elena.

"Anikin saw nothing save an image of his dead wife and child as he stared into the emperor's cold-bright eyes..."

Star Wars III on the brain. Sorry.

9:40 AM  

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