Robert L. Sellers, Jr. writes about...
In issue 188, Carmen Ruggero gives some very useful advice about the writer’s approach to dialogue and action. I’ve talked about developing plots, and Gloria Watts has continued the discussion in this issue. But writers’ problems don’t end there...
Bob Sellers develops characters, action, dialogue, and plot so fluently that he makes it look easy. But nobody’s perfect: Bob and I have had a lot of fun — at least I have — with some of his sentences.
Bob has graciously allowed us to use as an example a paragraph he’d been wrestling with in a forthcoming story. He’s decided to remove the final sentence as being unnecessary in its context, but let’s use the whole paragraph as an example of what writers have to consider in making revisions:
We started giving Jeffers and Brockingham a heads up when we spotted phantoms at crime scenes. Their arrest records began to climb and we began to get better at finding the ghostly images that kept turning up in photos of bodies and crowds at crime scenes. The pictures helped us identify suspects we might never have connected with the crime leading the police to cooperate in ways that only we could appreciate as photographers.
We started giving Jeffers and Brockingham a heads up when we spotted phantoms at crime scenes.
“Heads-up” needs a linking hyphen, but so far, so good.
Their arrest records began to climb and we began to get better at finding the ghostly images that kept turning up in photos of bodies and crowds at crime scenes.
“Their” has an ambiguous reference: “crime scenes” or “phantoms.” Obviously, “arrest records” makes “their” refer to two detectives, Jeffers and Brockingham, but the reader has to stop and mentally back and fill to make the connection.
The repetition of “crime scenes” is awkward.
Perhaps: “We started giving Jeffers and Brockingham a heads-up when we spotted phantoms. The detectives’ arrest records began to climb as we got better at finding ghostly images in photos of bodies and of crowds at crime scenes.”
The pictures helped us identify suspects we might never have connected with the crime leading the police to cooperate in ways that only we could appreciate as photographers.
Grammatically, “leading” is an adjective modifying “crime,” and that doesn’t make any sense. “Leading” has to be a present participle; to make it one, you’d have to say something like “The pictures helped us identify suspects we might never have connected with the crime, thus leading the police to cooperate...”
However, “thus” is considered too highfalutin’ a word in English to use here. English often implies cause and effect. But speakers of Romance languages systematically distinguish cause and effect and find that English often lapses into unacceptable ambiguity. Romance language style can be a useful double-check, but it can’t be imported. Let’s use idiomatic English:
Perhaps: “The police began to cooperate with us even more, and we felt they really appreciated our work as photographers.”
Good old “and.” The conjunction has so many uses it’s the Swiss army knife of English prose style. When it links two clauses, it can mean “and then” or “and therefore” or both at once. In “and we felt,” it means “and therefore.”
Thanks for the opportunity for discussion, Bob! Now, let’s all rush out and pin little color-coded tags on adjectives, present participles, and gerunds!
Copyright © 2006 by Robert L. Sellers, Jr.
and Bewildering Stories