Monday, February 02, 2015

Technical Topic -- Recasting a sentence

Me bringing stuff back to the blog
Elsewhere, somebody said, (more or less):

I don't like this sentence. How do I fix it?

Dressed in drab black and a Roman collar, the slim middle aged man looked at them curiously.

I took that question and brought it back here to think about it.

Sometimes we can change a word or pull out a phrase and the sentence sings. But sometimes it's better to wind back to zero on the redraft. Many tears have been shed trying to save a sentence that should just be put out of its misery.

Philosophically speaking, we look at what the sentence does. What is it about? What hopes and dreams did you have for this sentence when you wrote it?
Then we plunge in.

1) Sentences are written from strong nouns and verbs. We place the foundation of the sentence there, all four-square and stalwart and solid.
 The noun and verb of your sentence are:

Dressed in drab black and a Roman collar, the slim middle aged man looked at them curiously.

The man looked.

2) Can we find a more exact and specific noun?

... the clergyman, the reverend father, the priest, the monk, Father Dudley, the rector of the parish, the abbot, the visitor from the dioceses, the deacon ...
Let's make it the deacon.

3) Can we find a more exact, specific verb? What did the deacon do?

... hid his interest, peeked at them, peered in their direction, watched them,, studied them covertly, stared, was interested, was inquisitive, was curious, was intrigued. ...

4) One possible sentence:

The deacon watched.

which is another way of saying, 'the man looked' but now it is a specific man looking in a slightly more specific way.

5)  Heck. Let's give that deacon some action more interesting than merely observing them.  Let's have him step back into the shadows
while he's watching.
This 'stepping back' is an action-y and visual verb to make up for 'watching' being kinda dull and static. 

The deacon stepped back into the shadows, watching.

6) At this point we could set the sentence in place and go write a description of the man or some action or other interesting things. 

Somewhat more story, for example
But we got an innocent sentence sitting there doing nothing in particular. Let's put more story into this sentence.  Let's connect it to the POV character with another of those action verbs that make a visual.  Our POV character and friends can

limp in, trudge in, creep in, slip in, come to hide, take shelter ...
Our POV character and company limp in.

7) And that gives us:

When they limped in, the deacon stepped back into the shadows, watching.

8) But when --  you ask --  do the  adjectives arrive to dress up the scene?

Mostly, they don't.
We don't need to lay on a slathering of modifiers because our nouns and verbs are doing their jobs.

Our noun contains Dressed in drab black and a Roman collar because those descriptors come as a side order with the word 'deacon'.

Should we talk about  slim middle aged?
I'm going to say -- 'No.'
Here's why.

What does the POV character see?
9) Let me get into the whole Adding descriptors bit

When we are in character POV,
and we want to add visuals, sounds -- anything in the environment --
we do not just pluck the sights and sounds at random.

We add the visuals, sounds, and smells that the POV character notices.

Imagine the scene.
What would this POV guy entering the church notice in this scene?

The expression on the deacon's face?
... Probably not. The deacon is on the other side of the room.

Age? Body type?

But the first thing most people notice when entering a space is the location of the figure in it.
The location of the deacon.

When they limped in, the deacon stepped back into the shadows behind the pulpit, watching.

10) We could add more modifiers, certainly.
We could have them limp painfully or slowly.  We could make the shadows deep. We could make the pulpit tall and wooden. We could have the watching being done warily.  The deacon could be fit and middle-aged ....
Modifying is cheap thrills.

But sentences have a certain weight to them.  A certain complication and gravity. A certain amount going on.
A sentence with a certain balance and weight
I think the sentence is about as heavy as it should be. I wouldn't add more words.

We will need a description of the deacon eventually, but why not add it when the deacon is close enough to see?
Then, when we have the POV character face to face with the deacon,
we can put several pieces of body description close together into a chunk
and build a complete word picture.

One goal of adjectives is to be interesting in-and-of themselves. But it's also nice to stuff the description full of story. It's not just about how the guy looks -- it's what the appearance tells us about his character and the story.

So, some lines down, the deacon ...

-- stalked toward them vigorously
-- about fifty, with a craggy face, too brown to match this city parish
-- pale-skinned but fit
-- the upright, hard strength that came from hard work rather than a gym membership
-- in drab and durable black, worn at the cuffs and elbows

11) I'm going to add something kinda nebulous.

Maybe the basic problem with that original sentence is that it does not form a harmonious whole. The parts of if seem to have been selected at random from a bin and glued. The subordinate clause does not relate to what's going on in the sentence.  

Dressed in drab black and a Roman collar, the slim middle aged man looked at them curiously.

When they limped in, the deacon stepped back into the shadows behind the pulpit, watching.

The original sentence is of the type:

Able to leap tall buildings with a single bound, Superman finished typing his letter. 


  1. Dang! This makes so much sense and you make it all seem so logical and easy. My cousin used to seek succour by banging his head back against the wall rhythmically, repeatedly. Metaphorically, that's what I'm about to go do until this advice settles permanently.

  2. *g*
    It's not the way we approach most writing. But if there's a sentence that just isn't coming out right ...

    noun strong and vivid
    Verb full of action visuals

    Then we ask what the sentence is supposed to do. Can we add other verbs to it?
    Finally, does it need modifiers?
    What does the POV character see?

  3. Anonymous7:49 PM

    Wow! Thank you.

  4. This is a really nice rundown. I saw this question in the same place you did, and I think your advice is spot on and contains useful points for all writers to think about.

    1. I don't say folks should write this way. It's not suited to creating new material.

      But sometimes when you're tangled up, you have to back to the simplicity of the noun and the verb -- clear away all the underbrush -- and write from there.

  5. Glad I read this. Some people are wordsmiths. You are a language engineer.

    1. If I can't smith those words, I'll engineer the hell out of 'em. But one way or the other, those words will submit.

  6. Thanks Jo, this post speaks to me. As an actor as well as a writer POV is huge for me. The character comes into the space to DO something. I try (not always succeeding) to put my body into the POV character and focus on his or her goal. The scene is all filtered through the eyes and ears of that character. Anything else that sneaks in feels false. This little lesson will go next to your "How to do Backstory". Thanks! (Jess Russell)

  7. Hi Jess Russell --

    You are so lucky to come to writing with a big portfolio of acting tucked under your arm.

    NOTHING is better for building close character POV than the experience of being IN the drama, instead of watching it on the screen.