Saturday, October 13, 2012

The rhythm of the words: Another how-to-write post

Most of us have heard of the dread dangling participle and the misplaced modifier.  Let's look at some examples.
Opening the door, my heart pounded with fear.
That (present) participle phrase "opening the door" is just, well, it's just dangling.  It's not modifying anything else in the sentence.  "My heart" isn't opening the door.  Maybe "I" am opening the door, but "I" am not in the sentence.

Though it's more common with present participles, the same problem can happen with past participles.
Ripped to smithereens by the bomb blast, I tried to shield my eyes from the flames.
What was ripped to smithereens?  Not "I," since "I" am still reporting from the scene.  So the "ripped" phrase is just hangin' there, not really doing anything.  It's dangling.

Very often, of course, the context of the sentence will provide some clarification as to the actual meaning, but the writer who is careless about the construction of each individual sentence will often be careless about the rest of her or his craft.  Every sentence counts. And that's for good or bad.

Even when participial phrases are used correctly, they can become annoying if not kept under control.  Most readers won't notice if you have a present participle or three in each and every sentence.  Most readers don't develop the mental rhythm that comes from seeing too many -ing words.

Racing down the hill in the pouring rain, I didn't realize my feet were slipping on the grass until I was tumbling head over heels.

Smiling with delight, Rolinda watched her children playing in the sand, building towering castles and digging deep holes going all the way to China.

Hearing the sound of approaching hoofbeats, Brandon ducked behind the overhanging branches that hid the opening to the cave.
Are the examples exaggerations?  Not really.  In one self-published historical romance I downloaded this past week, there are 28 -ing words in the first four pages.  Yes, I'm much more aware of them than most readers.  But that doesn't mean they aren't important or that a writer shouldn't care about them.

For one thing, there are readers who notice.  For another, the more you as a writer pay attention to the writing and not just the storytelling, the better you will be able to tell the story so the reader gets it.

When a writer is aware of the potential for overuse of -ing participles, she can pay more attention to making each sentence as effective and powerful and precise as it can be.  It's not enough just to get the words out.  In a first draft, sure -- as Kasey Michaels told me years ago, it doesn't have to be perfect; it just has to be finished.  But it's the rewriting, the revising, the polishing  of that first draft that marks the professional.
At the hoofbeats approached, Brandon ducked behind the branches that hid the entrance to the cave.

With a smile of delight, Rolinda watched her children play in the sand.  They built towering castles and dug holes they believed would reach all the way to China.

I raced down the hill in the pouring rain and didn't realize my feet had slipped on the grass until I tumbled head over heels.
Present participles -- a form of a verb -- always end in -ing.  Ringing, laughing, grinding, galloping, chiming, snorting, wending, striving, seeking, bragging.

Past participles take a lot of different endings, and some are completely different words from the root verb.  Gone, done, looked, hung, thought, dragged, sneaked, found, drawn.  The use of past tense or past participles helps the writer avoid those monotonous -ing forms.

Obviously, there are times when the present participle is the best choice, the most effective choice, and it should be used there.  You may find that substituting a past tense or past participle construction makes dialogue stilted; by all means, use the present participle (usually as part of a progressive tense) if it makes your dialogue read more natural.

Brandishing the old sabre more like a club than a sword, Walter waited for the first invader to step out of the tunnel.

"I'm not giving you any more time, Lisa.  Either turn over the papers tomorrow or I'll take you to court."
Is it always easy to find just the right phrasing to convey exactly the idea, the vision, the experience you want to convey to the reader?  No, of course not.  But the more you practice, the more you're aware of the potential weaknesses, the more you read your own writing, the better you'll get at it.  Notice I didn't say it will get any easier. . . .

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