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Night Of The Living Syntax

Dennis's picture Posted by Dennis

Night Of The Living Syntax

by Craig Clevenger

"Night of the Living Syntax' by Craig Clevenger

NIGHT OF THE LIVING SYNTAX: DISEMBODIED ACTION

Stories are about people doing shit. Yeah, take a minute to let that soak in. Feel free to quote me, too. Allow me to elaborate: a story has somebody who wants something, goes for it and gets cock-blocked. Our hero, let’s call him “Somebody” (because I’m creative like that), then redoubles his effort with a Plan B. Each new attempt means greater and greater effort on Somebody’s part, with greater risk each time, and greater consequences with each action. The cycle repeats itself up to the climax, where at which point the consequences are the most significant.

Pardon the sarcastic recap of the craft, but the notion of character volition is one of the guiding principles in this piece. Your protagonist must have a desire; your protagonist must also behave willfully to bring about that desire. This goes for the action hero who desires to rescue the hostages from the fortified building and willfully takes the appropriate action to do so; it also goes for the daughter working up the nerve to face her estranged mother who’s on her deathbed.

Even if your protagonist is a perennial couch potato, that character’s desire to do nothing is an act of will. He or she consciously chooses to ignore the phone or take a shower; to watch television instead of scan the classifieds for a job. As lazy as he or she is, they are still choosing one set of behaviors over another; the laziness is not choosing them. If it is, you may be writing about a character with serious depression, in which case he or she has different sets of choices—likewise a battle of will—waiting ahead.

Some stories are driven by protagonists who start a chain of events by their own hand, others by protagonists who are reacting to the circumstances and events around them. In every case, your protagonist wants something and takes measures to get it. If your protagonist has no will, your reader finds another book. Critical in establishing your character’s will is putting as much conscious action within your character’s scope of behavior as possible.

Here’s this lesson’s lab rat:

Twelve flights of stairs and my lungs were heaving for air. My eyes darted about the dark hallway, then my body went still as my sight adjusted. I felt my heart pounding in my chest as my arm groped for the wall to steady myself.

“You’re late.”

I recognized the voice. My hand was at my holster when the light hit me straight on. My eyes clamped shut as my fingers curled around my pistol and I heard Martin speak again, just one word:

“Don’t.”

When my eyes opened I saw Martin standing in the wash of bright light, a pistol leveled at my chest.

Here we have a nameless protagonist/narrator. We might not know the entire story at this point, but it’s fair to say that he’s urgently on the hunt for a nemesis named Martin. And since Martin has the drop on him, it’s also a fair bet that his immediate, compelling desire is to gain the upper hand or, at very least, not get shot. No problem, so far.

Common wisdom says that good writers build sentences around nouns and verbs. I agree with that bit of common wisdom. Nouns form the subjects of sentences; verbs specify the action the noun is taking, i.e., the predicate. Sometimes another noun contributes to the verb’s object, rounding out the predicate. Solidly crafted prose is about action and the things doing those actions; good prose has a sense of movement. The rest—the conjunctions, prepositions and articles—form the connective tissue of your prose; the adverbs and adjectives are the lipstick and swanky handbag. Looking at every word’s contribution to the core meaning of each sentence, as conveyed by your subject and verb, determines which words are driftwood and which are not. With that in mind, let’s review the action* from the above scene:

heave          dart            go           adjust

feel            grope          steady    recognize

are             hit              clamp     curl

hear           speak          open       see

stand          level

*I’ve cited the present indicative form of the verbs, hence “go” and “are” for the use of “went (still)” and “(hand) was (at).”

That’s a lot of action for such a short passage. As there should be, what with the chasing and the guns and what not. And what’s doing the action? Some lungs, some eyes, a body, some sight, a heart... the list goes on. Which is odd, because there are only two people in the scene and one of them doesn’t move a muscle except to utter three syllables.

Making a body part the active subject of a sentence might make some sense at first, but ultimately it distances your character’s actions from his or her will. Placing conscious, willful action into a disembodied piece of anatomy ("...his eyes scanned the room..." "...her hand fumbled for his in the dark...") takes the action away from your character, which undermines your character’s ability to carry the story. After so much finger drumming and fist clenching from even the most stalwart superhero, you risk your protagonist coming off as unintentionally weak or pliant. If Lou (the beloved short order cook from the Hotseat intensives) is about to rip some whiny diner's head off—

Lou clenched his meaty fist around the spatula's gigantic handle until his knuckles turned white.

—I want to show Lou on edge, not Lou’s hands. Yes, fist or jaw clenching, finger drumming and toe tapping are somewhat, sort of, maybe, kind of involuntary (certainly the emotions that precede them are). But a character's conscious, physical response to an involuntary emotion is a mixture of habit, temperament, self-control, maturity, and a host of things which define that character. Thus, a character's action should reveal something about that character, and not that character's appendage. Think of Sin City. Do Marv’s fists clench? Or does Marv clench his fists?

Back to the lab rat. Ladies and gentlemen, start your scalpels:

Twelve flights of stairs and my lungs were heaving for air.

Okay, he’s out of breath, so “lungs heaving for air” is involuntary and thus appropriate.

My eyes darted about the dark hallway, then my body went still as my sight adjusted.

He has control over his eyes, in this respect, as well as this facet of his body’s activity. How about:

I glanced about the dark hallway and kept still—

His eyes adjusting to the dark is indeed out of his control, so it can stay.

—until my sight adjusted.

I felt my heart pounding in my chest as my arm groped for the wall to steady myself.

A pounding heart is certainly involuntary, a result of either the hike up the stairs or his sense of panic, or both. In the interest of both “submerging the I” and pairing the action with the appropriate subject:

My heart pounded in my chest—

This takes care of those two issues, plus it swaps out the limp and redundant verb “felt” for the more robust “pounded” (which was previously wasted as a gerund). I say redundant because if he says his heart is pounding in his chest, we know he feels it.

—and I groped for the wall to steady myself.

A compound sentence, so the “I” stays nicely submerged.

I recognized the voice.

No problem, but if you want to make certain that your “I” stays submerged, you could just as easily say something like, “The voice was familiar.” Passive, yes, but that’s a call you can make depending on how many uses of “I” you need to tackle, and whether or not a single, four-word sentence in the passive voice is going to wreck the scene as a whole.

My hand was at my holster when the light hit me straight on.

If this were a zombie story, or a story with an amputated hand crawling toward his holster, it might work. But it’s not, so our hero—not his disembodied hand—needs to reach for his weapon:

I reached for my holster when the light hit me straight on.

We’ve done a good job so far with submerging the “I,” so this one won’t hurt. After all, it’s a mighty handy pronoun to have when writing in the first person.

My eyes clamped shut as my fingers curled around my pistol and I heard Martin speak again, just one word:

Okay, “eyes clamped shut” could be written as either voluntary or involuntary. It’s a judgment call for the writer, in this case. Let’s leave it, but nix the zombie hand in the second clause:

—as I curled my fingers around my pistol—

And since we want to bury the “I” and keep the actions as close to their nouns and possible, with those nouns as the subjects:

Martin spoke again, just one word:

And as with the above line, “I felt my heart pounding”, the fact that he hears Martin speaking is a given, since they’re standing in the hallway together, so “I hear” is redundant.

When my eyes opened I saw Martin standing in the wash of bright light, a pistol leveled at my chest.

We let “eyes clamped shut” slide, but not this time. Nobody’s prying our hero’s eyes open but his own will:

I opened my eyes.

Let’s leave that as a complete sentence. Because you know what’s next... the useless “I” and the redundancy of saying he sees Martin when they’re the only people in the scene:

Martin stood in the wash of bright light, a pistol leveled at my chest.

Before:

Twelve flights of stairs and my lungs were heaving for air. My eyes darted about the dark hallway, then my body went still as my sight adjusted. I felt my heart pounding in my chest as my hand groped for the wall to steady myself.

“You’re late.”

I recognized the voice. My hand was at my holster when the light hit me straight on. My eyes clamped shut as my fingers curled around my pistol and I heard Martin speak again, just one word:

“Don’t.”

When my eyes opened I saw Martin standing in the wash of bright light, a pistol leveled at my chest.

After:

Twelve flights of stairs and my lungs were heaving for air. I glanced about the dark hallway and kept still until my sight adjusted. My heart pounded in my chest and I groped for the wall to steady myself.

“You’re late.”

I recognized the voice.

I reached for my holster when the light hit me straight on. My eyes clamped shut as I curled my fingers around my pistol and Martin spoke again, just one word:

“Don’t.”

I opened my eyes. Martin stood in the wash of bright light, a pistol leveled at my chest.

And one more spit polish:

Twelve flights of stairs and my lungs were heaving for air. I glanced about the dark hallway and kept still until my sight adjusted. My heart pounded in my chest and I groped for the wall to steady myself.

“You’re late.”

A familiar voice.

I reached for my holster but the bright light hit me straight on. I blindly curled my fingers around my pistol then Martin spoke again, just one word:

“Don’t.”

The afterflash faded. There stood Martin stood in the wash of light, his .9mm leveled at my chest.

And there’s one final, very significant reason for nitpicking at all of this. When it's time for your character to have a genuinely involuntary physical reaction, such as passing out or vomiting ("... his stomach emptied itself onto the rollercoaster..."), then making the limb/organ the sentence subject—instead of the character—will indeed create a true feeling of your character not being in control. Save the involuntary action for those times it’s truly involuntary. With too much finger drumming, foot tapping and eye darting, the real out-of-control actions (sneezing, fainting, vomiting, gasping) lose their intended punch. But when the writer is mindful of those phrases, then our above scene can end like this:

...the hallway went dark again and my knees buckled beneath me.

"Night of the Living Syntax' by Craig Clevenger

And the sense of peril is real.That's exactly what you want when your character is wounded, injured, poisoned, possessed or gravely ill. Those things are all plot turns, and you want those turns to have plenty of torque.

In summary, a good story is carried by the actions of a willful protagonist, whether that protagonist is initiating the events of the plot or reacting to circumstances beyond his or her control. A critical part of establishing your protagonist’s volition is minding your syntax so as to have all of your character’s conscious actions occur within the scope of their own will, and not their disembodied anatomy.

It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an “I.”

-Craig

 

POST SCRIPT: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PASSIVE VERB

 

People often mistake the above point for making a character passive or using the passive voice, just as often as I hear the term “passive verb.” This is one of the most universally misunderstood concepts in writing.

In brief, we’ve got action verbs and being verbs. Action verbs express, well, action. John sat on the chair. Action verbs are either transitive or intransitive; Transitive verbs take an object (i.e., there’s the verb and there’s the thing being verbed). John threw the ball (threw is the verb; ball is the verb object). Intransitive verbs have no object: John ran. Both threw and ran are action verbs, nonetheless. When someone refers to a “passive verb,” what they usually mean is a being verb, i.e., something that expresses a static state of being: am, are, is, was, were. Sometimes they’re used as linking verbs or helping verbs.

Don’t confuse verb tenses with verb types. I will eat versus I have eaten are different statements, and neither is passive. Verb tense is vital to a reader's sense of chronological navigation. Keeping your reader on point involves copious uses of have, will have, had, was, were and the like, none of which have anything to do with being passive, but have everything to do with your reader not getting lost.

If your protagonist is late for work and lighting a cigarette while he watches an ambulance drive away with his neighbor in the back, you've got a sequence of circumstances all occurring simultaneously: The past– what made him late, what put his friend into the ambulance; the present– the act of being late, lighting a cigarette and watching the ambulance drive away; the future– he has to run for the next train or try to hail a taxi at rush hour. The way to keep the sequence clear while conveying a single narrative instance is via multiple verb tenses:

Bob lit a cigarette as he watched the ambulance drive away. He had been late for work three days in a row, so he'd be sprinting to the subway for a fourth, thanks to his neighbor who had said the wrong thing to a very pissed off repair man that morning.

Past simple, past simple, future progressive, past perfect.

Being verbs get a bad rap, since they’re often the quickest way home if you want to convey information without breaking narrative flow. Too often, I see simple and clean sentences get mutilated by a desperate attempt to rid them of being verbs, when “It was raining” would have sufficed. Used judiciously, simple phrases like “It was raining” will carry their weight as much as any other. A well-placed being verb is the dramatic pause; the silence after the distant scream (and the before chainsaw); the feather duster between riding crop lashes.

If you check Strunk & White, you will find no reference to the term “passive verb.” Seriously. Check it out for yourself. I’m not kidding when I say “there’s no such thing as a passive verb.” People confuse the above use of being verbs with the real culprit, the passive voice. And the passive voice has nothing to do with the type of verb being used, but everything to do with the who or what is doing the action. The passive voice is a matter of syntax, not vocabulary. It happens when the person or thing being verbed assumes the role of subject in a sentence, i.e., your syntax is backward.

The rain hammered down onto Bob.

The subject is rain, the verb is hammered, the object is Bob, receiving the hammering. Hammer, when used as a verb, is by no means passive, but to say, "Bob was hammered on by the rain" is to use the passive voice, no matter how “aggressive” your action verb.

His boss was shot by him.

Passive voice. The verb object assumes role of sentence subject.

He shot his boss.

Active voice.

He had shot his boss through the face—

Active voice with an action verb, but the verb did its business before the current narrative action,

—and now he had nowhere to hide the corpse.

He had shot his boss.

Still active voice, but told in the past perfect.

Ad infinitum. There are no passive verbs, only passive voices. One last thing, Strunk & White says to “avoid” the passive voice, but nowhere is it expressly forbidden. When to make the exception is up to you.

Word.