Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fanciful Whimsy From The Deck Of The Good Ship Buggered (Or “Participial Phrases R Us”)

This morning, I reminded myself that this is supposed to be a writing site. I mention this because my original intention for this post had been to dress my feet up in hand-knitted costumes and with the aid of some trick photography, flag up a thesis condemning the practice of palm reading to the dustbin. Then I got distracted and ended up scanning one of my buttocks. That, I think, was the killer stimulus for the thought that perhaps I might be better off chancing my arm at something a little more serious.

I’ve held off from posting something like this for a while, mainly because the internet abounds with sound writing advice from individuals (and occasionally alien gladiator hordes) who know far more than I do. Added to this, of course, is the dilemma that in all things writerly, the dividing line between Gospel Truths of Form and Function, Subjectively Rendered Quirks that Work and Tosh Exasperating Tosh is often as blurred as Shane McGowan’s vision first thing in the morning.

I was, however, taken by a couple of recent posts over at Edittorrent about the thorny subject of participial phrases. Ever the ignoramus (and if you’re a fledgling goth/grunge crossover band, you may use this for the title of one of your songs with my pleasure), I’d never heard of this until I read the posts, but now I’m familiar with the term, I realise my writing is littered with these. Disheartening, then, to discover that in many circles, participial phrases are regarded as amateurish.

The problem for me is that I like concurrence within a sentence — the juxtaposition of ideas/themes/thoughts/whatever in a succinct self-enclosed bubble of the active present. Sure, things can pan out as and while other things are occurring, but since these words assume the mantle of conjunction, any sentence or phrase united by their merry dance might easily be split in two without too much loss of harmony. Most times, I think, it’s better if they are.

Those -ing modifiers, however, are a great little tool, and brilliant for chopping out what might otherwise be an overabundance of ands and a tendency towards turning the cinematic filmstrip of the prose into the stoccato flash of a slideshow. This, then this, then this. Fine — but I like my looks of horror to coincide with the emergence of the demon beast from the fireplace and not as a post-full-stop afterthought.

That said, so many of my opening sentences take the form something and something.

For instance:

The mouse plucked a whisker and threaded it through the needle.

No need here to go with

The mouse plucked a whisker. (Then) he threaded it through the needle.

And the following simply wouldn’t work:

Plucking a whisker (mouse-modifying adjectival participial phrase (of doom)), the mouse threaded it through the needle.

Clearly, the mouse can’t thread the needle at the same time as he’s plucking it from his cheek (unless he’s a very bizarre shape-shifting mouse, in which case it might be permissible. Hey — if you’re a shape-shifting mouse, you can get away with anything). Rendered like this, the sentence messes with time and action in a way that makes no sense: bad writing.

But doesn’t this form open up a world of possibilities that the simple and cannot? Does it not provide a cunning solution to the union of linked ideas within a sentence? That has infinite scope for variety? I certainly think so.

I may be hanging myself here, but here’s a sample sentence from my WIP that I’ve thought about many different ways, and which always cries out to be written using a participial phrase. Briefly, the scenario is that the protag has emerged from his apartment clutching an arsenal of hastily assembled weaponry in order to confront a powerful interloper. He is unprepared and time is against him. Here’s how he fares:

Gripping the wok handle between his teeth, he powered up the flamethrower, flipping every turbo charger and cranking the Hydrazinometer till the propellant pump blew off.

So, he’s having to hold an object he intends to use as a shield (the unwieldy wok) while he uses both hands to ready his weapon (the flamethrower). The gripping of the wok in this way, as an activity concurrent with the business of the flamethrower, (I think) flags up the nature of his predicament far better than:

He gripped the wok handle between his teeth and powered up...

Presenting this part of the scene in this sequential way suggests he’s more in control of things than is actually the (intended) case. And As he gripped... is similar (though probably indicative of slightly more control on his part).

Another option might have been to introduce words like flustered or sweating, or to engage in some blatant telling, but I think it’s fine as it is. To my untrained eye, it appears to do the job pretty well.

So — any thoughts? About concurrent activity within a sentence? Participial phrases?


Scarlet-Blue said...

Oh crikey, I'm the last person who should be first!
But, as a reader, crammed sentences do confuse me - they're difficult to visualise. I am a bit simple though. And fond of odd ampersands.

Anna Claire said...

I think you've got it spot-on. "Gripping the wok..." works because it conveys the meaning you want (hastily assembling weapons for a battle he's unprepared to fight) without you having to add unneccessary "telling-not-showing" adjectives like "flustered."

The problem comes when people use this construction ALL THE TIME in a piece of writing, which I see a lot as a small magazine editor with some of my newbie freelancers. It's annoying and kind of lazy. But when used appropriately (like you did) it totally works.

Anyway, that's my two cents. Don't second-guess your genius, Whirl ;)

Whirlochre said...

Ampersands? Are those beaches where you're allowed to picnic?

Anna Claire
I agree — one-trick ponies can be a tiresome spectacle (unless the trick is that they explode in a fireball of wizzy sparkly lights).

ril said...

Gripping the wok handle between his teeth, he powered up the flamethrower, flipping every turbo charger and cranking the Hydrazinometer till the propellant pump blew off.

Take any grammatical construct and you'll find someone who has "read the writing blogs" and will pontificate about how evil it is and why you will never get published while you insist on writing like that. So, here goes...

Seriously, though, if I just read the sentence, it's fine. In the middle of a book, in the middle of the excitement, I'm sure it would do its job just fine. Now, if I sit here and over-analyse it, I can discover "problems". Because it implies so many things going on at exactly the same time. He's gripping the wok. OK. He's powering up the flamethrower. OK. He's powering up the flamethrower by flipping the switches and cranking the H-- thing. Hmm, OK, but because he's --inging those things, he's doing them constantly until the pump blows off. A frenzy of concurrent activity. But a frenzy is what you want, right? So, maybe you've a tad too many -ings in that sentence, but you've also got a frenzy, and it fits your voice. So why worry.

Where participials approach the bowels of evilness is when they describe concurrent actions that couldn't physically be taking place at the same time: Running down the stairs, he opened the front door. Neat trick if you can do it, huh?

If you could physically do it all at the same time, -ing away. But if it's physically impossible to be concurrent, be thinking about it...

Whirlochre said...

Thanks, Ril.

On a side note, I've just noticed something amusing about your avatar that has never struck me before.

The figure on the right looks like he's sporting a white, levitating (and inverted) version of the hat worn by the figure in the middle.

Anyhow — volumes of pasta await.

Enjoy your weekends, all — and if you've any suggestions for the forthcoming 200th post, do please leave them here...

Robin S. said...

I'm with ril, although I never did see the post you meant us to see when I went and visited the link you provided. But even so, I don't go for big overriding rules, other than you need to know how to spell, and tell a story. And you do.

As for the 200th post...hmmmm. How abou a recap of where you and your writing were on Post One versus Post Two Hundred? With a picture?

writtenwyrdd said...

I don't believe using gerunds (ing words) is inherently amateurish, but you shouldn't overdo them, either. concurrence of events needs to be carefully rendered though to avoid flabby, unclear prose. And writers are best off if they vary their techniques to avoid sounding dull, anyhow.

sylvia said...

I'm a fan of edittorrent too although some of the advice does leave me boggling.

I agree with Ril regarding your example sentence.

I noticed that you dismiss exactly the construction that she is complaining about:

Plucking a whisker (mouse-modifying adjectival participial phrase (of doom)), the mouse threaded it through the needle.

That is to say, you are already using the phrases in a sensible way and gaining the most possible power.

Whirlochre said...

Thanks Sylvia.