Monday, March 24, 2008

Don't Load Up Your Sentences

Some of you may think that I've exhausted the supply of writing tips from John Gardner's The Art Of Fiction. Others may fervently wish that I'd leave this subject and get on to others. True, much of the book is too technical for just about anyone but someone majoring in English composition, but if you're patient you can dig out a number of kernels of truth. Let me finish my Gardner gala with a discussion of what he calls "overloading syntactic slots." See, I told you it was technical.

Most of us recognize that sentences generally contain specific elements. Take the simplest form: subject, verb, object. Gardner calls these components syntactic slots. An example is, "He shot her." It's easy enough to see that unadorned sentences with just these elements would pretty quickly lose the interest of anyone reading above, say, the first grade level. So we amplify the nouns, vary our verbs, and hang modifiers on the elements. No problem so far.

If you've ever been to a Writers' Conference, sat in a critique group, or had your work evaluated by someone familiar with writing, you've heard the phrase, "Get rid of adverbs." We're told to choose words that make adverbs unnecessary. Gardner goes in a different direction. For those who like adjectives, adverbs, and modifying clauses, he cautions against overusing them. To do this, he suggests that we analyze the syntactic slots in each sentence and avoid hanging too many modifiers on them.

He gives an example sentence: "The man walked down the road." Now modify the first slot. "The old man, stooped, bent almost double under his load of tin pans, yet smiling with a sort of maniacal cheer and chattering to himself in what seemed to be Slavonian, walked slowly down the road." By the time we get to the second and third slots, we're longing to be free of the sentence and our eyes move ahead, hoping for something simpler in the next one.

Then Gardner loads up the second slot: "The old man walked slowly, lifting his feet carefully, sometimes kicking one shoe forward in what looked like a dance...." You get the picture.

As Gardner says, some authors tend to load up their sentences like a Japanese commuter train. The point he makes is this. Adverbs and adjectives aren't always bad. But if you use them, insert them in syntactic slots in such a way that they don't slow the progress of the sentence. And never use multiple modifiers in all three syntactic slots.

Now this may sound too technical for you--it sort of was for me until I began looking for it in some of the fiction I'm reading--but I can assure you that being careful about how you crowd syntactic slots will make your sentences flow better and keep the attention of the reader.


Linda Harris said...

Thank you! I get tired of hearing others say adverbs are bad. All words serve some useful purpose (except obscenities). The point is to use words carefully and skillfully. (Two adverbs right there!) I think that where most writers slip up is in using adverbs to describe dialogue. At that point, too many adverbs can become cumbersome.

Nicole said...

Good words here. One thing that gets left out of all the conversations on "the rules" is the differences in audience tastes. Some readers love language that takes them on syntactic slot journeys. If the story engages them, they'll follow the words anywhere they lead, even through a convoluted sentence structure.
I agree that being careful not to employ unnecessary words of any kind is a key to making a story flow more easily, but I also believe there are readers for every methodology if the story grabs them, regardless of editor preferences.