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Weird constructions in fiction

Bondi Beach

From the CMoS October Q & A:

Q. Is it ever appropriate to elide a conjunction between two parts of a compound predicate and use a comma (for example, "He walked to the door, opened it.")? I notice that many of the fiction authors I edit do this frequently.

A. In fiction weird constructions are sometimes appropriate; they should generally be tolerated until they become annoying.

bb

Switch Blayde

@Bondi Beach

"He walked to the door, opened it."


That would make me cringe as a reader. I hate it. However, I recently wrote this in my WIP novel:

Margo lunged at his face, nails clawing. Ripping flesh.


Is the ", nails clawing" the same as the ", opened it"? Because I like mine.

Merlyn

@Switch Blayde

I believe it is the same thing. That said, I also like yours more than the CMoS example, but that might just be because your word choice and described action is much less mundane than the example.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Ernest Bywater

It would depend on the extent of the sentence and the actions.

The example given - He walked to the door, opened it. - is wrong, it should be - He walked to the door, and opened it. However, if there were more actions involved it can become a list of action to be - He walked to the door, opened it, stepped through, and walked across the room. - commas between the listed actions are appropriate, but you need the and for the last one.

Bondi Beach

@Switch Blayde

That would make me cringe as a reader. I hate it. However, I recently wrote this in my WIP novel:
Margo lunged at his face, nails clawing. Ripping flesh.

Is the ", nails clawing" the same as the ", opened it"? Because I like mine.


I think it's fine. I probably overdid it to the point of being annoying in my first stories, "Summer Heat," etc., and some readers and at least one critic objected to it. Even if overdone I think it worked.

bb

Switch Blayde

@Merlyn

I believe it is the same thing.


Is it really the same thing? I studied it more this time.

In my case, it's a fragmented sentence because I left out the "her" as in "Margo lunged at his face, her nails clawing." It's part of the same action.

But in the CMoS example, it's two separate actions so the "and" is needed.

Ross at Play

@Switch Blayde

Is the ", nails clawing" the same as the ", opened it"?

No.
A 'predicate' is everything else in a clause (this time, the sentence) after the subject. So the 'compound predicate' is, "walked to the door (conjunction) opened it."
The question was whether it is OK to replace the conjunction with a comma.
The answer by CMOS was spot on, IMHO. This is not allowable in formal writing, but in fiction it's OK occasionally, but not so often it becomes annoying.
The reason it is generally "wrong" is constructions of the type Subject + Predicate + Comma + Predicate create an expectation by readers that another clause will follow in the sentence.
Fiction writers often end sentences abruptly for dramatic effect, but to end a sentence before it's grammatically correct you had better have something very dramatic for the reader. It's akin to hitting them on the head with a hammer just to make sure they are awake. The example sentence is just too dull to even consider doing it.
* *
SB's sentence ends with an adverbial clause. It is a clause because it has a subject, (his implied), and a verb, clawing. That could not be joined to the main clause of the sentence with a conjunction; it would need a preposition, probably with. It is quite normal to connect those with a comma instead of a preposition.
SB's sentence doesn't leave the reader expecting the sentence to continue. The example sentence does, and that's why it should only be used for something very important.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Joe Long

'Walked to the door' and 'opened it' are two distinct actions at different times with no overlap. Therefor it needs the conjunction.

'Margo lunged at his face, nails clawing. Ripping flesh.'


Here the nails can be clawing (a continuing action) at the same time as the lunge. I read it as modifying the lunge instead of appending it.

Bondi Beach

What caught my eye about the CMoS Q&A item was Chicago's acknowledgment that "weird constructions" in fiction are sometimes appropriate, i.e., that they may work even if they're "weird."

I took it as support for what I think we all have seen or written at some point: it may be weird or even wrong or grammatically wanting, but it works to convey what the author intended.

bb

Crumbly Writer

@Bondi Beach

Is it ever appropriate to elide a conjunction between two parts of a compound predicate and use a comma (for example, "He walked to the door, opened it.")? I notice that many of the fiction authors I edit do this frequently.

I don't think anyone would ever use that particular phrasing, because they're both the same tense. What IS common, is a past tense sentence where the different clauses are phrased differently. Thus you might see (and I do this a LOT):

He walked to the door, opening it to ..."

It might seem, on first perusal, to be improper because of the different tenses, but it's ALL past tense, but it allows a more dramatic delivery of the more important element of the sentence (i.e. you switch to present tense in a past tense story, because you want to set the actions apart from the rest of the sentence).

My editors give me a hard time with it, but mainly because I use it SO frequently!

Replies:   BlacKnight
Switch Blayde
Updated:

@Ross at Play


The answer by CMOS was spot on, IMHO. This is not allowable in formal writing, but in fiction it's OK occasionally, but not so often it becomes annoying.


I think the CMS example is more than annoying. It's jarring. When CMS says weird constructions are allowed in fiction, I would think the example should be:

"He walked to the door. Opened it."

The second sentence has an implied "He", but authors do that for effect. Based on my sampling of a Jack Reacher novel, Lee Child does it a lot — maybe too much. Maybe that's when it becomes annoying.

BlacKnight

@Crumbly Writer

"He walked to the door, opening it to ..."

It might seem, on first perusal, to be improper because of the different tenses, but it's ALL past tense, but it allows a more dramatic delivery of the more important element of the sentence (i.e. you switch to present tense in a past tense story, because you want to set the actions apart from the rest of the sentence).


No, this is wrong. The present participle describes a state simultaneous with the main verb - in this case, implying that he's opening the door while walking to it. That's unlikely, unless he's got telekinesis or Mr. Fantastic arms or something.

"He walked to the door, wondering who had knocked," is fine. Walking to the door and wondering who had knocked are things that can happen at the same time.

Walking to the door and opening the door are sequential events, however. The opening has to happen after the walking. So it's: "He walked to the door and opened it."

"He walked to the door, opened it," and, "He walked to the door. Opened it," are both technically incorrect, but they say what they mean to say, and so are acceptable in fiction. "He walked to the door, opening it," does not say what you think it's saying. You should never use it.

Crumbly Writer

@BlacKnight

No, this is wrong. The present participle describes a state simultaneous with the main verb - in this case, implying that he's opening the door while walking to it. That's unlikely, unless he's got telekinesis or Mr. Fantastic arms or something.

Blame that on trying to retrofit an example on the fly, rather than taking something from my actual writing (that I had to think about and had editor oversight on). You're right of course, normally when I use these types of sentences, they're NOT separated by time, but I was emphasizing there's more involved in this technique than simply what Switch specified, as I see it most often used when mixing verb tenses.

Ross at Play
Updated:

@BlacKnight

You should never use it.

I thought your post was spot on ... all the way up until the word 'never' in the last sentence. :-)
Consider this sentence:

Einstein created the Theory of Relativity, opening up new fields of research that led to the development of nuclear weapons.

The difference is the verb open (a door) is a once-and-done action, while open (a field of research) is the start of an action that then continues.
Present participles usually have identical meanings to the present continuous tense, but depending on the verb, they can have the same meanings as simple present tenses, in which case it becomes possible to use constructions like CW's example.

Replies:   BlacKnight
BlacKnight

@Ross at Play

I'm not saying that you should never use the present participle, just that you should never use it for sequential actions, because it implies simultaneity.

In your example, the creation of the Theory of Relativity is part, the initial part, of the opening up of new fields of research, so the simultaneity implied by using the present participle is appropriate. Saying, "Einstein created the Theory of Relativity and opened up new fields of research..." wouldn't be appropriate there, because removing the present participle and its implication of simultaneity separates the actions of creation and opening into sequential actions, and leaves it unclear whether the opening is the result of the creation, or an unrelated accomplishment.

Your Einstein example is more like saying, "He pulled the door handle, opening the door." That's fine; they're part of the same action, the pulling of the door handle initiating the opening of the door. "He walked to the door, opening it," does not describe simultaneous actions, but sequential ones, so the present participle should not be used.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Switch Blayde

@BlacKnight

"He walked to the door, opened it," and, "He walked to the door. Opened it," are both technically incorrect, but they say what they mean to say, and so are acceptable in fiction.


I don't think the first is acceptable in fiction. But that's my opinion.

robberhands

@Switch Blayde

"He walked to the door, opened it," and, "He walked to the door. Opened it."

Out of context, I find both examples look pretty silly. Mutilating grammar by hacking up sentences shouldn't become its own purpose. It's just a way to emphasize a rapid succession of actions.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Ross at Play

@Switch Blayde

I don't think the first is acceptable in fiction. But that's my opinion.

I agree the example sentence is awful, but what about, say,

He squeezed the trigger, killed him.

As robberhands explained, the construction has its uses, but the context needs to be extraordinary to justify mutilating grammar like that.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde

@robberhands

I find both examples look pretty silly. Mutilating grammar by hacking up sentences shouldn't become its own purpose. It's just a way to emphasize a rapid succession of actions.


This is from the first Jack Reacher novel. Right near the beginning (it's the middle of a paragraph):

I saw the police cruisers pull into the gravel lot. They were moving fast and crunched to a stop. Light bars flashing and popping. Red and blue light in the raindrips on my window. Doors burst open, policemen jumped out. Two from each car, weapons ready. Two revolvers, two shotguns.

REP

@Switch Blayde

The presentation style reminds me of a light strobe pointed at a dim dance floor and flashing at short intervals.

The passage provides quick snapshots of the action presented in a chronological order without the text necessary to link them together, but the reader grasps the continuity.

Ross at Play

@BlacKnight

I'm not saying that you should never use the present participle, just that you should never use it for sequential actions, because it implies simultaneity.

I think the point you're trying to make is important; you're just expressing it a bit awkwardly. I think more precise would be:

you should never use the present participle, when it implies simultaneity, for actions which are sequential.

That is one of the most common errors I find as an editor, for some authors, i.e. '-ing forms' used in a way that says the actions are simultaneous, when the actions are sequential.
My point was the '-ing form' does not always imply simultaneity, just most of the time. I think it always implies simultaneity when used for the present continuous tense of the verb, but only most of the time when used as a gerund (one of the various uses of present participles).

robberhands

@Switch Blayde

I saw the police cruisers pull into the gravel lot. They were moving fast and crunched to a stop. Light bars flashing and popping. Red and blue light in the raindrips on my window. Doors burst open, policemen jumped out. Two from each car, weapons ready. Two revolvers, two shotguns.

A bit much for my taste; a flashy pop style. I hope at least a big shootout followed and all that noise wasn't just for nothing.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@REP

The passage provides quick snapshots of the action presented in a chronological order without the text necessary to link them together, but the reader grasps the continuity.


Yes. Not grammatically correct, but effective.

Although when I read further, I thought he overdid it.

Replies:   REP
Switch Blayde

@robberhands

I hope at least a big shootout followed


Nah, Reacher got arrested.

For those interested, here's a link to the novel it came from. I used Amazon's "Look Inside" feature to read the beginning. Also, the introduction about the author, Lee Child, is interesting.

https://www.amazon.com/Killing-Floor-Jack-Reacher-Book-ebook/dp/B000OZ0NXA/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1507145995&sr=1-1&keywords=first+jack+reacher+book

Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

I agree the example sentence is awful, but what about, say,

He squeezed the trigger, killed him.

That's more of an incomplete sentence, since 'squeezing' a trigger is not a direct cause of death (unless possibly the trigger was poisoned). The cause and effect are missing, all you have are two incomplete and separate events.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Crumbly Writer

@REP

The presentation style reminds me of a light strobe pointed at a dim dance floor and flashing at short intervals.

The passage provides quick snapshots of the action presented in a chronological order without the text necessary to link them together, but the reader grasps the continuity.

What's more essential, the 'strobe light' effect echoes the description of the flashing light on the cop cars. It's actually perfectly executed, but I'm not sure it works as well in all circumstances.

I may have to steal it sometime. 'D

Replies:   REP  Joe Long
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

That's more of an incomplete sentence, since 'squeezing' a trigger is not a direct cause of death (unless possibly the trigger was poisoned). The cause and effect are missing, all you have are two incomplete and separate events.

What were you just saying about too hastily constructed sample sentences?
I can't be bothered arguing with that. I wouldn't know where to start, at the fact it's totally irrelevant to my post, or that it's a complete load of bollocks!

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

What were you just saying about too hastily constructed sample sentences?
I can't be bothered arguing with that. I wouldn't know where to start, at the fact it's totally irrelevant to my post, or that it's a complete load of bollocks!

I wasn't making a judgement, just an observation. I recognize incomplete examples when I see them. It doesn't negate your point though.

REP
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


I thought he overdid it.


Moderation in all things is a good policy.

Edited to correct typo of is to in

Replies:   Dominions Son
REP

@Crumbly Writer

, the 'strobe light' effect echoes the description of the flashing light on the cop cars.


But there is a significant difference. The flashing lights on the cop cars is part of a continuous scene. The strobe light' effect interrupts the scene's action to create snapshots of the scene without showing the intervening action.

Joe Long

@Switch Blayde

I saw the police cruisers pull into the gravel lot. They were moving fast and crunched to a stop. Light bars flashing and popping. Red and blue light in the raindrips on my window. Doors burst open, policemen jumped out. Two from each car, weapons ready. Two revolvers, two shotguns.


The continuity looks correct, except I questioned whether the cars were still moving fast after they pulled into the lot, as 'pull' implies a slow and careful act.

I saw the police cruisers moving fast, with their light bars flashing and popping, which cast red and blue light in the raindrops on my window.

The cruisers pulled into the gravel lot and crunched to a stop. The doors burst open and a pair of policemen jumped out of each with weapons ready - a total of two revolvers and two shotguns.

Bondi Beach

@Switch Blayde

This is from the first Jack Reacher novel. Right near the beginning (it's the middle of a paragraph):
I saw the police cruisers pull into the gravel lot. They were moving fast and crunched to a stop. Light bars flashing and popping. Red and blue light in the raindrips on my window. Doors burst open, policemen jumped out. Two from each car, weapons ready. Two revolvers, two shotguns.


Reminds me of a Robert Ludlum description, except add "Black sedans circulated, radio antennas rose and fell ...," or words to that effect.

Really cool, except it happened on my vehicle every time you turned the radio on or off. And I didn't even have a black sedan.

Just tried to read one of Ludlum's earliest, The Scarlatti Inheritance. Gave up. Trashy writing. Threw in wastebasket. Pulled out of wastebasket. Library book. Will return it to library. Someday.

Now I can't find the review or commentary that made it sound interesting enough to try reading.

bb

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Joe Long

@Crumbly Writer

What's more essential, the 'strobe light' effect echoes the description of the flashing light on the cop cars.


Good point

Dominions Son

@REP

Moderation is all things is a good policy.


Moderation is a thing. :)

Replies:   REP
Switch Blayde

@Joe Long

I questioned whether the cars were still moving fast after they pulled into the lot, as 'pull' implies a slow and careful act.


The visual I saw was them moving fast as they pulled into the lot, coming to a screeching halt.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
REP

@Dominions Son

Thanks. I just noted I typed 'is' instead of 'in'. Corrected post.

Replies:   Dominions Son
awnlee_jawking

@Switch Blayde

I saw the police cruisers pull into the gravel lot. They were moving fast and crunched to a stop. Light bars flashing and popping. Red and blue light in the raindrips on my window. Doors burst open, policemen jumped out. Two from each car, weapons ready. Two revolvers, two shotguns.


Presumably the author is portraying the climax of an action scene, hence the fast pace.

Personally I think the author has taken it to excess, but he's sold millions of books and I haven't.

I don't understand what 'popping' means in relation to a light bar.

AJ

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Dominions Son

@REP

Thanks. I just noted I typed 'is' instead of 'in'. Corrected post.


I didn't even notice that. I was replying to your comment.

Moderation in all things

Moderation is a thing

Therefore: Moderation in moderation. :)

Crumbly Writer

@Joe Long

The continuity looks correct, except I questioned whether the cars were still moving fast after they pulled into the lot, as 'pull' implies a slow and careful act.

Yeah, I thought his choice of verbs ("pull", "crunched to a stop", "lights popping") were worse than the abbreviated sentences, but then, most of his books are written the same way, so you either don't mind, or you'll never complete any of his books. If you do it as a fast-action sequence to pull the reader in, it's one thing, but a prolonged exposure is exhausting.

Crumbly Writer

@Bondi Beach

Now I can't find the review or commentary that made it sound interesting enough to try reading.

It's probably in hiding, ashamed to show its face. 'D

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

The visual I saw was them moving fast as they pulled into the lot, coming to a screeching halt.

Unfortunately, that's not what the text says. Instead, it says the cop cars "pulled" in, "crunched to a stop", their lights "popping". It sounds nice, but it's pure nonsense. After a page of this, I'd be exhausted.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde
Updated:

@awnlee_jawking


Presumably the author is portraying the climax of an action scene, hence the fast pace.


Nope, it's on the first page. It's the opening, not the climax.

Reacher is sitting peacefully in the diner watching the police cars fly into the parking lot. He analyzes each cop and the weapons they have and what door they come in through. He anticipates their moves and stays calm so they don't panic and shoot him. He allows them to arrest him. I stopped reading at that point.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

"crunched to a stop",


I interpreted that as the tires coming to a quick stop on gravel. If it was slow, I don't think you'd hear a crunched stop (not that I liked "crunch stop").

I just love the Jack Reacher character.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

He allows them to arrest him. I stopped reading at that point.

Good choice. You picked up how he uses the technique while also observing how he overuses it, then jump ship before it corrupts your own style.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

I interpreted that as the tires coming to a quick stop on gravel. If it was slow, I don't think you'd hear a crunched stop (not that I liked "crunch stop").

I picked up the intent right away, but again, that's NOT what the text says. It's like when authors feel the need to throw in unique attributions each time (ex: "Jack expounded", "Mary theorized", "Frank lamented"). You get the feeling he's searching for a word he's never used in that context before, rather than just using the ones which fit the situation.

I just love the Jack Reacher character.

We all live and die by our characters. A plot can be as detailed and intriguing as possible, but if you don't care about the character, it's all for naught.

In this case, the character is what carries you over the hyperbole.

awnlee jawking

@Switch Blayde

I interpreted that as the tires coming to a quick stop on gravel.


My own experiences of stopping on gravel don't involve extreme deceleration.

I suspect Lee Child's success as an author is due to his plots and characterisation rather than his writing quality. Which is as it should be, IMO.

AJ

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