Poe’s Law of the Short Story is this:
“Every word in a piece of fiction pays its way.”
Have you ever read Mark Twain’s enthusiastic description of the wonderful new invention called the “typewriter”? If you read it today, you’d swear he was talking about the computer: a machine that allows you to get your thoughts down just as fast as they pop into your head. Since the moment I got my first word processor, a Smith Corona, back in the summer of 1988, I’ve never wanted to go back to writing by hand (and my penmanship has greatly suffered from my reliance on the keyboard). I remember a cautionary comment from Garrison Keillor, though, about this speed which technology allows us: he argued that computers make writing a little too quick and easy. In the old days, setting the mind’s ejaculations into fixed marks on the page took a little bit more time and effort. Consequently — ever the efficiency-seekers that we are by nature — we writers did a degree of revising between initial impulse and the moving of the hand, the flowing of the ink. What made it onto the paper when the quill began to scratch may not have been a full-blown second draft, but it was something more than a first.
Many writing teachers have said, “Books aren’t written; they’re re-written.” And it was the poet Horace who called revision “the long labor of the file.” Every year I use this quote in my classes, from Samuel Johnson: “What is written without effort is, in general, read without pleasure.”
So I thought it might be worthwhile this time around to think hard about the sentences we write. Sentences, after all, are the boards we use to build our scenes, and our scenes one by one make up the shanty town that is the story or book. (I know that’s weird, but I had to think of something made out of boards to finish the metaphor.)
I’ve put together a little quiz. I use parts of this with my writing students every year. I’ve tried it with junior-high and high-school students in the U.S., too; and I can honestly say that it’s no easier for the Americans than it is for the Japanese. Sometimes the reasoning behind the choices made is different, but native and non-native English speakers alike tend to reach the same decisions . . . which (until they start seeing the patterns) are quite often not the best ones.
In the fifteen instances that follow, there are two choices: a) and b). Both options are grammatical enough; both are in standard English. But one choice is a better, stronger sentence for most writing purposes.
You can make your decisions, and the answers follow. I’m not out to make anyone feel bad. Ultimately, I’m just one idiosyncratic voice, and a “perfect score” simply means that we think alike. If you get a perfect 15, you probably shouldn’t gloat — we may be inept together. (And we still have to do all the stuff with character, plot, setting, theme, etc.) If you get a low score, don’t feel bad — unconventional thought patterns may stem from genius.
Have fun with it! Remember, you’re not looking for right vs. wrong. You’re looking for the sentence that does a better job. Hire one, fire the other. Here’s the quiz:
1. a) “I think so, too.” He laughed.
b) “I think so, too,” he laughed.
2. a) My brother was talking about his boss, and he said that he didn’t like him.
b) My brother said that his boss didn’t like him.
3. a) “Why not?” she queried.
b) “Why not?” she asked.
4. a) I pounded on the weathered door, which was faded and scarred with the passage of countless seasons.
b) I pounded on the weathered door.
5. a) Sheets, towels, and shirts hung from the green clothesline, rippling in the breeze.
b) Sheets, towels, and shirts crouched on the green clothesline, wandering in the breeze.
6. a) Tony inspected a glass for water spots. “You’d better hit the road before Leon shows up.”
b) “You’d better hit the road before Leon shows up,” Tony warned.
7. a) Kirsten landed the job after weeks of preparation — research, updating her resume, and gathering letters of recommendation.
b) After weeks of preparation — research, updating her resume, and gathering letters of recommendation — Kirsten landed the job.
8. a) The first problem really seemed slightly strange, but Eli was not very eager to ask a question in front of the other boys.
b) The first problem seemed strange, but Eli didn’t want to ask a question in front of the other boys.
9. a) Seized by rage, Paul kicked a chair across the room.
b) Paul kicked a chair across the room.
10. a) Dim light filtered through grimy windows. Dirty socks sprouted under chairs and in corners like growths of fungus.
b) The sun was as dim as a distant fire through the grimy windows. A crop of dirty socks flooded the carpet in dark towers.
11. a) We want the same things: a big library, to have space to write, abundant nature, and living in a small town.
b) We want the same things: a big library, space to write, abundant nature, and life in a small town.
12. a) Carter spotted an open drawer. Had it been that way when he’d left? A pen on the desk had been clicked, its point extended. Meggie must have been here.
b) Carter spotted an open drawer. He wondered to himself if it had been that way when he’d left. He noticed that a pen on the desk had been clicked, its point extended. Meggie must have been here, he thought.
13. a) Olivia wandered into the lobby. There was a huge potted plant beside the main entrance. The black marble counter was spotless and polished. A crystal chandelier hung over the broad staircase. People stood around in suits and ties and spoke foreign languages. It was formal and strange.
b) Olivia wandered into the lobby. Beside the main entrance, a potted plant loomed over her like a jungle tree brought indoors. Gleaming counter of black marble, chandelier, sweeping staircase, suits and ties, murmurs of foreign language — everything whispered of formality and strangeness.
14. a) “Get out of my house and don’t come back,” he said softly, and kissed her.
b) “Get out of my house and don’t come back!” he said coldly.
15. a) Our boots squeaked on the snow, which covered ice a half-meter down. We trudged to the lake’s center.
b) Our shoes sank into the snow, piled a half-meter deep on the ice. We hiked to the lake’s center.
And the answers:
1. a) is the better choice. A Cricket editor set me straight on this one. You can’t laugh most words, and you can’t smile words. Try it. I always try it, to prove my point, in front of my students. So keep the action separate from the quoted words. Put a period and move on, as Judge Judy says. Of course the following is perfectly okay: “I think so, too,” he said.
2. b) is better. In a), we don’t know who doesn’t like whom. Be very careful about pronouns. Is it clear who every “she” and “he” is?
3. Go with b). It’s the simpler, less intrusive word. And you don’t want to intrude here: you want the reader’s focus to be on the speech itself. I remember back in junior high, a teacher very proudly gave us a handout that was titled something like “100 Ways to Say ‘Said.'” Yes, there are probably a hundred ways or more. It’s good to know about them, to know our language is so rich and diverse. There may be, in the grand flow of our writing lives, opportunities to use some or many of them. (Why, just today, I worked in a form of “ejaculate,” didn’t I? And it was entirely appropriate.) I’m sure whoever put together that handout was a sincere educator who loved young writers and wanted the very best for them. But trust me, when you’re reading along and you come to characters who “observe” or “interject” words, you will be jarred out of the story. That’s not to say that you can’t sometimes write “answered” or “asked” or “suggested” or “insisted” — in general, variety is good, yes. You have to find the comfortable, natural middle ground. It’s okay to use non-jarring alternatives for “said,” when they’re appropriate. But the point is, “said” is just about the closest thing to an invisible word that there is. When you’re reading a gripping scene, you hardly even see “he said.” Your brain simply uses it to attribute the speech to the right character, but you don’t think about it at all. On the other hand, if it’s “she assessed” or “John ventured,” you do notice it. See what I mean? There’s a classic, often-anthologized story called “Long Walk to Forever,” and it’s a dialogue between a man and a woman, and pretty much every line is “he said,” “she said,” “he said,” “she said” — and you don’t notice that at all. All you care about is what they’re saying — and whether he’ll be able to change her mind.
4. Here, we’d best go with b). My students quickly become conditioned that they should always pick the shorter sentence to make me happy — just as, in Sunday school, you’re always safe if you answer “Jesus.” But seriously: the a) option is repetitious — the door is weathered, faded, and scarred. “Weathered” pretty much encompasses “faded and scarred,” so b) is a more efficient sentence. [I also tell my students to be highly suspicious of “which.” It often points the way to flab.]
5. Here, we should choose a). Many young writers, feeling their oats, grab up an armload of vivid verbs and jam them into sentences willy-nilly. But we have to be sensitive to what the verbs mean. We have to use the right vivid verbs. Laundry in reality hangs down from a line; it doesn’t crouch on it — that would be eerie. The clothes are pinned in place, so they can’t really “wander.” Vivid is only good when it’s also appropriate.
6. a) is better. The speech is clearly a warning. There’s no need to tell the reader that. a) gives us a nice additional visual detail, too: Tony going about his business, inspecting a glass as he speaks. We know it’s Tony speaking, because the quoted speech is in the same paragraph as Tony’s action.
7. b) is the stronger choice. It illustrates the use of the “power position,” which is the end of the sentence. The end delivers those last words that ring in the reader’s ear. Don’t waste the power position on something that doesn’t deserve power. What we really want to know in this sentence is whether or not Kirsten got the job. That should come at the end. The outcome goes at the end of a story, if you want people to keep listening. Once we know she got the job, we don’t really care how she prepared for the interview. But if we hear the details of her preparations before we know the outcome, they build suspense.
8. b) is better. a) is loaded up with qualifiers: “really,” “slightly,” “not very.”
9. Again, b) is more effective. There simply are not many emotions other than rage which would prompt a person to kick a chair across the room — particularly if we have a context for this action from the unfolding story. It’s not necessary to name the rage: the action shows it perfectly well.
10. Let’s go with a). For one thing, the analogy it draws is consistent. Fungus sprouts. In b), there’s a “crop” that “floods” in “towers.” Square pegs, round holes. The words we use need to function together as a team. I also have a problem with “The sun was as dim as a distant fire,” because the sun on its brightest days is “a distant fire.” It’s a magnificent fire, 93 million miles away. So go with a). We’ll all sleep better.
11. b) is better. It illustrates the principle of parallelism. b) lines up a nice set of nouns: library, space, nature, and life. a), on the other hand, gives us a noun, an infinitive, another noun, and a gerund. Yes, those things can all function as nouns. But when you have a world of nouns at your disposal, and you’re building a nice, even row, why not use all nouns?
12. a) is the stronger choice. We can tell that Carter is seeing and thinking and noticing these things. Take heed of this one! I habitually put in far too many “She noticed that”s and “He realized that”s. a) is tighter, leaner, more efficient. It was Plato who said: “The most beautiful motion is that which accomplishes the greatest results with the least amount of effort.” You know — he was right! If you don’t believe me, just watch the Olympics. [And please — let’s not say “wondered to himself.”]
13. b) is our choice. When possible, it’s best to avoid forms of “to be,” which have a diluting, weakening effect. In a), there are three uses of “was.” Also, a) takes up space telling us very conventional things: the chandelier “hung,” people “stood around and spoke.” b) gives us crystal-clear images, like snapshots, with no unnecessary baggage.
14. a) is the selection. It gives us a surprise, a mystery, something to wonder about. What is going on?! Any takers? Who wants to write a story explaining what’s going on in a)? — but you could, right? It invites the asking of questions, which is the combustion in the engine of story. b) states the obvious.
15. I’m messing with you. I lied: not all my pairs of sentences have a greater and a lesser. In this case, I think either choice is equally valid. They’re both lean, expressive, and vivid. The words are pulling their weight, paying their way. The difference I can see is that the two examples make use of sounds in different ways: a) uses harder, sharper consonant sounds to conjure the impression of a frozen world. b) utilizes softer, more sibilant and liquid sounds to create the impression of a softer winter world. Both kinds of winter exist, so whether you chose a) or b), you’re right! A wise friend of mine says, “There are always at least three ways to do anything.” So if you chose c), I guess you’re right about that, too!
And shouldn’t that be our ultimate point? Find your c). Construct the sentence your way. Tell the story only you can tell.
Let’s give the last word to a virtuoso crafter of sentences:
“Shut up,” he explained. — Ring Lardner