Sunday, November 22, 2009

Not hiding information that readers need

This post is intended to be an extension - a reversal, in fact - of my last post. In the same way that you can use backgrounding to slip in world information, you can also do yourself a disservice by "hiding" critical information that should be taking head billing. I've made comments to my critique buddies about how they shouldn't "hide X under Y" and it usually takes me a while to explain to them what I mean. So I figure it's useful to discuss here.

If you have a critical piece of your plot, especially a voluntary action by your protagonist, then you should not hold back from describing that action. Don't imply that it happened. Don't make it passive. State it as directly and actively as possible.

I think this is the kind of thing that people are talking about when they tell you not to use "was" or "passives" in your writing. Though the instruction never to use "was" or "passives" is extremely overgeneralized, it does make an important point. If you've got a character and that character is acting, changing things, etc. then chances are you should stick him or her right in the subject spot in the sentence and use the most interesting and exciting verb you can come up with to say what he or she is doing.

The other way that writers might inadvertently hide critical information has to do with (gasp!) sentence structure.

I suppose there must be folks among you who have spent time diagramming sentences in school. I did. Well, don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to get out your pencils! But if you've got even the vaguest image somewhere in your head of what those diagrams looked like, you might find it useful. The basic distinction I'm thinking of here is the one between the main clause of the sentence - the one that used to be on the main line when we diagrammed - and the subordinate clauses that attach to it. Here's an example:

When Tom arrived, we took out the turkey and put it in the oven with the pie that Mom made.

Now I'm going to put main clauses in bold text and subordinate ones in italics.

When Tom arrived, we took out the turkey and put it in the oven with the pie that mom made.

Now, when I say information is "hidden" in a sentence like this, of course, that's a relative statement. It's still available - in exactly the way that makes subordinate clauses so convenient for slipping in worldbuilding information. But - and this is the important part - its impact is blunted.

Take this sentence, for example:

When I hit him over the head with the frypan, he cried out.

The structure of this sentence looks like this:

When I hit him over the head with the frypan, he cried out.

Essentially what I've done here is "hide" the action of hitting, and bring primary attention to "he cried out." In most action narratives, this makes no sense at all. I'd almost expect that this was a sentence coming from after the event itself - someone describing what happened, for example. Or perhaps I'd expect that the actual hitting event had been described before this sentence. As a method for actually conveying the occurrence of the action, it comes across to me as weak. This isn't to say that I never do stuff like this in my own writing - but if I catch something like this on a first draft, I might change it to the following:

I hit him over the head with the frypan, and he cried out.

Conjunctions like "and," "but," and "so" do not create subordinate clauses. They keep both coordinated clauses on the same level of structure, and in an action sequence, work far better to keep the hitting and the crying out at the same level of importance.

I'll conclude by giving a few examples of words to watch out for - words that create subordinate clauses. But before I do, let me be clear: I don't mean that these words should never be used. There may well be a context when you want one element of a sentence to be backgrounded to another, and be given lesser importance. It's like the whole "was" thing. If you try to forbid yourself a tool of grammar in writing, you're just shackling your own feet. Just make sure that you're not using these words inadvertently.

As: As he ran through the door, the horse neighed loudly.

Because: Because I'd paid for the pot, the barkeeper gave it to me.

When: When she found the harlot in bed with George, she took out a knife and killed him.

I'll also mention "that" and "which." These guys make subordinate clauses in a different way from those above, because they allow a writer to describe more about a particular noun, as "the pie that Mom made" in the earlier example. I think they're not nearly as much of a trap for the unwary. However, they do background information, and if you want to direct attention deliberately to the attributes of an object or person, you should probably try to avoid using a subordinate clause, and give the description its own space and sentence.

That's all for now. I hope all your writing goes really well today.


  1. I love this post! I wish more aspiring writers would educate themselves by reading and studying information like this. Thanks for putting it out there and making it available, Juliette.

  2. A great post! I rarely use 'as' or 'because,' but I need to watch out for 'when.'

  3. Thanks, guys! I'm glad you found it useful.

  4. Thanks for all these wonderful posts. I'm in heaven over here. :smiles and digs in gleefully: