Blog 59: What A Ride
Hello everybody, today we have a piece titled What a Ride by Tina Stone on Writing.com
Kalob Montgomery heard the god awful noise approaching the house at an alarming speed. Maude must have heard it too because he heard a clatter of mason jars from the kitchen where she’d been putting up strawberry preserves the better part of the morning. He barely heard the squeak of the screen door as she burst through it and marched out onto her porch to confront whatever was headed her way. Kalob cursed and struggled to push himself into a sitting position on the side of the bed. A wave of dizziness made his head swim and his arthritic body screamed in protest at the sudden, unwelcome movement.
From a technical standpoint, this opening paragraph is decent; it uses almost entirely active prose and introduces conflict in the narrative. The question then is, why is it only decent? I think the answer is that the author’s application of the active sentence/conflict introduction is ‘incomplete’. (That’s an approximation word.) The reason active words tend to be stronger than passive is they possess an inherent dynamism, an internal thrust that propels the sentence and the reader’s thoughts forward. This infuses the prose with energy, and energy makes reading compelling. Now put that into contrast/context with this opening paragraph; the first sentence is active, but the verb in question is ‘heard’, which is receptive rather than proactive (it lacks inherent movement pushing something forward) and it slows/distances the reader from the narrative. Instead of experiencing something active, we are experiencing someone experiencing something. Someone experiencing something can provide an incredible and rich story, but the character’s experience has to be the story, or at least part of it. If you’re looking at something through a character’s perspective, you want them to color, enrichen what you see, otherwise it provides no value at the cost of distancing the reader from what’s happening. This is where the paragraph’s active sentences falter (in my opinion.) Instead of the god-awful sound driving the sentence, effecting change on Kalob and the story, it is mentioned and described.
(There is also a small element of ‘telling’ in the first sentence with ‘alarming’. Instead of Kalob freaking out, or jerking awake or reacting with fear to the sound —etc etc— we are told it’s alarming; but there’s no action or event to validate that claim, and so the readers experience no emotional reaction or connection to the word ‘alarming’. And emotion is what invests a reader in a story.)
The second point concerns conflict and is something I’ve mentioned a couple times: action by itself means nothing. The author introduces a conflict with the appearance of a horrible sound and reactions from the characters but provides nothing to tease the readers’ interest. In any book or scene, you need to make the readers want something, deny them something they want or force upon them something they don’t want (I.E. villains succeeding.) Here, the author provides conflict but doesn’t give us a reason to take interest.
Normally these elements aren’t an issue (since more readers don’t stop after one paragraph to agonize over its contents) but there are ways to improve; why wait a chapter to catch the reader’s interest when you can start with it?
Now, for the technical aspects. (Kalob Montgomery heard the god awful noise approaching the house at an alarming speed.)
We’ve discussed this sentence already but there are a few more points to mentions. First is the description ‘god awful’ which actually says very little, only that Kalob doesn’t like it, leaving the readers with no impression of what they’re supposed to imagine. Now the author may want to keep what’s making this sound a mystery, but you still want to give the readers something to work with. ‘God awful’ should also be connected with a hyphen because it’s two descriptions combined into one. ‘An’ from ‘an alarming’ is unnecessary for comprehension and can be deleted if we ever feel like that improves the rhythm. One thing to consider is swapping ‘approaching’ for ‘roaring’. ‘Approaching’ is effective but is has no inherent connotation, where ‘roaring’ is both aggressive (thus implying threat) and inherently loud (supplementing the desired god-awfulness.) It also describes the sound somewhat and its inherent violence makes it a more dynamic word than ‘approach’, which fits the desired tone for the sentence and action. This, of course, sacrifices the knowledge that the sound’s getting closer.
—The shrieking, god-awful roar jolted Kalob Montgomery awake, yanking his attention toward the house’s front as it grew louder.—
I don’t know If I really like this change because it’s such an extreme alteration on the author’s original composition (something I prefer to avoid) but I want to lead with the sound so it could exert change, pressure, and momentum on the sentence. So I lead with the sound, but I wanted to introduce it with energy and momentum so I used an adjective verb in ‘shrieking’ that was also a loud, unpleasant sound (building on the desired impression of the sound so the readers grasp it as well.) Then instead of ‘sound’, which is generic and without connotation, I implemented ‘roar’ as the subject/noun, since it has inherent volume and threat (again highlighting the disruptive elements the author wanted.) Then I chose a reactive verb with ‘jolted’ so that instead of just ‘hearing’ the sound Kalob reacts to it and his reaction has inherent energy because it’s a sharp movement. It’s also a startled movement, thus adding to the disruptiveness of the ‘sound’ since it actively surprises and disrupts Kalob. We could have just left ‘jolted’ alone, but it read off/a little abrupt to me, so I added ‘awake’ to smooth the rhythm. After that I wanted to retain the mention of ‘house’ (since that orients the reader, and I really like orienting the reader as soon as possible) and to indicate that the sound’s approaching. I chose to cut the ‘at an alarming speed’ entirely, in part because I didn’t like how it sounded (In the original iteration, it read slightly melodramatic without context as to why the sound was ‘alarming’ but also just a little off because of how inactive/unmotivated the rest of the sentence was—‘alarming’ being attached to a sentence that lacked desperation cultivated a conflict in tones—) and in part because I didn’t believe it was necessary anymore. In the original sentence ‘alarming’s purpose was to increase the threat of the sound and to tell the readers he found it frightening. The key word there being ‘to tell’. By using more disruptive verbs and nouns (jolted and roar) I tried to cultivate the desired impression without resorting to telling. We do lose the fear element, but that can also be reintroduced with little hassle via an appropriate, energetic adjective like ‘frantic’ before ‘attention’ or something similar to create and impression of fear around his reactions. So that’s the logic of why I cut ‘alarming’, however let’s resume where we left off with my changes. Like I said, I wanted to maintain the introduction of the house, but I want to introduce it elegantly while maintaining the forward momentum. So I used a subordinate/descriptive action (the ‘yanking’) to give another jolt of momentum and subtly change tracks. It also allowed me to orient the readers to the sound, telling them both that they’re in a house and that this sound is coming from the front. The ‘his attention toward’ serves to connect Kalob and the house so we’re not just dropping the mention of a house out of nowhere and thus providing the readers with a smooth transition between subjects. Finally I used ‘as it grew louder’ to say the sound approached. This is definitely a wordier alternative but it felt more natural since Kalob (to my knowledge) can’t see the front of the house to track whatever’s approaching; he can only here it, so I wanted to keep his perspective of the sound purely auditory. Using ‘approached’ is less tangible because it says nothing about Kalob’s experience only that the sound’s approaching, and the fact that it says nothing about Kalob distances us from him, cultivating a more third-person perspective of the story (which may or may not be the author’s intent, but I still prefer the tangibility of conveying its approach via sound instead of just saying ‘it’s nearing’).
Sentence 2 (Maude must have heard it too because he heard a clatter of mason jars from the kitchen where she’d been putting up strawberry preserves the better part of the morning.)
This sentence is easier to adjust simply through cutting. The ‘he heard’ is unnecessary since we will automatically orient this from Kalob’s perspective, and ‘the clatter of mason jars’ is a little incorrect. It’s not the sound of mason jars that tips him off, it’s the cessation of sound that indicates Maude leaves. ‘Putting up’ is somewhat vague as I can’t decide whether she’s stacking them (this doesn’t seem correct because I find it hard to believe you would be storing several hours-worth-of-stacking mason jars in the kitchen) or if she’s canning. I imagine the author is trying to cultivate a more country/farm-esque style and verbiage but in most instances, I think clarity is more important. Finally, I would reduce ‘better part’ to ‘most’.
—Maude must have heard it too because the clatter of mason jars in the kitchen, where she’d been canning strawberry preserves most of the morning, ceased.—
Most of the changes are the ones I mentioned before, with the main difference being I added commas around ‘where she’d been canning strawberry preserves most of the morning’. I did this because it read and behaved like an adjective phrase (additional information irrelevant to the comprehension of the sentence.) I also prefer the rhythm of it being read as an adjective phrase to it just being strung into the main sentence. I used ‘ceased’ to say the sound stopped because I like to pretend I’m fancy, and because I prefer how it sounded over ‘stopped’.
Sentence 3 (He barely heard the squeak of the screen door as she burst through it and marched out onto her porch to confront whatever was headed her way.)
More small adjustments and cutting. ‘To confront whatever was headed her way’ is both passive (the ‘was head’) mildly incorrect (since it would be ‘their way) and unnecessary. Her stepping out onto the porch conveys her purpose all on Its own, rendering an explanation unnecessary and a little tedious. I would do ‘screen door’s squeak’ instead of ‘squeak of the screen door’ to remove the ‘of the’ as needless inefficiency and clutter. There is some repetition in ‘burst through it and marched out’ since both say she left. I would do ‘their porch’ instead of ‘her porch’ since they’re presumably married. I would also consider a different sound than ‘squeaked’ since her bursting through it is liable to provoke a stronger reaction, and you would need a louder sound to be audible. The conflict I’m experiencing is the ‘he barely heard’. I don’t like the ‘he heard’ aspect (for all the reasons mentioned above) but the ‘barely’ is the author telling us the approaching sound’s masking the door closing, which is something I like because it’s the story and the world interacting with one another. So, let’s consider something like…
—She stormed onto their front porch, the screen door’s crack barely audible over the screaming roar.—
I think this works; it might be a little short/read a little off in isolation but I believe recombining the paragraph will resolve the issue.
Sentence 4 (Kalob cursed and struggled to push himself into a sitting position on the side of the bed.)
For here, I would consider deleting ‘to push himself’ as ‘struggled’ conveys effort all on its own, and if someone is struggling to rise they will need to use their hands. I would also consider replacing ‘into a sitting position’ with ‘upright’. For me ‘upright’ in this context immediately conveys an impression of sitting since he’s unlikely to stand on the bed. This does lose a little context of ‘on the side of the bed’ but I think we can resolve that without issue.
—Kalob cursed and struggled upright, swinging his legs off the bed.—
A potential issue here is that ‘swinging’ might be too active/energetic for the author’s desired impression. Optimally we would want a more fragile/impotent verb, but that can wait for the final paragraph.
Sentence 5 (A wave of dizziness made his head swim and his arthritic body screamed in protest at the sudden, unwelcome movement.)
Here were have a fair amount of unnecessary phrases. ‘Made is his head swim’ is unnecessary because that’s pretty much what ‘dizziness’ is so having both is unnecessary. ‘Making his head swim’ is a little more physical/tangible to the reader but requires more words to achieve. Which is best will depend on the situation. ‘At the sudden, unwelcome movement’ is unnecessary from a context of it being understood. Since it immediately follows the action, it will automatically be applied to the action. Unfortunately, what’s left doesn’t comprise much of a sentence —He suffered a wave of dizziness and his arthritic body screamed.— (I added the ‘he suffered’ because the sentence required a verb and deleted ‘in protest’ as self-evident. He’s obviously suffering, so he’s not screaming from laughter or joy, thus ‘protest’ is the only possibility.) While this sentence works on a technical level, it has no rhythm in of itself or as a continuation of its predecessor. An easy solution would be to combine with the previous sentence somehow.
— Kalob cursed and struggled upright, fighting to swing his legs off the bed through whirling vision and his arthritic body’s screaming.—
— Kalob cursed and struggled upright, swinging his legs off the bed as his arthritic body screamed and his head swam.—
Or (if one wanted to keep the sentences separate)
—A wave of dizziness and screaming arthritis rewarded/answered his efforts.—
I prefer the combined sentences, but it really is a matter of dealer’s choice and which option is easiest to make work or achieve your desired level of prose.
All of my edits.
—The shrieking, god-awful roar jolted Kalob Montgomery awake, yanking his attention toward the house’s front as it grew louder. Maude must have heard it too because the clatter of mason jars in the kitchen, where she’d been canning strawberry preserves most of the morning, ceased. She stormed onto their front porch, the screen door’s crack barely audible over the screaming roar. Kalob cursed and struggled upright, swinging his legs off the bed as his arthritic body screamed and his head swam.—
I think this reads fairly decent. If I could I would change ‘as it grew louder’ to ‘with increasing insistence’ (because the ‘as’ reads a little weak to me there). And the sentence concerning the screen door cracking is a bit awkward as well. I considered writing it like —The screen door cracked, barely audible over the screaming roar, as she stormed onto their porch— which reads better as a continuation of the previous sentence. (I think because it leads with the auditory que that tells him she’s left, which suits the scene better. You hear the mason jars stop clattering, a pause, then the screen door crack as she storms out.) But I veered away from that option because the sentence had no internal rhythm. The adjective phrase of ‘barely audible’ is too long and reads intrusive, disrupting any potential rhythm.
I’m sure there’s an answer somewhere, but I’ll be leaving it here as this post is already quite long.
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