Blog #60: The Lady and the Thug Part 1
Hello everybody, today we have a piece titled The Lady and the Thug by RickyZ on Writing.com.
Richard raised his cigarette, gripping one end between his lips. Staring off down the dim streets, he fumbled about the interior of his hip box. It was easy to distinguish his coin purse and the cigarette box he had just returned there, but the more he dug with his fingers, the deeper his brow furrowed. With a long frustrated breath, he came to terms with the reality of his situation. Plucking the cigarette from his mouth, in annoyance, he glared back at the theatre.
I have little to say concerning this opening paragraph as a whole, the prose is competent and the author’s focus on detail is appealing. This is a slower style of prose, which will appeal to some (myself included) but not to others. An important element with slower prose, however, is that it’s susceptible to repetition and inefficiency, and we can see a little of that here. In the first sentence; the authors walks us step by step through a fairly simple action most would be familiar with. The entire sentence could be reduced to one phrase ‘gripping a/the cigarette between his lips’. This is not an outright condemnation of the author’s style; but if you want to walk the reader through a sequence or action step by step, you want to have a reason and message for emphasizing the individual stages instead of just abridging them. There can be a multitude of reasons from tone or aesthetic building, to description, straining tension or even as a means for the author to express knowledge and authority on a particular action or subject (which can be appealing if appropriately implemented). So, the question becomes: what does the author want to say through ‘raised his cigarette’ that ‘gripping his cigarette between his lips’ doesn’t? If nothing and the author just wanted two actions for the sake of pacing and rhythm, then find something for it to say. (This can be tedious and frustrating, but it’s one of the most important elements separating decent prose from great prose. You can have the complex and beautiful collection of words, but without meaning you’ll end up with hot air and nothing said. Or you’ll end up with the next Jabberwocky song.)
I’ve already discussed my primary issue with the opening sentence, but a smaller detail to note is the unnecessariness of ‘one end’. It’s not something you need to specify because that’s how cigarettes are consumed, and it actually read someone unpleasantly to me because it prompted the thought ‘how else would he hold it?’
This, unfortunately, is one of those sentences I can’t fix the way I would like. Optimally, I would replace ‘raised his cigarette’ with something to build the atmosphere and aesthetic of the scene and the world and use that to maintain the author’s more measured pacing, but I don’t know enough to implement those changes. Instead, the best option I can see is combining it with its successor.
—Richard raised the cigarette to his lips and stared down the dim streets, fumbling inside his hip box.—
—Richard gripped the cigarette between his lips and fumbled inside his hip box, staring down the dim streets—?
(You can see how interchangeable ‘raised’ and ‘gripped’ are.)
There are multiple other alternatives, just swapping which information is conveyed via the ING and the order by which they are introduced. I don’t particularly like any of the them because the ING makes the prose read faster. (Verbs distinguish actions and phrases more because they inject new momentum whereas INGs piggyback already existing momentum. None-adjective verbs, that is. You can hear it when you write an ‘and’ sentences vs an ‘ING’ sentence. It’s also due to the fact that we removed an entire period from the paragraph, thus saying more ‘things’ in a shorter span while cutting a pause.) Another change I made was reducing ‘about the interior of’ to ‘inside’. But, ultimately, I still want to slow the narrative down, which simply requires adding more words, so I might consider something additional like…
—The scent of tobacco rich in his nose, Richard gripped the cigarette between his lips and fumbled in his hip box, staring absently down the dim streets.—
Besides just slowing the pace down, what I’m trying to achieve with ‘the scent of tobacco’ is to added dimension to the scene and another layer to the act of smoking to make it feel more real/tangible to the readers. I am unfortunately hampered in this pursuit by not being a smoker, so I am sure there is a better way to include my desired depth. I also added an ‘absently’ to the final phrase because the author never gives him a reason for staring down the street; he’s not searching for or watching something and he’s not specifically staring at nothing either. You don’t always have to expressly state why a character’s doing something because the result can often convey the intent effectively, or it can be revealed later. But in this situation there’s no reason for his perusal given or implied and so made me wonder why he was staring. The ‘absently’ said he was staring at nothing, which was the least intrusive option available to me.
Sentence 3 (It was easy to distinguish his coin purse and the cigarette box he had just returned there, but the more he dug with his fingers, the deeper his brow furrowed.)
For this sentence I would like to convert it from passive (‘was easy to distinguish’) to active, and we can delete the ‘had’ as unnecessary since ‘returned’ is past tense in this context. ‘With his fingers’ is probably unnecessary as well since he’s unlikely to be searching with anything different. A more complicated issue is the ‘distinguish’. ‘Distinguish’ is initially confusing because it means to differentiate, but that’s not what the author is trying to say here. He’s not distinguishing his purse and cigarette box from anything and so it reads as if he’s distinguishing his purse from his cigarette box and that reads correctly. But, again, that’s not what the author is saying. He’s saying that Richard found the purse and cigarettes easily. I usually support creative word use, but here it leads to confusion. (Another thing we can delete is the ‘there’ since it’s implied via context.) The first solution that occurred to me (probably not to any of you because I’m weird) is something like…
—His coin purse and the cigarette box he just returned met his questing fingers readily, but the more he dug, the deeper his brow furrowed.—
This is active versus passive, but still suffers the mention of ‘fingers’ and relies on an adverb in ‘readily’. The opening phrases are also somewhat cluttered leading to them feeling overstuffed, the ‘just returned there’ in particular. We could also try the simple straightforward composition…
—He found his coin purse and cigarette box without difficulty, but the more he dug, the deeper his brow furrowed.—
This is of debatable value, the current structure necessitated an ‘easily’ or ‘simply’ to complete the first phrase or the slightly wordier example of ‘without difficulty’. I chose to go with ‘without difficulty’ because it would slow the prose down (thus befitting the author’s desired pace more.) At the same time, I deleted ‘he just returned’ because it read a little wordy (especially in conjunction with ‘without difficulty’) but also because it walked the line of ‘needless specificity/specificity without value’. It in itself adds no clarity or visuality/interactivity to the scene, it simply says he just returned the cigarette case, which is somewhat obvious as he interacts with the case in his hip box. (The only potential value it provides is preventing confusion about his cigarette case in his hip box while holding a fresh cigarette in his lips. I don’t think this is a concern, however.) The straightforward approach is effective but perhaps a bit boring. It’s not something we would want to resolve with explosive verbs (They wouldn’t fit the tone of the action and scene.) and it’s actually what I imagine the author was attempting to resolve with the ‘distinguish’ angle: I.E make a simplistic action more interesting via creative word use.
A more radical alteration might be something like…
—Richard gripped the cigarette between his lips and returned his scuffed, metal cigarette case to his hip box, fumbling inside while staring down the dim streets. A leather, distressingly light, coin purse answered his search, along with various other sundries, but the more he dug, the deeper his brow furrowed.—
Like I said, radical change. Here, instead of just saying he returned his cigarette case, we have him do it and use the opportunity to describe it, give it texture and maybe a bit of chill (since I habitually envision metal as cold). We also provide further description to the purse and mention there’s other things in the hip box (an element left ambiguous in the original paragraph but which actually helps makes the ‘searching’ element more realistic since it’s not just two items in an otherwise empty box.) All this description also slows down the prose (which is something I can probably stop harping on as a reason) and just helps fill out the moment a bit more. In most cases the description would tell the readers something about the character, I choose to indicate he’s a little on the poorer side but with some money (which fits his situation in the story to some extent as he’s a solider attending the theater.) But this option requires multiple creative liberties and will probably not be my ultimate solution.
Sentence four (With a long frustrated breath, he came to terms with the reality of his situation.)
For this sentence there’s nothing particularly complicated. It suffers from inert verbs/phrasing (‘came to terms’ just doesn’t carry the momentum of potential alternatives while also requiring an entire phrase). ‘With a long frustrated breath’ converts an action into a description and uses a ‘with’ as the medium, but again ‘with’ lacks inherent momentum. I would attempt something more like…
—Exhaling a long, frustrated breath, he accepted the reality of his situation.—
I used ‘exhaling’ rather than ‘with’ because it’s an action and I reduced ‘came to terms with’ to ‘accepted’ because it’s one word instead of a phrase and is him actively doing something instead of passively doing it. You could also delete ‘the reality of’ as unnecessary since ‘accepted’ implies it and ‘situation’ is effective with or without it. ‘Reality’ is flavor text as ‘the situation’ is what matters and is what Richard’s interacting with; his situation is his situation regardless of context, his perception of a situation can change or be incorrect but his situation is ultimately his situation. I chose to leave ‘reality’ in because I didn’t like how the sentence read without it, and flavor text isn’t inherently a bad thing; in this situation, I think ‘reality’ adds more to the sentence then it takes away.
Sentence five (Plucking the cigarette from his mouth, in annoyance, he glared back at the theatre.)
This sentence mostly just suffers from telling. The ‘in annoyance’ describes the tone in which the action occurs, but that tone is effectively conveyed by the immediate succeeding action of ‘glared’. Even if it wasn’t, the description is only necessary because the chosen verb is an ineffective word; choosing an action with more inherent frustration would remove the need for additional clarification, something like ‘wrenched’ (although that’s too violent) or maybe ‘jerked’ (though that’s not quite right either) would function better. One just needs to find the action that actually says what they mean.
—Snatching the cigarette from his mouth, he glowered at the theater.—
I’m not entirely sure of ‘snatching’ but it is more annoyed and aggressive than ‘plucked’. One could also mention that ‘from his mouth’ is somewhat unnecessary since we know where the cigarette is, but I’m choosing to leave it in. First because of rhythm (the sentence reads too short without it) and because deleting it does invite a bit of misinterpretation (it’s very mild and probably only remotely an issue with this sentence in isolation from the rest of the paragraph). If I were to delete it, I would probably want a verb that covered it’s meaning a bit more, something like ‘retrieved’ or ‘reclaimed’ or ‘removed’. Finally I changed ‘glared back’ to ‘glowered’. ‘Back’ is unnecessary since there is no context that needs clarification (and context is immediately provided in the next paragraph) but I didn’t want to delete it outright for rhythm purposes. ‘Glowered’ and ‘glared’ are functionally almost identical but ‘glowered’ is slightly longer (thus achieving the same rhythmic value as ‘back’).
All of my edits
—The scent of tobacco rich in his nose, Richard gripped the cigarette between his lips and fumbled in his hip box, staring absently down the dim streets. He found his coin purse and cigarette box without difficulty, but the more he dug, the deeper his brow furrowed. Exhaling a long, frustrated breath, he accepted the reality of his situation. Snatching the cigarette from his mouth, he glowered at the theater.—
This reads decently, I don’t immensely care for the first sentence but I can’t pinpoint what I dislike about it, and can’t see an immediately solution. The only other change I would make is combining the last two sentences via something like…
— Exhaling a long, frustrated breath, he accepted the reality of his situation and snatched the cigarette from his mouth, glowering at the theater.—
Mostly this is to separate the two ‘ING’s further from one another so they echo less, and because connecting the ‘snatched’ to the previous sentence via ‘and’ makes it read stronger.
So by no means perfect, but I am content with it.
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