Monthly Archives: April 2015

Which Saber-toothed Cat is Which?

Say you’re writing a story in which your main character busies herself with petting a saber-toothed Martian cat. You want to indicate that only one vermillion-furred beast with extended maxillary canine teeth and a habit of hissing poison exists in the scene. Therefore, as your character, Zelda, reaches out to pet the cat, you’d write, “The Martian cat, which Zelda reached out to pet, suddenly bared its saber teeth and hissed poison at her.”

In this sentence, by using the word which and by setting the phrase which Zelda had been petting off with commas, you can indicate to the reader that only one extraterrestrial feline exists in this scene. The cat is skulking around the spaceship, and oh, by the way, Zelda pets it before the unusual feline turns on her.

On the other hand, suppose that Martian cats surround Zelda but that only the one that she had been petting has turned on her. How would you indicate this? You’d write, “The Martian cat that Zelda had been petting suddenly bared its saber teeth and hissed poison at her.”

By not setting the phrase off with which and its attendant commas, but by instead using the proper “that”, you easily indicate the cat that out of all the felines in the scene has turned on Zelda – the one that she so foolishly petted. Let’s hope that Martian cats prefer tuna fish!

If You’re Going to Kill Your Villain, Let Me See Where You Put Your Machete

Once, in the halcyon days of my youth, I wrote a story patterned after the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes. In the biblical story, Judith frees the Jewish people from an Assyrian blockade by first seducing and then killing Holofernes, the Assyrian general who is besieging Bethulia. In my story, set in Nigeria during colonial rule, my character frees her village from the rule of a vicious military officer, also by seducing and then killing the officer.

Everything went fine until, like Judith, I had my character pull out a machete and chop off the interloper’s head. The trouble was that I had not, up to that point, mentioned that the main character had a machete.

What I‘d unknowingly done was to use what’s called a deus ex machina device. Deus ex machina is a Greek term for “god from a machine,” and ancient Greek playwrights were so guilty of using it that we’ve named the device after them.

A deus ex machina device is “a person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution” (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition). In Greek tragedy, once the plot had tangled to the point at which the playwright had no perceivable way to bring the drama to a conclusion, a machine would bring a “god” onto the stage. The god would then solve everything with a wave of his or her omnipotent little finger. Aeschylus introduced the device, and Euripides (of Medea fame) popularized it. At times, even Shakespeare resorted to the deus ex machina.

So, why was this plot device a misstep on my part, if even Shakespeare made use of it? Because for a contemporary audience, such contrivances are lazy and unsatisfying. By failing to use foreshadowing (or, as I like to say, dropping hints), you miss out on building a good sense of suspense for your readers. These days, foreshadowing the ending is always, always necessary. (Note that foreshadowing should be subtle – you want the clues to make sense after the fact.)

In my own story that I mentioned above, any intelligent reader would experience an unsatisfying surprise when the unexpected machete makes its appearance above the officer’s neck. Because if Judith’s going to off Holofernes, then my reader had better be clued in to it by Judith’s tucking that machete into her robes prior to going to see him. That way, my reader sees that Judith plans to put that machete to work. He or she then eagerly awaits the conclusion, which is bound to be bloody.

Had I used this little bit of foreshadowing, I could have created a sense of suspense and anticipation that the story otherwise lacked – and that leads not only to a satisfying conclusion, but satisfied readers.

Give Your Prose Muscle with Active Verbs

Ah, the good old helping verb is. Is and all of its forms get so overused, don’t you think? And worse, they slum around in your writing, creeping in unbeknownst to you and slowing the prose down.

Let’s take a look at a passage overflowing with is forms, all of which I’ve bolded.

After he had splashed some water on his face – after he had combed his damp hair and changed into his spare shirt – then the doctor was going to face her parents. He was wondering what he would say to them. Hollinsgsead had no idea why the Procedure had failed. Sometimes he was merely wrong about a child’s being demon-possessed, but in such cases God was always respectful of his earnestness. Never was he an outright failure as he was with the Campbell girl. Never was a demon so disrespectful of his authority.

–“The Righteous Shall Inherit the Kingdom of the Blind,” by Kate Watts

Kind of mealy-mouthed, yes? That’s because I resorted to words such as “was going,” “was wondering,” “was respectful.” Easy enough to do, and not something you should worry about in the draft stage of composition, but definitely something to smooth out when you edit.

Words such as “was,” “being,” and “has been” are passive verbs. They have a use: sometimes passive verbs indicate that the subject is being acted upon instead of doing the acting. But generally, passive verbs just make noise in between your subject and the verb. Not only do passive verbs serve no real purpose, but their use makes your prose as limp as a switched-off automaton.

Let’s see, for example, how the above passage might read if I eliminated the passive forms sprinkled throughout.

After he had splashed some water on his face – after he had combed his damp hair and changed into his spare shirt – then the doctor had to face her parents, and he wondered what he would say to them. Hollingsead had no idea why the Procedure had failed. Sometimes he merely erred in his judgment of demon possession, but in such cases God always respected his earnestness. Never had he outright failed as he had with the Campbell girl. Never had a demon shown such disrespect to his authority.

Much better, right? No slumping. You can picture the doctor standing upright, going about his nefarious business. Just straighten up the verbiage, and the result is much livelier prose!

How to Address a Mad Scientist: Or, Titles in Dialogue

Say you have a character who’s a hardened detective, Detective Barebones. He must bring in Mr. and Mrs. Florestan, the parents of a missing teenager, to inform them that no leads exist in the case. Barebones brings them into his cluttered office and asks them to sit down. How would Barebones invite the Florestans to sit?

You would write:

Detective Barebones led the kid’s parents – a stiff-lipped older man with greying hair and his little, mousy broad of a wife – into his office. With one arm, he swept aside a stack of manila folders from his old desk chair, and with his other arm, he gestured to the couple to sit on the battered black and orange couch across from the desk.

“Sit down, Mister and Missus Florestan,” Barebones began.

Mister and Missus? Why write out “Mr” and “Mrs”? Well, because nobody actually says the letters M-R or M-R-S when he or she addresses another person. We sound the titles out: thus, “Mr” becomes “Mister”, and “Mrs” becomes “Missus.”

You might think that because this is a written dialogue, you wouldn’t have to write the titles out. However, your goal in writing dialogue is to write what people actually say, the way they say it. You would no more write “Mr” or “Mrs”, which no one says, than you would have Barebones address Florestan as “sirrah” (unless, of course, everyone in your story speaks Elizabethan English).

As another example, suppose you have a mad scientist with a degree from King’s College in your story. The scientist, Dr. Audric, is about to turn on the electricity that will bring his automaton, Clarabelle, to life. But his young assistant, who has scrofula, is in love with him and is jealous of Clarabelle. The assistant, Egberta, she wants to stop him. How would she address her erstwhile lover?

“Please, Doctor Audric!” Egberta cried, rushing for the switch. “How could you treat a woman so callously as to cast her aside just because of a little scrofula?”

Notice that I wrote out Doctor. Again, I did so because no one says the letters D-R when he or she addresses a mad scientist. Just as with the Florestans, you’d always address Audric the correct way – as Doctor Audric. Otherwise, you risk getting turned into a lab experiment.

That’s Just the Sort of Girl Who I Am

Pop quiz: What’s wrong with this sentence?

The loud man in the two-toned shoes and plush moose hat asked if anyone had seen the shy blonde that he had been romancing all evening.

Other than the plush moose hat, where did I go wrong with this sentence?

Answer: I used “that” to refer to the shy blonde.

In the English language, we never use “that” to refer to a person. That refers to penguins, bison, Venus fly traps, and hot-air balloons. In other words, that indicates anything that is not a person.

On the other hand, we use “who” when we indicate a person. Who refers to the mailman, the trombonist, and to Lottie’s Latin lover. In other words, who indicates anyone who is a person.

“But Kate!” you cry. “I have a vampire/changeling/alien in my book! He/she/it isn’t a person! Which do I use?”

I would say that that depends on how you want to present said creature. If you want your vampire/changeling/alien to be on the anthropomorphic side, then use who. On the other hand, if you want your supernatural creature to come across as more beastie than human, then use that.

The difference is subtle, but by using this one word correctly, you can indicate to the observant reader how, exactly, to view your character.