19 May 2006

Sentences that need a break

I continue to be impressed by J. K. Rowling’s fantasy imagination and story construction, and continue to be underwhelmed by her prose. Even after five previous novels, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince offers sentences like this, on page 48 of the U.S. edition:

The Dursleys, after quick, scared looks at one another, tried to ignore the glasses completely, a difficult feat, as they were nudging them gently on the sides of their heads.
Here we have a problem I see a lot in eighteenth-century letters: dueling pronouns. The “them” and “their” in the last clause don’t match the “they” that’s the subject of that clause. Often we readers need only an instant to sort out antecedents in a sentence like that. But in this case that task would take an extra instant because glasses don’t normally nudge people; our brains would not normally connect “they were nudging” with inanimate objects, even if we've just read that these glasses are enchanted.

And then there’s this sentence on page 132:
The Ministry’s cars glided up to the front of the Burrow to find them waiting, trunks packed; Hermione’s cat, Crookshanks, safely enclosed in his traveling basket; and Hedwig; Ron’s owl, Pigwidgeon; and Ginny’s new Purple Puff, Arnold, in cages.
This sentence presents us with one series (the owls in cages) inside another (what the Ministry’s cars found). And each of those series contains complex phrases that need commas; thus, the commas that would normally separate items in a series have to become semi-colons. That produces two levels of semi-colons, one level for each series. And the first semi-colon seems to signal the end of a complete clause. I doubt there’s a single child in the English-reading world who was able to decode this sentence easily at first sight.

Both these sentences have the same problem: they’re overbuilt. If a long sentence starts to buckle or twist back on itself, I find the best solution is often to break it in two. Like this:
The Dursleys, after exchanging quick, scared looks, tried to ignore the glasses completely. This became difficult as the glasses started nudging them gently on the sides of their heads.
Sometimes two sentences take up more words than one, which is tough when you’re working with a tight word count. But this version is actually one word shorter than the original.

Even when two sentences do raise the word count by two or three, that can be well worth the increase in clarity:
The Ministry’s cars glided up to the front of the Burrow to find all four students waiting, trunks packed. Hermione’s cat, Crookshanks, was safe in his traveling basket, and the owls--Hedwig, Pigwidgeon, and Ginny’s new Purple Puff, Arnold--in their cages.


Anonymous said...

Arthur Levine should have done the same job you just did. That was much, much clearer than the original text.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks. I don't want to put all the onus on Arthur because
(a) he's only one of the publishing pros involved in the Harry Potter series;
(b) as author, Rowling gets final say in the book's style; and
(c) we have no way of knowing how many other passages they tackled and smoothed out for us before the deadlines arrived.

As to the last point, there's a line from the movie All That Jazz that pertains to editing or any other behind-the-scenes support job: "I don't know if I can make you a great dancer. I'm not sure I can even make you a good dancer. But I can make you a better dancer."

Indeterminacy said...

I ponder this a lot myself. On the flip side there's technically perfect writing, as taught and trained by the multitude of writing courses out there, but which is entirely uninteresting to read.

Is there always a trade-off between quality of story and quality of writing? At what ratio does the trade-off begin to matter?

I prefer writing extremely compact pieces. If J.K. Rowling spent as much time polishing each of her paragraphs as I do mine, it would take her centuries to finish. (not that my results are any better)