Authors misusing tools they don’t understand

[— Karen Myers —]

Rhetoric has fashions, just like anything else, and some fiction genres use a sort of conventional rhetoric, a tool box specific to the genre. Not everyone is good at that…

I was plowing through yet another Jack Reacher book (Lee Child, lately co-authoring with his brother Andrew Child) when I was met in the face by a continuing hail of bullets. Not the jacketed kind — the rhetorical kind.

Since I couldn’t fire back at the perpetrators, I’m taking my rant out on you lot.

Let’s talk about sentence fragments…

Rhetoric in fiction, as I’m thinking of it, isn’t about formal grammar, and it isn’t just telling a story. It’s a sort of… um… hand-waving. It illustrates a point-of-view, demonstrates a surprise, sympathizes with an injury, lectures a malefactor, etc. Part of its toolkit is not just vocabulary, but form.

So let’s look at the examples that irritated me…

Men’s Adventure Stories™ have certain conventions. When you read the genre, you expect explosive action, mortal peril, expertise, heroes & villains, suffering, triumph (contingent). One of the methods used to convey some of this (action, peril, expertise, suffering) is the use of short sentences, or even sentence fragments. The reason this works is that it mimics, in rhetorical form, the experience of hyper-focus or shock — the ability or need to concentrate, in whole or in part, on single things that absorb all attention in a moment of importance. It therefore puts the reader into the head of the person telling the story, a head which can only look at things that way in that moment. It is vivid.

At least, when it’s done right.

1 – Expertise – Internal thoughts, in short-hand, sorting out who all the players in a criminal activity are.

I had to slow Arthur down so that I could get the other three men nailed down, made into separate and distinct people in my mind.

G. Harrison Gisik. The old one. The sick one. Tall and frail and old and quiet. Bad color. Moved slowly and with apparent great effort. From Montreal.

Like Stebber, G. Harrison Gisik had no woman with him. The other two each had one. The other two were each local.

Crane Watts. Local attorney. Dark, goodlooking, friendly. And unremarkable. He came equipped with wife. Vivian. Called Viv. Dark, sturdy, pretty—scored by sun and wind—an athlete. Tennis, sailing, golf, riding. She was, Arthur thought, a lady.

Boone Waxwell. The other local. From a local swamp, possibly. Sizable. Rough and hard and loud. An accent from way back in the mangroves. Black curly hair. Pale pale blue eyes. Sallowy face. Boone Waxwell, known as Boo. And he came equipped with a non-wife, a redhead of exceptional mammary dimension. Dilly Starr. As loud as good ol’ Boo, and, as soon as she got tight, slightly more obscene. And she got tight quickly.

“So okay,” I said. “The four members of the syndicate. Stebber, Gisik, Crane, Waxwell. And Stebber the only one living aboard. A party, with Boo and his broad making all you nicer folks a little edgy. So?”

John D. McDonald, Bright Orange for the Shroud (Travis McGee #6)

2 – Peril – All the time in the world to use one’s expertise to reflect upon one’s inadequacies while fighting for your life.

As I went around the corner I saw the long shadow I cast, and knew that I was outlined against the single streetlight on the other side of Clematis Drive, and knew it would be a Very Good Thing to get back where I had been. Out of darkness ahead came a sound. THOP. And with it a whisper of air movement touching the right side of my throat, and immediately thereafter the workmanlike chud of lead into a palm trunk a hundred yards behind me.

They would say, when Whitey Ford made that incredible motion to nip the base runner off first, that the man was caught leaning. The man was leaning one way, and realized what was happening, and yearned to go the other way, but he had to overcome the inertia of himself before he could move back. I was off balance. I yearned for the safety I had left. Either it was a cheap silencer he was using, or a homemade one, or a good one used too many times. Good ones go THUFF. Not THOP. I did not review all my past life in a micro-second. I was too busy changing balance and direction, and thinking, How stupid, how idiotic, how … Arthur-like. I did not hear the next THOP. I heard only the monstrous tearing blast as the slug tore the whole top left side of my head off with such finality, the world ended in whiteness without even any residual sense of falling.

John D. McDonald, Bright Orange for the Shroud (Travis McGee #6)

Here, for comparison, is what it looks like when the concept of “short sentence fragments — good” is sprinkled in like too much pepper sauce, or when a scene of peril creates boredom for the reader, with nothing at stake for the hero.

1 – Pointless fragmentation and trivial sentences.

There was a kitchen to the right. It was basic. A few cupboards, a simple stove, a plain countertop made of wood. There were two windows set into the long wall on the right. They were small. And square. But even so they reminded me of portholes on a ship. There were three doors in the wall to the left. They were all closed. And in the center of the floor there was something strange. A hole.

I got brought back to the present by a sound. The phone, chirping away on the desk.

Lee Child, Worth Dying For (Jack Reacher #15)

2 – Entire treatises on how to punch a guy — long enough to bore, torn between internal moment perceptions and explanatory advice. You can see the attempt to shock the reader, but the hero isn’t shocked, so it doesn’t work.

My shoulder sank into the guy’s midriff. It knocked him off his feet. We clattered together into the doors. A combined 450 pounds. And the effect of my weight was multiplied by the speed I’d gained. The old lock was no match for that. Not even close. The doors burst open. One swung around and crashed into the wall. The other came right off its hinges and cartwheeled away. The two of us landed on the ground. Him underneath, on his back. Me, on top. I was crushing his chest. I felt some of his ribs shatter on impact. Maybe a collarbone, too. Maybe both of them. But those injuries didn’t matter. He would never feel the pain. Because his shoulders wound up level with the lip of the top step leading down to the street. My bulk pinned his torso in place. But his head continued to move. It swung around another five inches. Then the back of his skull hit the concrete. It split open like a watermelon. Something sticky sprayed up across my face. The guy twitched. Just once. And then he was still.

Lee Child, Worth Dying For (Jack Reacher #15)

There seems to be an occasional, barely detectible, attempt at rhythm to justify some of the shorter fragments. Others are just arbitrary.

Ahead was a parking lot. There were spaces for forty vehicles but only two were taken. By a pair of SUVs. Cadillac Escalades. They were black and dusty and kitted out with dark glass. They were sitting low on their suspension. But evenly, front to back, which probably meant they were armored to some degree. Beyond them was a fence. It was twenty feet high. Made of stout chain link. There was another one, running parallel, the same height, the same material, twenty-five feet farther out. That meant twice the amount of cutting for anyone looking to break in. Twice the time. Twice the exposure.

Lee Child, Blue Moon (Jack Reacher #24)

Possibly the slowest punch you’ve ever had to read about… Think how much longer it takes to read this than the actual event. All the tension is drained out by the need to keep reading the commentary. It’s long enough, it could sell commercials.

Try to read it without skimming — I dare you. And if you can, doesn’t it take the blood right out of it? It’s all fulcrums and levers, with no sense of actual peril. So why should we care?

They both knew. Sooner or later all you could do was slug it out. The guy feinted left and threw a snap right, low, aimed for Reacher’s center mass, the straightest path to the target, but Reacher saw it coming and twisted away and took it on a slab of muscle high on his side, which hurt, but not as much as it would have, where it was headed before. The twist away was a pure reflex action, a jammed-wide-open panic response from his automatic nervous system, a sudden breathtaking gasp of adrenaline, no finesse at all, no modulation, no precision, just maximum available torque, instantly applied, which was a lot, which meant there was a lot of stored energy just hanging there for a split second, like a giant spring tightly wound, ready to suddenly unwind in the opposite direction, with exactly the same violent speed and force, a perfect equal and opposite reaction, but this time controlled, and timed, and aimed, and crafted. This time with the returning elbow setting out on an arc of its own, like a guided missile, coming up, riding the background rotation of his center mass, adding extra relative velocity of its own, then chopping down hard against the side of the guy’s head, a fraction above and in front of his ear, a colossal blow, like getting hit with a baseball bat or an iron bar. It would have busted most skulls it met. It would have killed most guys. All it did to the Albanian was bounce him off the parlor doorframe and drop him to his knees.

Lee Child, Blue Moon (Jack Reacher #24)

Lazy, arbitrary, declarative fragments. Like others. Like this one. Never met a fragmentary declarative form it didn’t approve of.

There was nothing interesting between the long side of the building and the fence. Just a big patch of ground covered with weird, rubbery asphalt. Maybe the site of a playground, back in the day. Now it was empty so I followed around the next corner. I came upon a kind of rough shed. It was built of cinder block, painted white, with a corrugated metal roof. It had a wooden door, secured with a padlock. A new one. Hefty. There was one window. At head height. It was barred.

Lee Child, Andrew Child, Better Off Dead (Jack Reacher #26)

On the peril front, if you’re going to drag out a fight scene, have a reason to (in terms of its emotional impact). And if it doesn’t impact the hero, why should it impact the reader? Description, even of action, that is not in the service of emotional impact isn’t very important.

And regarding the utility of sentence fragments, there’s no point chopping your sentences into ruined fragments like these.

You know what else we call that period at the end? A “full stop”. Bang. And every time you insert arbitrary fragments that can more smoothly be absorbed into their surroundings, you slap a reader in the face. Reserve the fragments for when they count — when they actually convey a sensation you want the reader to feel.

Much of the text (if not the plot) of the Reacher books is unobjectionable. As far as I can tell, the irritating stuff above shows up almost arbitrarily in some scenes but not others. Since I looked at examples both before and after Lee Child was joined by his brother, I can’t assign the cause to one of them versus the other. Makes me wonder if Lee Child was paid by the period instead of by the word and just needed to add a few more. Wha’d’ya think?

18 thoughts on “Authors misusing tools they don’t understand

  1. Travis McGee sorting out the several people with all those fragmented lists is also hard on the brain.

    I have to admit, I’m ok with super short sentences as a reader, and I’ve enjoyed the Reacher books I’ve read so far. It’s like an accent. At first someone can be hard to understand, but then your brain switches over and you can hear the words more clearly despite the accent.

    What I can’t stand is long fragments. They force a re-read. Where’s the verb? I wonder. Did I miss the verb? I go back and look for the verb. Fragments requiring a comma? Kill them all.

    1. In the case of the Travis McGee quote, that’s deliberate (i.e., functional). This is John D McDonald’s way of making the reader pay attention, too, because this is the list of secondary dramatis personae for the plot. I admire his cleverness in getting McGee’s own personality into the internal commentary at the same time — a sophisticated way of doing a necessary info dump.

      1. There was a recurring character in the old Magnum PI TV series, Luther Something-or-other (Gillis?). If you read it in his voice it sounds perfectly natural.

      2. I’ve been trying to figure out why the McGee example works, and I think you’re right that the insertion of Travis’ personality is part of it.

        Another element is that it’s framed as a list. You can almost see the bullets on the powerpoint chart. Thus, the context makes it work, too.

  2. I was working on a scene and thinking I need to work on my rhetoric because it’s not suitable for a violent scene viewed by a boy who wouldn’t get half of what’s going on if he were free to ponder it rather than run for his life.

    1. David Drake is my go-to for how violence is viewed by people who don’t know what’s going on.

      “Rolling Hot” had a good bit of that near the beginning, when it’s from the reporter’s view point. Also PTSD nightmare fuel too, so be warned.

  3. I think Ian Fleming did exceptionally well with the fragment-writing thing. Sometimes (okay, often) I’ll read a book and forget most of it almost immediately. With Fleming’s Bond books I’ve carried many scenes along with me, and I think I could do worse for an influence. But anyway, there is a sequence towards the end of Moonraker where he’s desperate to get out to safety with his damsel-in-distress that is written almost entirely in panicked fragments. Very effective. Hemingway also did quite well, although more with short, declarative sentences than with fragments.

    1. Fleming (no relation, alas) was a prose master, and is due for serious reevaluation. Yes, his scenes, and specific wording, sticks with you for decades. Can’t say that about 99.999% of writers.

  4. I know you’re mostly complaining about the short sentences and fragments, but the one that catches my attention is the sentence that starts “The twist away…” and then just keeps going for eight lines, most of which turns into a physics lecture.

  5. While I enjoy reading Lee Child (in limited doses, to be honest), comparing him to MacDonald is just unfair.

    MacDonald was a master who came up through the rough and tumble pulps in the ’40s and ’50s, trained by editors who know what they were doing.

    Child began as a screenwriter (which is probably where he picked up his bad sentence fragment habits — space is at a premium in scripts, and it was a fashion, at least for a few decades, to use fragments to help invoke mood and style, as in Lawrence Kasdan’s sceenplay for Body Heat, which opens with “Flames in the night sky.”), and started publishing novels when editors manifestly did not know what they were doing, with a very few notable exceptions, because they were too busy Being Important in NYC. The fact that he became a big seller very quickly also allowed him to become editor-proof, at some level. Plus, “lots of words to say not very much” has somehow become the fashion among bestsellers in tradpub, unlike the pulp tradition that MacDonald worked in.

    (It’s been a fair few years since I’ve read any of his stuff, but I swear I remember most of the Reacher books I read being third person. I know at least one was first person because of how a pivotal scene depended on Reacher’s internal monologue as he realized he’d made rather a serious mistake. But most of them “feel” third person in my memory.)

    On another note, I imagine Child’s publisher would have an aneurysm if his works got categorized next to Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan books. That sort of thing Just Isn’t Cricket these days, despite Reacher fitting pretty well into that category in fact. He does, you just can’t say it. 😀

    1. I think John D McDonald is an absolute master of the genre, craft-wise. I read his entire oeuvre (77 books) every so often (OK, not No Deadly Drug…) Obviously there are some plots/characters I like better than others… Still, the economic but effective prose never disappoints. Even the SFF comedy (The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything), odd as it is, works as a cross between his usual stuff and the SFF gadget.

      And Ian Fleming is, indeed, a good writer, though the international thriller crises of his stories age oddly. I hadn’t thought about David Drake the way these comments suggest, but now I’ll have to take a look again. I remember some of his comic material better…

      Lee Child… ouch. What can you say? God knows he sells well. But the wooden and unattractive prose, the repetitive plots, the constant glimpse of behind the scenes construction when he describes anything (maps, rooms, clothing — all lifted straight from his research materials, with the tags still on them). And then the homeless gimmick for the main character… Talk about an arbitrary device to change locations with each book (though in reality many of them are close duplicates of earlier entries). It’s really pretty primitive stuff.

      1. David Drake is not for everybody, but in terms of prose style and efficiency, there is nobody better, and few even close to as good. Nobody else can come up with more ways to say “the spaceship blew up real good” in a page or two, and leave the reader completely satisfied, rather than feeling there was any sort of repetition. As a writer, I love reading anything by him, because I always learn something about writing.

        Child gets repetitive, sure, but some of his stuff is very good. (And some, isn’t.) The Reacher character’s rootlessness is not merely a convenient way to get him to move from place to place (though it certainly is that), it’s a distillation of the American archetype, by a British writer, which makes his presentation rather interesting, culturally, in at least a few of the books. Reacher is the modern cowboy, the stranger who rides into town. He’s the private eye that doesn’t get along with the coppers. He’s the rogue cop who turned in his gun and his badge because the brass just don’t understand. He’s a slightly watered-down Repairman Jack, a libertarian fantasy not beholden to any interests, government or economic.

        As for his prose, he’s certainly less clunky than Tom Clancy was, and less of a floodtide of banalities than Stephen King in most of his post-1990 books. Or, to compare to another successful thriller writer, he’s more trusting of the reader to pick up on subtext than Brad Thor. (Thor’s a smart guy, but he spells out everything for the reader, even the most obvious implications.) He’s nowhere near perfect, nor even especially artful, but he’s better than he might be. (Feel free to do a comparison between him and the awful Dan Brown, too, if you like. 🙂 )

  6. A lot of those examples remind me of the style of a lot of the 2nd & 3rd rate Mack Bolan knock-offs from the 1970s. I mean stuff like “Death Merchant” series and “The Penetrator” series. But the authors (often part of a stable writing under a house name) had a contract to produce a novel of about x-thousand words in y-amount of time and sometimes I got the impression they were just padding the word count.

    1. You left out a bit. “X-thousand words in y-amount of time for Not Much-amount of money and guaranteed no royalties down the road.” So it would be surprising if they didn’t pad out their wordcounts, frankly.

      Heck, even the Mack Bolan and Remo Williams books weren’t always stellar. Fun, but not always good.

  7. I caught myself using too many sentence fragments in non-dialogue passages, and started asking “What is this here for? Can I say this a different way?” Sometimes the answer was no, I needed that tool in order to convey a mood or action. At other times, I found better tools (dialogue tag, move description to a different place, tweak dialogue for the needed tone/mood.)

    Sometimes the hammer needs to be swapped for the socket wrench. And sometimes you need a bigger hammer.

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