Monday, January 14, 2013

Watch out for ING. It may be weaken-ing your story.

I've heard a lot of writing advice, and I've heard about a lot of things to avoid when writing. Maybe you've heard people tell you to avoid adverbs. Maybe you've heard them tell you to avoid passive voice. I'm not the kind of person to say "avoid doing X at all costs," so I won't tell you to expunge all adverbs from your work, or never to use the passive. I will, however, tell you that whenever you use a word or a grammatical construction, you should know why you are doing it and what its effect is.

On that note, I'm going to try to bring "over ING-ing" to your attention.

The suffix -ing is extremely common. You can find it in places like the question, "What are you doing with that suffix?" or like the statement "Abusing the suffix -ing is unconscionable." I'll tell you right now that you won't be able to avoid it completely. However, overuse of ING can weaken your story significantly. So let's think about what it does.

I found this article about the grammatical functions of -ing that gives you a pretty good idea of your options. They quote the following list of different ways you can use the word "painting" in a sentence (emphasis added):
  1. A painting of Brown’s…
  2. The painting of Brown is as skilful as that of Gainsborough….
  3. Brown’s deft painting of his daughter is a delight to watch…
  4. I dislike Brown’s painting his daughter.
  5. I dislike Brown painting his daughter.
  6. I watched Brown painting his daughter…
  7. The silently painting man is Brown…
  8. He is painting his daughter.
I'm not going to disentangle all of these, but I will bring your attention to the fact that they fall into three groups by what kind of grammatical phrases the word falls into. One group is exemplified by #8, where "painting" is part of a complex verb phrase, in the present progressive form. Present progressive, is very commonly used in stories. Another group has "painting" being used as a noun (#1-4). Finally there is #6 where "painting" occurs in an adjective-like position.

What is the relevance of this to story writing?

Let's start with the present progressive. It creates the impression of an ongoing state by placing us inside the moment when the activity is going on.

I am walking.
I am walking to school.

Notice that if I am walking to school, the presence of school as a prospective end point for my walking doesn't change the subjective impression that I am floating in the middle of the activity, suspended for whatever amount of time necessary. One of the things that the present progressive can do for you is set up a state of suspense that can then be interrupted (I do this a lot in my stories):

I was walking to school when I first saw the stranger girl.

The simple past "saw" is the event that interrupts the sense of suspension inherent in "walking." Terrific, and it's a great thing to be able to do - but as with most things we encounter in our writing, it can be overused. Variation in syntax is really important for flow, because people will notice if you use the present-progressive-interrupted construction too often.

Another use of present progressive is to talk about two activities happening concurrently:

Walking to school, I considered my options.

In this case the simple past doesn't interrupt, but if I had to pick which of these was the "action" of the sentence, I would pick "considered" rather than "walking." I would expect the sentence that followed to discuss details of my consideration, rather than details of how I was walking. Using the present progressive backgrounds the activity of walking to the activity of considering, so you'll want to make sure you have the emphasis where you want it.

People will also notice if you use the present progressive by itself too much. Maybe you have a piece of writing where you read it and it feels dreamy, a bit disconnected, like you're waiting for something to happen... that could be due to the presence of a lot of present progressive -ing forms.

The other ING to watch out for is sneakier. The nominalizing -ing, as I mentioned above, the one that takes a verb and turns it into a noun. You might be familiar with this phrase:

"The scouring of the Shire"

In fact, "The Xing of the Y" is a very commonly used phrasing in fantasy (and maybe sf too?). I think this may be because it gives a momentous feeling to whatever it describes, as though that event were important enough to merit historical significance. However, what it also does is steal the sense of action and movement out of the verb.

This is a problem that can sometimes be mistakenly identified by readers or critiquers as "use of passive voice." Don't be fooled. It has nothing to do with the grammatical passive "was Xed by Y" - and yet, it does make the narrative sound passive.

Rather than the word passive, I prefer here to focus on the word "static," as in "a continuing state without change or drive." Both the present progressive and nominalizing INGs leave you with static prose when they are overdone - because the present progressive suspends you in a state, and the nominalizing suffix takes an action and makes it into a thing or event.

Can you avoid ING completely?

Well, you could - but you probably wouldn't want to. I chose to minimize the use of ING in my story "Cold Words," because my narrator was a wolf alien, and one of my goals was to have him sound very decisive and like a creature of action. In particular, I was trying to avoid the present progressive. That was, however, one of the things that made him sound inhuman. Here's an example:

He, enter audience? I lean close to his ear, since listeners would take offense that I don't dominate him with Cold words in reply. "What, Parker, have your superiors abandoned you? Do the Allied Systems punish you for our previous failure?"
     He shakes his short mane. "No, Rulii. They want too badly to place a spaceport here. They may blame me for the language error that cast insult on Majesty, but they still need me for my own studies. I came to tell you the Systems have granted my request: a replacement negotiator arrives tonight. But if I could speak to Majesty before she arrives..."
     He must fear indeed, to propose such a risk. "What is it? Still the problem of Cold words? Someone of Rank among your people must grasp the dominator's tongue, Parker, or Majesty will brand you Barbarians!"

It's something to think about.