In fiction rising action need not be action itself, and that’s because the term “rising action” includes not only character actions, but also character decisions, as well as events within the setting or plot (an economic depression, for example, or an earthquake). Taken together, all these incidents help build interest, suspense, and tension — and lead to the novel’s climax.
The individual events that constitute the rising action are important because they help lead the story to its climax. To put it another way, the climax is the ultimate, logical outcome of the rising action. If a writer doesn’t plan the rising action so that it’s believable and so that the cause-and-effect is very strong, the climax may not satisfy the reader.
Rising action is created when a writer throws obstacles in his hero’s path. These obstacles stand between the hero and her goal. The obstacles can be other people . . . or the character’s own doubts or hesitations . . . or society . . . or the natural world.
All action is, in a way, change. Rising action, then, is escalating change — to a character, to a relationship, to a plan, to a mission, to a town, country, or world. Again, this change need not be action: it could be something as simple as a character making a discovery, or being told a secret. Much of the rising action in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca consists of the protagonist (the second wife) learning things that change her perception of and understanding of Rebecca.
In Building Better Plots, Robert Kernen encourages writers to think about the arc of their story: the plot events that curve upward from the first incident to the climax. Kernen believes that as you outline or list these story elements, you should “naturally feel the level of tension, anticipation, and your characters’ stakes rising.” I agree. Rising action is something you can feel as you think about your story’s plot. And you can especially feel it as you’re writing the escalating events.
Many months ago I wrote about Rewriting: Macro. If the story in manuscript form doesn’t contain rising action, the writer must rewrite the entire story so that it does contain rising action. That’s a major (macro) rewrite. So it pays for the writer to pay attention to rising action from the first page onward.
Rising action is often depicted as a set of stairs, with each step an escalation (increase in intensity or seriousness) of the protagonist’s situation and choices. I prefer to think of rising action as a series of bridges that get burned behind the protagonist due to each choice she makes. Or as a tunnel of increasing narrowness, with no retreat possible: the only way out is through bold action.
Recently I wrote my first YA novel (publication date not yet set)and in plotting it I tried hard to make certain there was one bridge crossed and burned toward the end of the first 20% of the manuscript, maybe two additional bridges crossed and burned in the next 60%, and the final bridge crossed in the last 20%. I knew that if I plotted the novel with rising action embedded in the story, I wouldn’t have to worry that my first rewrite would require the insertion of rising action. What I chose as my steps of rising action were there from the beginning, pulling the story forward.
In 1860, just a few years after gold was discovered in California, a miner named Abe Lee sank his pick deep into a pile of rock, looked at what he’d unearthed, and cried out: “I’ve got all of California right here in my pan!” Lee’s discovery started a gold rush to what became the town of Leadville, Colorado. After the gold mined out, even richer deposits of silver and lead were found, which is how the town got its name.
In order to haul supplies in and gold out, the miners of Leadville hacked a pass through the mountains, so they could reach the town of Fairplay. Like Beale’s Cut, then, Mosquito is a “doctored” pass: humans made changes to it in order to ease their passage through it. The pass was named after the town of Mosquito, which no longer exists.
Mosquito Pass is very, very high — higher than many mountains. At this height snowstorms are possible any month of the year. But snow and ice never stopped the miners from crossing back and forth. Some died doing so — Mosquito Pass was nicknamed “the highway of the frozen death.”
Mountain Range: Rocky Mountains Elevation: 13,187 feet Location: In central Colorado, part of the White River National Forest.
One man, though, conquered the pass almost daily. That was Father John L. Dyer, a Methodist minister who carried mail as well as gold between the mining camps. To walk Mosquito Pass in winter, when twenty feet of snow covered the ground, Dyer built himself a pair of “snowshoes” ten-feet long (they were more like skis). Strapping on his skis, Dyer crossed the dangerous pass at night, when the ice was hardest. Father Dyer was so much a part of the mining camps that after his death a monument was erected at the summit in his honor.
In 1949, decades after Leadville’s richest days, the merchants of the town were looking for ways to attract tourists. They thought up an annual burro pack race between Leadville and Fairplay, with a $500 prize going to the winner. The route would start in one town and end in the other — getting there through Mosquito Pass, of course. Each burro was required to carry a 33-pound pack of mining supplies: picks, shovels, pans, and so on. Each man (later women entered the race) had to walk or run with his burro, holding a 15-foot long lead. No riding was allowed. The pack was weighed both before and after the race, just in case some contestants tried to lighten the load by tossing equipment.
Back in 1949, a few of the contestants didn’t know a burro from a mule — two of them showed up with mules and were disqualified.
After several successful years, the merchants of Leadville and Fairplay split the race into two different races, held about a week apart. One race leaves from FairPlay, the other from Leadville: both go to the top of Mosquito Pass and back. Today the Leadville International Pack-Burro Race is twenty-one miles long. (The Fairplay race is 29 miles long.) Winning teams usually finish in under four hours.
Despite the fact that humans, burros, and even stagecoaches all made it over Mosquito Pass, an ordinary car cannot do so. The pass is very rocky unpaved road with tight switchbacks, narrow in some spots, and very difficult on a vehicle’s tires and undersides.
Four-wheel drive off-terrain vehicles, however, can make it up Mosquito Pass and back, and drivers of these vehicles love to do Mosquito Pass because the views from the top are stunning in all four directions. Still, it takes considerable skill and determination to get a four-wheel drive vehicle over the 22-mile route. In many places top speed is only four or five miles per hour, because the vehicle must “climb” up and down large rocks or boulders.
Today many four-wheel driving clubs post photos of their Mosquito Pass trip on the Internet. Climbing the highest pass in the US gives people bragging rights.
Traffic tonight two miles up — lone skier plummets down ice-slick trail, intent to deliver miners’ mail.
Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Donner Pass.
As so well defined by The Fiction Dictionary, foreshadowing is a literary technique in which the writer gives the reader a subtle hint of some important event that will occur later in the story — it helps the reader develop expectations about what’s going to happen. The important event is often surprising or shocking.
The example The Fiction Dictionary gives of foreshadowing is from Flannery O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The story seems like the depiction of an ordinary, even uninteresting, family trip. But the foreshadowing helps prepare the reader for the tragic ending. The foreshadowing is such that I, as a reader, felt uneasy. I knew something bad was going to happen.
In Of Mice and Men George’s killing of the dog foreshadows his killing of Lennie. The first killing sets a tone and direction and thus prepares the reader for what comes later.
Here’s how I introduced foreshadowing in Chapter 19 of Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies:
Think of foreshadowing as hinting. To foreshadow an event in a novel is to give earlier hints that it might happen. Great writers such as Shakespeare, Dickens, and Faulkner all use foreshadowing, whose purpose is twofold: to involve the reader more in the story by creating anticipation and suspense, and to make the events to come seem more plausible.
Foreshadowing adds richness, tension, and depth to a story. When the foreshadowed events happen, they feel more profound or important because it appears that some cosmic force had underlined their importance by “warning” us they are to come. It’s as if Zeus, looking down from Mount Olympus, takes a giant red pencil and “underlines” certain life events, be they words, actions, or even the weather. This makes it seem that what happens was meant to happen.
Books which lack foreshadowing seem so much more “on the surface” than books in which events are intricately bound to future results through foreshadowing.
Here’s another piece of advice I give writers in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel:
But if you’re thinking that you’re required to foresee and insert foreshadowing from the beginning of your story — at a time when you’re worrying about character, plot, setting, and dozens of other things — rest assured that foreshadowing is often added during a rewrite. Once you’ve reached the end of your first draft, you know where your story started, where it ended up, and how it got there. Now’s the time to ponder which events you want to foreshadow (to make them more anticipated, and to make them more plausible) and how you want to accomplish that.
Narrative, dialogue, and stream-of-consciousness thought can all be used to foreshadow. I most often use the narrative to foreshadow, but I’ve also used dialogue and character thoughts.
As I wrote Sound Proof, my second mystery novel (the one featured in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel) I had a lot of fun with the foreshadowing, employing it from the first chapter onward. I used it not only to hint at what would happen at the book’s climax, but also to make the minor character villain more plausible.
Although foreshadowing is usually thought of as a technique in fiction, it’s also used in literary nonfiction. Any story that has a strong plot can make use of foreshadowing, the anticipation of future events — if not their exact nature, at least their general outline.
One of the wonderful things about foreshadowing — wonderful for both writer and reader — is that it makes readers anticipate: makes them want to know more. And what writer in the world wouldn’t be thrilled with readers wanting to know more about his/her story?
Every summer my aunt, who lived on a farm, cooked in the outdoor kitchen rather than in the indoor kitchen. The more generic name for such a kitchen is a “summer kitchen,” but my aunt always called it the outdoor kitchen. The farmhouse, built around 1850, wasn’t air conditioned, and on a very hot day cooking in the kitchen was not only intolerable, it also made the rest of the house even hotter.
The old-fashioned farmhouse outdoor kitchen was not like today’s outdoor kitchens, which are literally outdoors, on a patio or other open area around the house. The farmhouse summer kitchen was usually a one-room roofed and enclosed structure (containing a kitchen and nothing else). You had to go outdoors to enter it. That is, you had to walk out of the main house to get to the other little house that was the outdoor kitchen — which is probably why my aunt called it an outdoor kitchen.
Luckily the people who built the original farmhouse on my aunt and uncle’s farm also built an outdoor kitchen very nearby. This kitchen consisted of a stone floor, stone walls, and wide eaves that kept out the sun. I don’t remember what the roof was made of, but I do remember that the outdoor kitchen always felt cool. Even on a hot day.
I wrote this poem in memory of that kitchen.
Before the cool hum of air conditioners Before the glut of quarter-acre plots When blazing days heightened kitchen heat When everyone craved a cooling rainstorm Women found relief in outdoor kitchens
When sizzling bacon and crackling cornbread Roasting chicken and baking biscuits Boiling potatoes, wilting greens, and steaming corn Would have produced indoor saunas Women cooked in outdoor kitchens
Thick stone walls defied noonday heat Wide eaves foiled each invading ray Stone floors remained divinely cool Air breezed through uncramped space Distress simmered down in outdoor kitchens
Though abandoned they have not disappeared Like faithful friends who will not leave Many linger close to the main house Look for one when you pass a farm Symbol of different ways, the outdoor kitchen
After the techno-hum of a long hot day After a multitude of hydra-headed tasks When pressures magnify indoor heat When everyone hungers for relief Consider the solace of the outdoor kitchen
In 1844 a group of emigrants bound for California, the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party, which consisted of ten families from Iowa, became the first overland settlers to cross the Sierra Nevadas. They followed the route of the Truckee River and crossed through a pass which had a very steep ascent from the east, but a more gradual ascent from the west.
For perhaps two or three years, this pass may have been referred to as Stephens Pass. But after the winter of 1846-47, it was always called Donner Pass.
In spring of 1846, approximately 7,000 covered wagons, traveling in small groups of 10-20, left Independence, Missouri, to cross 2,500 miles of plains, deserts, and mountain ranges. The emigrants were heading to California or Oregon. Some of these wagon parties were large, with thirty or forty wagons to the train. Others were smaller, with ten wagons to the train. The group led by George and Jacob Donner was small.
It was also ill-fated. Nothing seemed to go right for the Donner travelers. Heavy rains stopped them in their muddy tracks. Flooded rivers delayed them further. Heavy rocks and boulders slowed them to a mile a day in some places. But worst of all, they were following bad advice — advice from ex-Confederate major, nouveau-Californian lawyer Lansford W. Hastings, who wrote The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, which suggested to the westward bound that they could shorten their journey significantly by taking a shortcut.
Following the regular wagon train route through South Pass in Wyoming, the Donners reached Fort Bridger by the end of July. There the men, women, and children spent four days resting their oxen and repairing their wagons.
But after the Donner party left Fort Bridger, it took a shortcut route. Tragically, this route was not only more difficult than the regular one, but also 125 miles longer. Rough ground, tangled undergrowth, and deep sands delayed the wagon train a whole four weeks. All the delays, both nature-made and human-made, contributed to the disaster that took place at Donner Pass.
Wagon trains tried to make it through the Sierra Nevadas before the end of September. Due to delays, the Donner Party didn’t reach the pass until October 31, 1846. They built a camp 1,000 feet below the summit of the long and difficult mountain pass. On the other side was the downhill route, safety, and Fort Sutter, California.
Donner Pass Mountain Range: Sierra Nevada Mountains Elevation: 7,239 feet (2,206 meters) Location: On the Nevada-California border, in the El Dorado National Forest of California.
But that night a storm dropped five feet of snow into the pass, blocking it completely. The wind blew the snow into twenty-foot drifts. Men, women, children, and animals sank into the snow and could not move forward. Wagons slid backwards. The next day it snowed more . . . and more . . . and more. The Donner group was blocked in the mountain pass. They built small cabins to live in.
Their food ran out. They ate leather, bones, twigs, and dirt. And then they ate the bodies of those who died. By the time rescue came, in February and April of 1847, only 46 of the 87 emigrants remained alive. When they reached California, the survivors told the tale of how they were trapped and what they did to stay alive. Ever since, the pass has been called Donner Pass.
In 1863, less than twenty years after the Donner Party, another group entered Donner Pass. This was a larger group — thousands of Chinese men. They had been hired by the Central Pacific Railroad to build bridges, dig tunnels, build retaining walls, and lay railroad track from California eastward. The Central Pacific would build eastward and the Union Pacific would build westward. When they reached one another, the United States would have its first transcontinental railroad. This would allow people, livestock, and goods to travel across the land more easily than ever before.
Theodore Judah was the engineer who laid out the route of the Central Pacific, which included 105 miles of track through Donner Pass. So accurate was his planning that today, more than 150 years later, nobody has found a better route across the Sierra Nevadas.
In order to get the tracks through Donner Pass, the Chinese workers blasted tunnels. Fifteen tunnels in all. Tunnels allowed the trains to travel at a lower grade — instead of following the pass to its top, the tracks followed a less steep route by going through a tunnel.
Work on the tunnels through Donner Pass continued year round. In the winter of 1866-67, forty-four snowstorms raged. One of the storms blew for two full weeks and dropped ten feet of snow. But the railroad crew, thousands strong, supplied with food by the railroad, dug huge tunnels through the snow. Back and forth the workers moved through the snow tunnels, in order to work on the real tunnels — those they were blasting through the mountain sides.
On May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific met in Provo, Utah. At long last, the United States had a transcontinental railroad. Today trains going to and from California still use Donner Pass and the railroads still use the tracks built by Chinese workers more than 150 years ago. Interstate-80 also goes through Donner Pass.
Donner Pass Fierce winds pack sudden snow, fill crevice and crack, block route front to back — wagon train under attack.
Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Bridger Pass.
One of the things beginning writers are warned against is starting multiple character names with the same letter of the alphabet. That’s because readers will inevitably get confused as to who the character is. In other words, don’t have a David and a Derrick in the same book. I failed to heed this warning when writing Dirty Proof, my first mystery. In fact, I failed badly. Frank Dragovic’s sister is named Stephanie; his fellow detective is named Sarah; and his love interest is named Suzanne. Aarrgghhhhh! I wish I could do this over, but, alas, I can’t.
Another warning to all writers (not just beginning ones) is that in naming characters, it’s important to make the name fit with the era. I cringe when I read book reviews of romance historical fiction in which female characters have names such as Sienna or Courtney. For fiction to be believable to the reader, character names must ring true.
One great way to get first names right is to use the Census Bureau information on-line and look at the listings of the most popular girls’ and boys’ names for each decade. I have used this source countless times, especially when writing workbooks, activity pages, and short historical pieces for classroom activity. Another name resource is old high school yearbooks. Or alumni magazines. I’m particularly fond of using the obituaries in Harvard Magazine as a possible source for character names.
Before I wrote my first novel (She’s on First) I read many, many how-to books on writing the novel. Several of those books recommended naming characters after streets. This, if I recall, was so that a writer could always claim she didn’t name her characters after anybody in particular: she named them after a street — “This character isn’t named after a real person, Judge! She’s named after a street!”
During the time I was writing She’s on First we were traveling to Texas almost once a year to visit Phil’s parents. So as we drove I jotted down possible names, using towns, rivers, streets, and advertising signs in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas. And of course I tried to match names to a character’s “character.” Among the character names that I particularly enjoyed naming in She’s on First are Harland Abilene, catcher; Bobby Knuff, first baseman; and Frank Laughing, second baseman.
I confess that I made up the last name “Mowerinski” when I was trying to combine outfield grass with a Polish last name. Once I made it up, I loved it, and within seconds I immediately created a lawn-mower business for Big Al to build up after his retirement from baseball.
It always kind of bothered me a bit that I had made up this name entirely, rather than taking an existing Polish name that seemed to fit the character. However, it rather pleases me that if you type the word “mowerinski” into Google, even now, 33 years after the publication of the novel, all hits go directly to She’s on First.
The star of my early reader books is Waltur, a bear who misunderstands figures of speech: he takes them literally. Waltur is featured in two books, each book containing three stories. The first book is Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke, and the second book is Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner.
The most frequent question audiences ask about the Waltur books is: “Why did you spell Waltur with a U, and not an E.” I reply that I spelled it that way because it just seemed right to me. For one thing, the UR goes with URsine. For another, bears growl, and to me a growl sounds more URRRR than ERRR.
There’s a negative result of my having spelled the name Waltur. The effect is that about 10=15% of people who write to me about the book say, “I love your bear Wilbur. He is so funny.”
Aarrgghhhhh! (Or should that be Uurrgghhhhh!?) My bear is not Wilbur, he is Waltur!
But I realize that some people cannot keep names straight. They constantly mix up Phil and Paul, for example, or Joe and Joel, or Sheila and Sara. For that part of the population which mixes up names, be the names written or oral, it’s possible that there is no help. I suspect, though, that my using the “u” instead of “e” leads such people to immediately shunt the name Waltur to the brain cell that houses the name Wilbur.
So, when you’re thinking of naming a character in fiction, give careful consideration to whether the name is one that sits on the cusp of confusion. If it does, consider whether you can live with reader name mix-ups, or whether you can’t. If you can’t, consider changing the name of your character.
People in my early life mistook me for a messenger, a carrier, courier, bearer, delivery person. Cousins saddled me with items for Grandma, who ladened me with numerous inessentials to transport elsewhere down the road.
Sisyphus with a twist: no rock, no hill, just package after endless package. They had cars, they had trucks: why was I their Mercury?
Moving away, I inserted several states between me and them. In my new, improved state people do not consider me a runner. If a package is important, they know all about United Parcel.
Today I realize the roads travel in two directions, askers bound to house and yard, while I — I know streets, shortcuts, destination, determination: I deliver.
Crossing the Skyway is Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poems. She hopes to put “Two-Way Street” into a second collection.
In 1849 Major Howard Stansbury of the US Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was assigned the job of exploring and surveying Great Salt Lake and its surroundings. In 1850 the Stansbury Expedition employed mountain man Jim Bridger to guide them through areas of the Rocky Mountains. It was during that time that Bridger found a pass south of South Pass and led the expedition through it. The significance of this pass (named Bridger Pass) was that it cut 61 miles off the distance of the Oregon Trail. In the mountains a wagon train may have averaged ten miles a day, so Bridger Pass could have saved immigrants a full week of travel as they headed to Oregon.
James Bridger was born in Virginia in 1804. At a very young age he went west to St. Louis, where he worked as a blacksmith. In 1822, at the age of seventeen, he joined the Missouri River Expedition to further explore much of the territory that Lewis and Clark had traveled. Bridger was the youngest man on the trip.(Jedediah Smith was on this expedition, as were Hugh Glass and Thomas Fitzpatrick — all three of them mountain men (trappers and explorers). Many members of the expedition, among them Jim Bridger, stayed in the mountains to trap furs after the expedition had ended. Mountain men traveled thousands and thousands of miles, zigzagging across the west, blazing trails, finding rivers, lakes, and mountain passes.
In order to survive in the wild Bridger learned to speak with anybody he met. He spoke not only English but also Spanish and French and six different Indian languages. In addition, he was fluent in sign language.
In 1843 Bridger and his partner Louis Vasquez opened a trading post in Utah Territory. Their outpost came to be called Fort Bridger — a very important stop on the route west. Wagon trains stopping at Fort Bridger were able to buy food; re-shoe their horses, mules, and oxen; repair their wagons or buy other wagons; and receive further directions on where to travel and how to do it. The Donner Party stopped at Fort Bridger on its way to California in 1847.
Although California was admitted to the Union in 1850, statehood did not make communication with the far western state any easier. Business and personal mail still took months to reach California via wagon train or ship. The Butterfield Overland Mail Company was a stagecoach line that carried passengers and mail to the west, too. At first the stage took the southern route through Sitgreaves Pass to Los Angeles, then north to San Francisco. Later it switched to a northern route going through South Pass. And then it abandoned the South Pass route for the Bridger Pass one. Still, a letter sent by stagecoach took weeks and weeks to arrive in California.
In 1860 the founders of the Overland Mail did something very bold: they started a mail service of relay riders whose sole job was to carry saddlebags of mail from the end of the telegraph line in St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. The Pony Express, as it was called, employed young men who weighed approximately 120 pounds, so that their body weight would not slow down the horses too much. The men were young, with an average age of 20, and one rider was 11 years old.
Each rider was paid $100 for a month of work. He rode from 75 to 100 miles, changing horses every 10 to 15 miles at one of the 185 Pony Express stations along the route. At the end of 75 or 100 miles, the rider passed his mail on to another rider. One rider left from the east and one from the west once a week. Via the Pony Express the mail reached California in just eight days in summer, twelve days in winter. These riders galloped east and west through Bridger Pass.
Started in April of 1860, the Pony Express ended in October of 1861 — a mere eighteen months. It ended when the telegraph line across the continent was completed and messages could be communicated in a matter of minutes. By connecting California to the Union via speedier mail, the Pony Express helped keep that state on the Union side during the Civil War. In addition the Pony Express proved that the central route across the United States — through Bridger Pass — could be traveled all year long and was the best route connecting the different sides of the country.
Bridger Pass was significant in another transportation-and-mail way, and that had to do with the Union Pacific Railroad. Before the Civil War the federal government had plans to build a transcontinental railroad. Although the bill providing for this railroad was passed in 1862, and work on the railroad began then, it wasn’t until after the Civil War ended that the government went full speed ahead with the transcontinental railroad. The Union Pacific Railroad headed west from Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific headed east from Sacramento, California. (The tracks met in Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869.)
The chief engineer of the Union Pacific was General Grenville Dodge, who had served in military intelligence during the Civil War. According to some accounts Dodge, wanting to shorten the route of the Union Pacific in any way he could, asked Jim Bridger if there was an alternative to South Pass. According to these accounts Bridger encouraged Dodge to do what the Overland Mail and Pony Express had done — use the mountain pass that Jim Bridger had discovered in 1850. Dodge and the railroad engineers investigated Bridger Pass and decided that building the railroad through it would indeed save time and money. And so the tracks of the Union Pacific were laid through that pass.
Mountain Range: Sierra Madre Elevation: 7,532 feet Location: On the Continental Divide in southeastern Wyoming, near Medicine Bow National Forest.
In order to speed up the laying of railroad track across 1,776 miles, the government urged the two railroads to “race” each other. For every mile of track laid, each railroad was granted $48,000 in government bonds plus 12,800 acres of land. In order to lay more miles of track the Union Pacific offered male passengers reduced fare if they would help lay the railroad beds and tracks.
The Union Pacific (which had to dig a mere four tunnels compared to the Central Pacific’s fifteen tunnels) won the race, and General Dodge credited Jim Bridger for this. Bridger died in 1881, one of the last of the mountain men. In 1904 General Dodge had a monument erected over Bridger’s grave, crediting him for discovering Bridger Pass and helping lay the route of the Union Pacific Railroad.
Not only was Bridger Pass a great route for the railroad, it turned out to be the best route for Interstate 80, which runs from Teaneck, New Jersey to San Francisco, California. Exploration, immigration, communication, transportation — Bridger Pass played a prominent role in each.
Hello hoof beats, dust cloud, skinny rider, bursting saddlebags: why not stay a while? — so long!
To write good sentences, writers must understand what it is that their sentence says. Sentences have a life of their own — they saywhat the words and word order say, not what the writer might intend them to say, not what the writer might expect everybody to understand as her intent. If a writer is careless or indifferent to sentence structure, her sentences may create confusion. Or ridicule.
Below are two examples of sentences that saywhat the words and word order say. The first causes confusion due to its ambiguous pronoun reference. The second sentence says that a book wrote a book: this one may arouse laughter due to the misplaced modifier. I’ve rewritten each sentence so that there’s no ambiguity in the first and no dangling modifier in the second.
Lisa’s sister told her she had to add more paprika to the spice mix. “If you don’t add more paprika to that spice mix,” Claire told her sister Lisa, “I won’t eat your insipid stew!” Lisa’s sister added more paprika to the spice mix, just as she had warned Lisa she would.
An accomplished, best-selling writer of Texas thrillers, Rangers is the author’s best book to date. The author is an accomplished, best-selling writer of Texas thrillers, and Rangers is his best book to date. An accomplished, best-selling writer of Texas thrillers, Joe Borders has written his best book to date: Rangers.
I sometimes think that well more than half of all incorrectly written English sentences are victims of misplaced modifiers. That’s what’s wrong with the second of the above examples — the first part of the sentence is meant to modify the author himself. It is not meant to modify his book: the book is not an accomplished, best-selling writer. Yet the writer of that sentence has unthinkingly placed the modifier where it doesn’t belong, possibly thinking that the words on the page say what’s in his/her head. They don’t. They say what the words and word order say — that Rangers is a best-selling writer. Rangers is not a best-selling writer. Rangers is the book written by the best-selling writer.
To understand what is wrong about misplaced modifiers, it helps to know that English, which evolved from several other languages (Latin, French, Norse, German, Anglo-Saxon), evolved in a revolutionary way. These other languages depended on word endings to tell the listener or reader what the sentence meant. Words could appear in a sentence pretty much in any order: it wasn’t the order, but the word ending, that told who did what to whom in what manner and when.
English changed that. English made position the factor that determines meaning. “The bear chased Gretchen” means something entirely different from “Gretchen chased the bear.”
In English, words and phrases should be placed as close as possible to the word or phrase that they modify — not in a willy-nilly order as the writer may think of them. When the writer does not follow this logical pattern, sentences may unintentionally misinform or say ludicrous things — as in the three sentences featured below.
• A costumed person raced past me, leading a dachshund in a wizard’s robe. • I wrote the song while traveling on the back of a menu. • Screeching around the corner on two wheels, the house was on fire.
Just a few days ago I stood in front of a sign which read: Stand behind the pink line until called to ensure the privacy of other patients. My immediate reaction (with a touch of panic) was that I would be called upon to ensure the privacy of other patients.
Then I realized that the sign couldn’t possibly mean what I thought, so I had to spend a few seconds figuring out what the sign was trying to say. It was trying to say: In order to ensure the privacy of other patients, please stand behind the pink line until called. This puts the phrase that explains “why” closer to stand than to called — the phrase belongs as close as possible to the verb it actually modifies, else it will seem to modify the other verb! The phrase explains why one is required to stand behind the pink line; it does not explain why one will be called.
To write clear sentences, avoid misplacing your modifying phrases.
On or about March 9, 2020, it was clear to me that the corona virus pandemic would require what has been labeled social distancing and lockdown. In fact, lockdown started in Illinois on March 20 and was extended through May 30.
What, I asked myself, did I want to do during this time of undetermined length?
Things that would make me happy — because feeling sad or depressed is a detriment to the functioning of the immune system.
Writing makes me happy. Very happy. So I set myself three writing-related goals during the pandemic . . . with the hope that I wouldn’t have to add more goals.
My goals were: (1) Create and publish a book trailer for Sound Proof, one that matched in tone and style the one I had created for Dirty Proof back in 2019. (2) Publish my book on Cookie, the famous Brookfield Zoo cockatoo. (3) Read, critique, and rewrite Draft #1 of my current work-in-progress, a 94,000-word novel, thus creating Draft #2. (This was a formidable goal, and I really hoped the pandemic would be over with before I finished.)
I began working on the book trailer on March 10, and on March 20 I uploaded the finished video to youtube and GoodReads and Amazon. You can view it here.
This blog is really about the second of my three goals: publishing Cookie the Cockatoo. Cookie was a Major Mitchell’s cockatoo captured by a bird hunter in Australia in 1934 and sold to the not-yet-open Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Illinois. Today the Brookfield Zoo is home to approximately 2,300 animals, but back when Cookie arrived he was one of only five original occupants of the Zoo. And he became by far the longest-lived. In fact, Cookie became the longest-lived cockatoo on record.
When I first saw Cookie at the Brookfield Zoo some time in the mid-1970s, I really had no idea that I would write a book about him. I was, however, struck by Cookie’s colorfulness, his incredibly loud bird calls, and, most of all, his attitude.
Although Cookie was in a cage and we, the public, were outside that cage looking at him, it seemed to me that the being in charge was not us, but Cookie. He seemed to be performing for us. Or not, depending on how he felt. He seemed, above all, to be the center of things.
After my in-person encounters with Cookie, I encountered him yet another way. For several years I worked as a part-time typesetter for the Chicago Tribune. Occasionally one of my jobs was to typeset a story about Cookie’s yearly birthday party. Later, when I became a full-time freelance writer, I thought of Cookie again.
Most writers probably have all kinds of possible book topics floating around in their consciousness. Far, far more possibilities than one could write in a lifetime. Some of these ideas disappear, some merely recede, and some clamor for attention. Though not necessarily right away.
So it was with Cookie and me. He didn’t really clamor for attention until the 21st century. Maybe ten or twelve years ago he squawked and screeched so loudly in my brain that I had to sit down and write his story. And the way that story came to me was coupled with change — the changes in the world over the last eighty years. Changes to the world during Cookie’s lifetime.
And, just as with Jack and Larry, the story came to me as a series of free verse poems, each coupled to a particular year. I wrote the story, rewrote it, and rewrote it, re-examined it, rewrote it again, all over a period of maybe ten years. Originally my manuscript was titled Cookie Has Seen — because Cookie was alive and still seeing changes.
But in 2016 Cookie died. So I would need to retitle the manuscript, because Cookie Has Seen is present-perfect tense, implying that Cookie is alive and still seeing. In March 2020 a new title came to me, occasioned by the book’s theme and also by the pandemic. My title would be Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes.
I typed the new title into my 6”x9” book template, and then I asked Robin Koontz, who has designed almost every one of my book covers, if she would be willing to design a cover for Cookie. I also attached my Cookie manuscript so that, if she were willing, Robin could quickly assess the content and tone of the story.
Robin was willing, and her design is now the cover of Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes.And while Robin was thinking about the cover, I was working on the book’s Introduction, the Table of Contents, and the individual poems. And then the final About the Author.
Everything looked good, but as I formatted the book a few poems extended onto a second page by only one line. That looked awful. So I made some space adjustments and also some line adjustments in the poems. Eventually I got the content the way I wanted it. Then I worked on the page design. And after that was all done, I printed out a copy of the manuscript and proofread it. Then I submitted it to KDP and waited for a copy of my paperback to arrive, so I could proofread it again.
While waiting (the waiting took a week) I worked on designing the ebook version of Cookie. This was a lot easier than designing a paperback/hardback version, because ebooks do not contain page numbers, headers, or footers — features that cause innumerable problems during page design.
Nor do ebooks have justified margins (if they do, they shouldn’t). Nor do the pages turn — which means that there is no such thing as a line or two of poetry that flows onto a second page. There is no second page — there is simply scrolling.
So, free of working with all these features that an ebook does not have, I was able to “design” the ebook in a matter of minutes. My main concerns were: (1) The font and font-size for the individual years (i.e., 1934, 1947, 1985, etc.), and, (2) what color (if any) to use for headers and/or titles.
For the font and size of the years, I decided on Big Caslon, 20 point. It may seem as if the size isn’t important because ebook readers can control the size of the font by increasing or decreasing it. However, whatever is on the page increases or decreases proportionally, so if my text were 12-point Palatino (it is), I would want the proportions between the headers and the text to look good.
The other thing I decided to do was print the years in color, and I made that color as bold a pink as I could — both bold and pink in Cookie’s honor, since Major Mitchell’s cockatoos have a lot of pink in their feathers.
On April 10 my proof copy of Cookie the Cockatoo arrived. I found one error and corrected it. I then uploaded the corrected manuscript and hit the Publish button, and on April 11, 2020, Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes was published as both a paperback and an ebook.
And I was left with the third and most difficult of my three pandemic writing goals looming ahead of me.