Sending the Wrong Message: Why Subordination Matters

Many readers, myself among them, experience something I’m going to call “wrong message” when reading a book or article. By wrong message I mean that the writer has written a sentence, paragraph, or scene in such a way that the reader logically leaps to the conclusion that This. Is. Important!

And so, having inferred that This Is Important, the reader keeps expecting the subject matter of the sentence (or paragraph, or scene) to come up again in the book. The reader anticipates that what is taking place is foreshadowing: that the writer is providing information that will later be relevant.

But in many cases . . . this never happens. The information that seemed to signal its own importance simply disappears from the book. And the reader is left a bit disappointed, a bit annoyed. Even a bit puzzled, wondering how she could have misinterpreted the writing.

So, by dwelling on something that isn’t really important to the plot and theme and character development of the book, a writer is indeed sending the reader a wrong message. The writer seems to be saying: Pay attention, this will come up later.

But then it doesn’t, and reader dissatisfaction grows.

Sentences and paragraphs have their own logic (a logic that the reader absorbs without even thinking about it). Unless a writer understands and employs this logic, she is going to be sending wrong messages to the reader.

An example of [subconscious] paragraph logic is that the first sentence is by far the most important sentence in the paragraph. This sentence sends out super-strong signals to the reader: Heads up! Comin’ at ya! After all, the writer ended the previous paragraph and started a new one specifically to break with the previous thought and to signal what the new thought/action is.

So. Imagine that you are reading a book that contains the following paragraph:

Justin parked the powerful riding mower in the garage. He entered the kitchen and immediately keyed his code into the security screen. Then he pulled the notebook out of his pocket and sketched the maze he had just mowed through the tall grass.

As it’s written, this paragraph signals that Justin parking the powerful riding mower in the garage is important. This simple sentence occupies the prime spot of importance in the paragraph. And, writers who write like this (more about that soon) tend to write many such paragraphs in which an object they are using for, say, texture or realism, occupies the primary spot in the paragraph. Often it is the same object that they use over and over: a lawn mower; a purse; a skateboard; an opal ring.

So, in such a book, the reader would encounter many paragraphs in which information about Justin and the riding mower is related in the first sentence of the paragraph, as a simple (S-V-O) sentence. Justin brushed the grass off the seat of the riding mower. Or, Justin kicked the dried grass off the wheels of the rusty riding mower. Or, Justin noticed that the riding mower needed cleaning. And so on.

The reader is going to be thinking: Aha! There’s something important about that riding mower! But in reality, that’s not the case. The writer is merely trying to add some texture to the book by painting a picture of concrete objects. 

Despite what the writer is trying to do, she is sending the wrong message to the reader, and that’s because she is placing her unimportant-to-the-plot texture in the most important spot of the paragraph. And because the simple declarative sentence shouts: Important!

Such wrong messages can be corrected by moving the texture information to somewhere else in the paragraph. Sometimes in trying to move the information, the writer realizes that it looks strange anywhere else in the paragraph. This could be a sign that the information maybe doesn’t really have anything to do with the content of the paragraph. In the case of Justin and the riding mower, it’s difficult to figure out a way to move the information into another spot in the paragraph.

But wait. 

There is a tried-and-true way to handle this problem, and that is to subordinate the not-important information to what is important. Please note that I’m not talking about a subordinate clause, which is a dependent clause containing a subordinate conjunction such as while, whereas, if, until, and so on. I’m talking about a dependent clause — one that cannot stand alone. Because it cannot stand alone, it’s “subordinate” to the main part of the sentence. The information that is not that important should be presented as a dependent clause, and the main information as an independent clause. Here’s an example:

Parking the powerful riding mower in the garage, Justin entered the kitchen and immediately keyed his code into the security screen. Then he pulled the notebook out of his pocket and sketched the maze he had just mowed through the tall grass.

Voila! Because it’s in a dependent clause, the information about Justin parking the riding mower no longer screams This. Is. Important. The way it’s now written, as a dependent clause, the information definitely adds a bit of visual information — but that information is clearly nowhere as important as what follows in the independent clause. And a reader will instantly assimilate this: a reader will understand that parking the riding mower is just throw-away information. 

Earlier I said that I would try to explain why writers end up giving the reader the wrong message. It is, I think, because the writer is so intent on the story, maybe racing ahead at full speed, that he doesn’t see the relationship between the sentences that constitute a paragraph. And, we have a habit of writing things in the same way, so if a writer has inadvertently fallen into the pattern of presenting trivial texture information at the beginning of each paragraph, you can see why the reader would be confused — everything the writer has done by placing such information into a simple sentence at the very beginning of the paragraph screams out “Pay attention!”

Sending the wrong message is a definite problem in writing, particularly among beginning writers. But it is a problem easily corrected once the writer understands the importance of the paragraph’s first sentence and the importance of subordinating less important information.


Barbara Gregorich does not park riding mowers anywhere, but she does discuss aspects of writing well in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.