A Word, Please: Breaking down the prose of pros

Recently, I wrote a post on my blog, Conjugatevisits.blogspot.com, pretending to edit the first page of the late Stieg Larsson's "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," the third book in a series that has sold more than 20 million copies.

Never have I gotten so many hits. Though a few readers said Larsson's writing needed no improvement, most who wrote to me agreed that Larsson's prose was — how can I put this? — problematic.

And no, I don't think the problems occurred when the work was translated from its original Swedish. To me, the biggest problems with Larsson's writing are not his word choices but his information choices.

On the first page of "Hornet's Nest," he takes three opportunities to say that a just-awakened doctor is groggy, but doesn't bother telling readers there's a window in the room that affords the doctor a highly convenient view of both the ocean and a helipad.

Then, Larsson writes, "For a second he held his breath when the pilot seemed to have difficulty controlling the aircraft." But he doesn't tell us what the doctor saw. That the pilot "seemed to have difficulty" was all Larsson saw fit to mention.

Some of Larsson's shortcomings are notable only to aspiring novelists and literary critics. But other problems contain lessons for everyone who writes anything at all — be it an e-mail, a business memo or marketing copy.

Here's a sentence from the second book in the series, "The Girl Who Played with Fire": "The third significant piece of information was the insight that Bublanski's team did not have a single lead as to where they should look for Salander."

There are several problems with this sentence, but the one that interests me is the abstract, uninteresting main clause. To isolate it, find the subject of the sentence, "piece," and the main verb "was." Together, they form the foundation for the thought: a "piece of information was the insight."

Compare that to this sentence from Stephen King's "Full Dark, No Stars": "She rushed around the front of the pickup, lost her balance, went to one knee, got up, and yanked open the driver's side door."

In the King sentence, we have a tangible subject, a woman, and real actions for verbs, starting with "rush." Almost any writing teacher or editor will tell you that a person doing something is more interesting than a piece of information existing.

Obviously, not every sentence can be about a person performing a physical action. But Larsson's sentence already had people, Bublanski's team, who might have served as the subject. All Larsson had to do was delete the main clause and make a sentence out of the relative clause: "Bublanski's team did not have a single lead." The action here, having, is not physical like rushing, but it's still more interesting than being, which is the action on which Larsson had built his sentence.

It's like writing: "It's important to note that the office will be closed tomorrow," when you could have just written, "The office will be closed tomorrow."

Larsson starts "Hornet's Nest" with this sentence: "Dr. Jonasson was woken by a nurse five minutes before the helicopter was expected to land." Did you catch them? There are two passives here: "was woken" and "was expected."

Novelists, especially ones who write thrillers, should try to bring every action to life, which means using passives only when there are no better alternatives, like: "Nurse Helga Olsson placed a firm hand on the sleeping doctor's shoulder and shook him gently."

That's how most pros do it. Of course, most pros don't sell anywhere near as many books as Larsson has. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from his mistakes.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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