My friends in the theater world will often speak of blocking out a scene, by which they mean determining where actors will stand and how they will move across the stage. That has always struck me as an apt analogy for what writers have to do with their thoughts across a sentence and paragraph. If we regard the elements of a sentence—word, phrase, and clause—as actors to be positioned in a scene, we might be better able to visualize the dimensions of our statements and understand more accurately the effect our compositional choices are having on our audience.
A stage has volume. It is a three-dimensional space which we, as audience or readers, are looking into. Every actor or prop on stage is not placed on the same line under the same lights at the same distance from the audience. To write in such a way would be to put every thought we wish to communicate in an independent clause of its own, and line those clauses together in simple and compound sentences throughout every paragraph we write. The effect on both the stage and paper would quickly be unbearable monotony, for our experience of the real world, the awareness which our minds and emotions conjure for us, has volume, degree, and amplitude. Not everything in a scene is of equal value, and so both a stage director and a good writer must decide on where and how to situate an actor or grammatical element.
Take, for example, this statement: Stock prices fell dramatically over two weeks, and the government was worried about a financial panic. That is a solid and workaday compound sentence composed of two independent clauses: prices fell and the government was. If we were to set that statement on a stage, both thoughts—both independent clauses—would be on the same line and under the same lights for the audience to regard as equal in importance. All to the good and nothing to criticize, unless that’s the extent of the writer’s stagecraft.
But what if we pause for a moment to ask what the relationship is between these two thoughts: what is the conjunction and really joining? The sentence is implying that the reason the government was worried was the fact that stock prices fell dramatically over such a short period of time; the first clause represents the cause behind the government’s concern. Behind, which means we could set that thought back from the bright forward line under the same light on the written stage of our sentence. In other words, we could find a subordinate grammatical structure to represent the same thought. We could, for example, transpose the first independent clause into a subordinate, transforming an unremarkable compound sentence into at least a little less unremarkable complex one: Because stock prices fell dramatically over two weeks, the government was worried about a financial panic. We have brought through subordination a third dimension to our original two-dimensional compound sentence, staging a more interesting, because more involved and realistic, sentence.
And we could go further. Had we decided not to stress the logical truth that falling stock prices were the reason for the government’s concern, but wanted rather to allude to that as the circumstances in which the concern over a financial panic arose, there is a grammatical construction called a nominative absolute (which we will consider more closely in a subsequent post) to employ: Stock prices falling dramatically over two weeks, the government was worried about a financial panic. Here, the first clause of our earlier versions has been transformed into a participial phrase. Whereas a clause asserts a thought, a phrase merely suggests or implies one, and so its prominence on our written stage cannot be as explicit and bright as any clause, independent or subordinate. This participial phrase has a subject of its own, stock prices, and when that is the case—when the subject of the participial phrase is not the same as the subject of the main clause, a nominative absolute results, with the effect of pointing to the circumstances in the midst of which the main assertion unfolds. Thus, the idea in the participial phrase would be placed far back into the stage, perhaps standing merely as the painted scenery before which the assertion that the government was worried is played out.
Good writing, at least good everyday prose, is realistic. It appeals to that natural frame of mind that perceives both space and time, with things acting in and on one another in a three-dimensional and dramatic world. If we can think of revising our work as blocking a scene on a stage, we can interest our readers more in what we have to say because the world we will be writing will match more closely the anything-but-equalized real world we are all so familiar with.