Write Like the Masters: Hemingway vs. Subordination

A bench by the river in Index, WA

Until it was placed at this angle, it was an ordinary bench.
It was an ordinary bench until it was placed at this angle.

I enjoyed reading Write Like the Masters by William Cane. The book included fun facts about the writing habits of some great authors and also included  interesting techniques to emulate these authors. One part of the chapter about Ernest Hemingway really grabbed my attention, the part about subordinating conjunctions. According to William Cane, “If you wish to write like Hemingway, avoid a heavy-handed style and reduce the amount of subordination in your sentences.” Personally, I do not wish to write like Hemingway specifically, but I was intrigued.

For those of you who (like me) need a refresher on dependent vs. independent clauses and coordinate vs. subordinate conjunctions, I found a couple of informative links for a very quick review:

http://owlet.letu.edu/grammarlinks/sentence/sentence3d.html  

http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/subordinateclause.htm

Using Mr. Cane’s list of the major subordinating conjunctions: after, although, as, because, so that, though, unless, until, before, how, if, since, when, where and while, I perused my work in progress in search of subordination. I found plenty of examples that made me glad to be doing this exercise. Let’s start with this sentence:

          She put the key in the box and pulled out the mail before the details from her peripheral vision registered.

Which can be rearranged to read:          

          Before the details from her peripheral vision registered, she put the key in the box and pulled out the mail.

So where’s this subordination stuff and what does it have to do with Hemingway? Here’s the fun part.

A quick dissection of these sentences reveals two independent clauses: She put the key in the box and pulled out the mail and The details from her peripheral vision registered. The second clause becomes dependent when the subjective conjunction before is added.

According to Mr. Cane, to write more like Hemingway I want to start by removing the subjective conjunction which leaves us with: She put the key in the box and pulled out the mail, The details from her peripheral vision registered.

Then, replace the comma with and          

          She put the key in the box and pulled out the mail and the details from her peripheral vision registered.

What do you think? Do I sound more like Hemingway? I think I like the subordinate sentence beginning with the dependent clause the best. Let’s try another one from my work in progress:

          The club was easy to spot (independent clause) since (subordinate conjunction) it was the only white house with columns (dependent clause).

          Since it was the only white house with columns, the club was easy to spot.

We remove the subordinate conjunction (since) and have: It was the only white house with columns, The club was easy to spot. In this case I think we would switch The club and It to end up with

          The club was the only white house with columns and it was easy to spot.

The coordinating conjunction so is more to my liking than and for this example changing it to

          The club was the only white house with columns, so it was easy to spot.

A simple, but effective example. I like the final sentence the best. Since coordinating conjunctions are supposed to specify a relationship between equally important ideas (from owlet link above), I wonder if Hemingway’s style comes from a belief that all of his ideas are equally important. Ha Ha Ha . . . Hmm.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples from Hemingway and do some reverse engineering:

From The Sun Also Rises

“I paid for the saucers and we walked out to the street.”

How would we make this subordinate? Choose a subordinate conjunction and add it to one of the independent clauses to make it dependent. I’m going to use after though before might make it more interesting.

After I paid for the saucers, we walked out to the street.

We walked out to the street after I paid for the saucers.

Here’s another one:

“She grinned and I saw why she made a point of not laughing”

I chose the subordinate conjunction when

When she grinned, I saw why she made a point of not laughing.

I saw why she made a point of not laughing when she grinned. (I think this form confuses the meaning of the sentence)

Let’s look at one more:

From the short story Summer People

“He was ugly to look at and everybody liked his face.”

          Although he was ugly to look at, everybody liked his face.

          Everybody liked his face although he was ugly to look at. (This example made me think about dangling prepositions and modifiers, but that is a topic for another day)

Well, I had fun. I hope I got your thinking machine churning. I know mine is. Now I’ll leave you with a couple of more challenging Hemingway examples to play with on your own.

From The Sun Also Rises

“I mistrust all frank and simple people, especially when their stories hold together, and I always had a suspicion that perhaps Robert Cohn had never been middleweight boxing champion, and that perhaps a horse had stepped on his face, or that maybe his mother had been frightened or seen something, or that he had, maybe, bumped into something as a young child, but I finally had somebody verify the story from Spider Kelly.”

“I watched a good-looking girl walk past the table and watched her go up the street and lost sight of her, and watched another, and then saw the first one coming back again. She went by once more and I caught her eye, and she came over and sat down at the table.”

Happy Writing!

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