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Writing Module One: Clear Narrative, “Characters” and “Actions”

Module by: The Cain Project in Engineering and Professional Communication. E-mail the author

Summary: This Module presents techniques for achieving effective and elegant communication and becoming a better reader of one’s own work. The lesson introduces key vocabulary for talking about writing and reviews fundamental principles for editing for coherence and cohesion. Topics include sentence-level editing techniques and focus on the importance of clear narrative, characters, and actions.

The Importance of Story

Storytelling is fundamental. Since our earliest experiences listening to bedtime stories and fairy tales, we have instinctively sought out key information in narratives:

  • Who is this about?
  • What is he or she doing?
  • Why?

In fact, all sentences tell stories. Although the format and details vary widely, professional and academic narratives are not nearly as different from fairy tales as they may first seem. In each case, our basic expectations for information and action operate in similar ways:

  • we look for clear subjects as our new “characters”
  • we look for strong verbs as our new “actions.”

Stories work through structure. We understand story better when we can easily recognize characters and actions. Until we know what is happening and to whom, we are likely to feel lost

Story structure is apparent on both the sentence and the paragraph level. Whereas good storytelling makes important characters and actions clear from the outset, inadequate storytelling:

  • takes a long time to convey a sense of what’s being described or explained;
  • doesn’t make the problem clear;
  • doesn’t give readers reasons to be invested in reading;
  • doesn’t offer a solution to the problems it dramatizes for the reader.

By contrast, fairy tale structure is an example of the type of narrative that readers find easy to understand because it satisfies certain fundamental expectations. If asked to retell a fairy tale, even very young children can tell us “who,” “what,” and even “why.” Complex professional prose can be this clear if it follows a few key principles.

Story and Professional Prose

Some of the same reasons we might cite for enjoying a movie or a novel also hold true for a scientific report or a legal argument. We are motivated to read, and we feel we understand the point of an argument, when we quickly grasp a) who is concerned and b) what is at stake. For example:

Example 1

The suggestion of recent evidence has been a role for nanobacteria in a growing number of human diseases, including renal stone formation, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. Promoted by this large body of research studies is the view that nanobacteria are not only alive but that they are associated with disease pathogenesis. (Martel and Young, 5549)

Contrast with:

Example 2

Recent evidence [noun] suggests [verb] a role for nanobacteria in a growing number of human diseases, including renal stone formation, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. This large body of research studies [noun] promotes [verb] the view that nanobacteria are not only alive but that they are associated with disease pathogenesis. (Martel and Young, 5549)

In the example above, a few simple improvements lead to a much more readable statement of the problem. Notice how the published sentences

  • lead with a clear subject
  • follow immediately with a descriptive verb.

The parts of the sentence that satisfy the reader’s basic needs are strongly positioned to give them the information they need as quickly and concisely as possible. The character, “recent evidence,” and the action, “suggests” appear within the first three words of the first sentence. Similarly, the second sentence begins right away with the character “this large body of research studies,” and follows up immediately with the verb “promotes” to describe the action of those studies. We know the main characters and actions RIGHT AWAY, and we are able to grasp the important subject and activity that the sentence describes without searching around for clues.

Characters and Actions- Structuring Information, Managing Expectations

In talking about sentences that tell stories, we’ve already begun to realize the importance of two key terms—Character and Action. We understand narrative best when it is easy to identify the important characters and actions (and along with them, the important subject and verb of the sentence). The character is the main subject or “doer” in your sentence.” (Remember: It is not always a person). The action is the thing done. Usually, the action is the verb. All too frequently we bury the most important action in nominalizations. We’ll discuss nominalizations in more detail a little later on. For now, it requires no special terminology to see how, in order to make it easy for readers to understand your writing, you should:

  • match important actions to VERBS; and
  • make important characters into SIMPLE SUBJECTS (see Style 33).

These crucial alignments often dictate changes in the order in which characters and actions appear in a sentence. Instead of:

“Our loss of funding prevented continuation of the research program.”

We can write:

“Because we lost funding, we could not continue the research program.”

In the first sentence, “loss” and “continuation” are used as nouns instead of describing what the main character does through the more active “we lost” and “we could not continue” (see Style 36).

Choose Concrete Characters Over Abstract

Notice how difficult it can be to identify the main characters and actions in an introductory sentence:

Shifts in position in recent decades in three bands of fast-moving wind known as jet streams came from a new analysis of weather data that were collected between 1979 and 2001.

Here, by leading with “Shifts in position,” an author would effectively emphasize “shifts” as the main character of the sentence. Similarly, the verb that modifies “shifts,” “came,” appears as the main action of the statement (see Craft 244). Compare this to the sentence as it actually appeared in publication:

Three bands of fast-moving wind — known as jet streams — have shifted position in recent decades, according to a new analysis of weather data that were collected between 1979 and 2001” (“Atmospheric science: Jetting away”).

Notice how the important subjects and verbs a) appear early, and b) occur close to each other (see Craft 244).

Applying the Lessons of Story- The Sentence Level

Readers expect for sentences to deliver information using a certain predictable structure. When writers fulfill readers’ expectations, they make it easy for them to process important pieces of information efficiently and effectively. What if it isn’t immediately clear what your main subject should be? Ask yourself what the most important action of the sentence really is. Now determine who or what is responsible for that action.

When you put your main character first, you give the reader essential information about the main actors in the drama they will be asked to follow. You also create a context in which the reader can understand what you will go on to say about that character.

On Characters and Actions

In an ideal world, the subject of your sentence will be its main character, and the action of your sentence will be the main verb. Why is this so important? When these two things don’t line up, readers experience certain negative effects of the mismatch.

  • Readers will judge your prose to be indirect, abstract, complex, dense, and unclear
  • Readers have to work harder to translate your words into a story that they can remember
  • Readers will have to fill in any missing story elements from their own knowledge
  • Readers are more likely to interpret your sentence in a way you did not expect or want

(LRS 2008 Curriculum, Actions)

Clear Sentences

Easy-to-understand sentences are not the product of some subtle mystery. We prefer them because we can recognize their key information:

  • “As John [character] remarked [action] earlier...”
  • “As Mary [character] argued [action] … ”
  • “As our results [character] demonstrate [action]… ”

This is not to say that your main character must always be the subject of your sentence, or that character’s action is always represented by the verb. However, if readers find your writing confusing or unclear, it’s a safe bet that one of these things is throwing them off. If your most important character is not the main subject of your sentence, and if that character’s most important action is not represented by the sentence’s main verb, a good first step is to locate each of these and align them with one another!

Choosing Characters and Emphasizing Actions

Achieving optimal placement of characters and actions in your sentences is as much about diagnosis and revision as it is about drafting or composition. As Joseph Williams explains in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, to transform characters into subjects, you have to know three things:

  1. When you haven’t;
  2. Where to look (for characters); and
  3. What to do when you find them (or when you don’t) (Style 53).

Williams and Colomb present a step-by-step system for finding and relocating characters. They teach us to

  • Skim the first seven or eight words;
  • Identify the main characters;
  • Locate actions involving those characters;
  • Organize your new subjects and verbs into a sentence using conjunctions such as if, although, because, when, how, and why (Style 53-54).

We’ll walk through the process using an example here.

Step One: Skim the first seven or eight words.

The introduction of a novel thermal convection cell consisting of half a soap bubble heated at the equator enables the study of thermal convection and the movement of isolated vortices. Development of thermal convection at its equator is noted in the soap bubble, which is subject to stratification.

Step Two: Identify the main characters

The introduction of a novel thermal convection cell consisting of half a soap bubble heated at the equator enables the study of thermal convection and the movement of isolated vortices. Development of thermal convection at its equator is noted in the soap bubble, which is subject to stratification.

Step Three: Locate actions involving those characters

The introduction of a novel thermal convection cell consisting of half a soap bubble heated at the equator enables the study of thermal convection and the movement of isolated vortices. Development of thermal convection at its equator is noted in the soap bubble, which is subject to stratification.

Above, the main characters are hard to identify, buried among other nouns and not clearly emphasized as the “doers” of the actions.

Step Four: Organize your new subjects and verbs so that the actions are expressed in verbs.

Introductionbecomesto introduce

Developmentbecomesto develop

In the published version from which our less elegant example was derived, the main characters appear early and are described by the main verbs:

A novel thermal convection cell consisting of half a soap bubble heated at the equator is introduced to study thermal convection and the movement of isolated vortices. The soap bubble, subject to stratification, develops thermal convection at its equator” (Seychelles, F., et al.).

Naming a Problem: Nominalizations

Nominalizations are abstract nouns that are derived from either verbs or adjectives.

They often end in suffixes like -tion, -ment, -ence, among others. For example, calculation (from ‘to calculate’), finding (from ‘to find’), and dependent (from ‘to depend’) (Style 36).

Table 1
Verb < Nominalization Adjective < Nominalization
DISCOVER < Discovery CARELESS < Carelessness
RESIST < Resistance DIFFERENT< Difference
REACT < Reaction PROFICIENT< Proficiency (see Style 36)

Your Turn:

As you read the following example, ask yourself:

  • How quickly are you able to identify characters and actions?
  • What makes it easy or difficult?

“There is disagreement among many experts about the utility of emissions cap-and-trade policies.”

Now notice how much easier it is to understand the sentence when we change the order of the main characters and verbs to read:

Experts [important character/”doer”] disagree [important verb] about whether emissions cap-and-trade policies [second important character] are useful.” [a verb and an adjective replace the nominalization “utility”]

Similarly, observe how it clarifies the sentence when we take a nominalization like:

“Our request [noun/nominalization] is [weaker verb] that you review the data.”

And change it to:

We [subject/character] request [stronger verb] that you review the data.”

The Bottom Line-Writing for the Reader

In order to make your sentences clear and easy to understand, align the main character and action with the main subject and verb.

The moral of the story is: Make sure readers get the story! Characters and actions should

occur early in the sentence. Whenever possible, character and action should correspond with subject and verb. Target and eliminate nominalizations to ensure precise, descriptive verbs, and highlight characters and actions to add impact and increase understanding.

Examples taken or adapted from:

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