Thursday, June 13, 2013

Accio Style!

Following up our analyses of Cicero and Melville, it's time to look at a less successful, though not wholly failed, selection of literature. From J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

As the pain from Harry's scar forced his eyes shut, his wand acted of its own accord. He felt it drag his hand around like some great magnet, saw a spurt of golden fire through his half-closed eyelids, heard a crack and a scream of fury. The remaining Death Eater yelled; Voldemort screamed, "No!": Somehow, Harry found his nose an inch from the dragon-fire button. He punched it with his wand-free hand and the bike shot more flames into the air, hurtling straight toward the ground.
I would first like to note that there's a lot to like in the Harry Potter series, but the style and clarity of this passage are lacking. Second, I'm not suggesting the whole series or even book are as uneven as this passage.

Right out of the gate, describing the scar so literally is a missed opportunity: because the scar is synonymous with Voldemort it should seem to act as Voldemort. The pain shouldn't be doing the action of the verb, with scar shunted away to a prepositional phrase.

Why as here? It's not the simultaneity of Harry closing his eyes and the wand acting that is important, but the contrast of his impotence and the wand's power. For that reason, it was a good opportunity to personify the wand instead of literally saying that it acted of its own accord, which tells us very little.

He felt it drag is unnecessary: we'll imagine what Harry felt because we empathize with him and his intense situation. Simply it dragged will do. Also, the scene seems to be unfolding quickly, so is dragged the proper word? Let's take a peek.
  1. to draw with force, effort, or difficulty; pull heavily or slowly along; haul; trail
  2. to search with a drag, grapnel, or the like: 
  3. to level and smooth (land) with a drag or harrow.
  4. to introduce; inject; insert
  5. to protract (something) or pass (time) tediously or painfully (often followed by out or on )
  6. to pull (a graphical image) from one place to another on a computer display screen, especially by using a mouse.
Does any of that seem like it fits? Maybe the wand had difficulty dragging his hand? If so, why? And what of the sloppy simile, like some great magnet. Is his hand metallic? Couldn't we find something more original? And his eyes are half-closed now? Why? Also, who cares about his eyes? It's a jejune thought that because Harry is doesn't know what's going on his eyes must be closed, or that because the author needs Harry incapacitated, the easiest way to do that is to close his eyes.

The structure of the sentence continues the same problem of telling instead of drawing.

He felt it drag his hand around like some great magnet, saw a spurt of golden fire through his half-closed eyelids, heard a crack and a scream of fury.
It's structured around the verbs, but there's this layer of narration between us and the action. Just tell us what's happening without telling us how Harry's experiencing it. Again: we'll empathize. This was a good opportunity for short, declarative sentences, which we get next, but. . . let's see what happens.

The remaining Death Eater yelled; Voldemort screamed, "No!": Somehow, Harry found his nose an inch from the dragon-fire button.
What is this? What's going on? Which Death Eater are we talking about? Yelled? What did he yell? Why? Is he yelling because he was hit or what he saw? Yell is also much too vague.

The punctuation here is also problematic. The first two clauses are not unreasonably edited together with a semicolon, appropriate on account of their similarity and because a comma might have been to little a pause while a period too much. It's a debatable, but not outrageous, punctuation. The problem is the climax and use of that colon. The colon should herald the big reveal of the sentence and instead it confuses: are the bad guys screaming because of what Harry did, or what he was about to do?

Somehow, Harry found his nose an inch from the dragon-fire button.
Somehow implies improbability. What was improbable, though: Harry finding himself in that spot or him actually being in that spot? Also, why are either of those circumstances improbable? The event is also a bit of a cheat, because on the one hand the author has painted Harry as incapacitated, and on the other hand he's the only one on the bike so he has to do something. The wand can't do everything.

The next statement isn't awful but it doesn't work because it's too long and sounds preposterous until fully unraveled.

He found his nose (what?)
He found his nose an inch (what?)
He found his nose an inch from the dragon-fire button (ohhhh!)

And what's all of these iambs? u- | u- | u- | u-

he felt it drag his hand around [like some great magnet]
found his nose an inch from the [dragon-fire button]
he punched it with his wand-free hand [and the bike shot]
We're in narration here: why this rhythm? It's a curious move even as a pacing device, because the following phrase neither continues nor contrasts the pattern, and thus there is no climax to the thought. The use of dragon seems to work, but dragon is dependent on the next two words thus its effect is diminished.

He punched it with his wand-free hand and the bike shot more flames into the air, hurtling straight toward the ground.

His wand-free hand? How about free hand? I haven't forgotten that Harry has two hands and is holding a wand in one of them, especially because she made such a big deal about the wand "acting of its own accord" three sentences ago. Why more flames? More than when? And into the air? OK, but where else were the flames going to go? If the author had said into the night or darkness or black, then we'd at least get an image out of the observation. Who cares about the air? Did we forget that he's flying?

None of this is horrific, but it's vague and sloppy, turning a thrilling moment into an mushy, unsatisfying read. With all humility: an alternative.

A hiss in the darkness: Harry's scar seared his eyes in flash of pain. Something of that sinister spite awoke the phoenix core of Harry's wand which, eyeing its twin across the sky, streamed gold and fire through the night. A deathly crack. Silence. Now the other Death Eaters howled, but one beastly bellow swallowed all their cries. The wand released Harry's hand and he lunged across the seat, jabbing around for the fire button. At last he punched it and the bike hurtled straight down toward the ground. 

What do you think? I can't claim to know Rowling's story better than she, so I'm not sure this is better or more appropriate, but I tried to make it vivid, clear, and specific. What I had in mind:
  1. Open with a clear image with a clear rhythmic profile: hiss in the darkness (zippity-do-da)
  2. Evoke Voldemort's presence with sibilance: hiss and -ness
  3. The colon is the deep breath before the plunge of the sentence paragraph, and also emphasizes the powerful, causal, dangerous nature of the brief opening statement which preceded it. I chose the colon over the dash because we know what follows the colon will be caused by what preceded it, not just interrupting it.
  4. Connect the idea of the hiss and the pain by personifying the scar. Use more sibilance to continue the idea. 
  5. End with a clear, contrasting image: flash of pain (contrasts and fulfills hiss in darkness)
  6. Sibilance continues Voldemort's presence: something...sinister spite
  7. Indefinite pronoun something implies that Voldemort's hatred is wider than the way in which we are discussing it and links the previous idea of pain to the subject of this sentence, spite.
  8. Making the spite the subject of awoke continues Voldemort's agency.
  9. Phoenix core 1) finally conjures a new, positive, colorful image, 2) plays into the idea of its verb, awake, since the Phoenix rises, 3) allows me not to use the word wand yet and save it for the end of the clause, where it emphasizes the relative pronoun.
  10. eyeing its twin harkens to the relationship of the wands, and their owners, without having to describe it, and explains what's happening without being boring and literal. 
  11. Making the wand the subject emphasizes Harry's passivity by not mentioning him. 
  12. sibilance with sky and streamed links the words over the comma.
  13. hendiadys with "gold and fire" instead of "golden fire" emphasizes both color and shape, instead of just color
  14. the iambic (u-) concluding clause to the sentence 1) puts emphasis on the important words (gold, fire, through, night) by placing them on the long beats, and 2) disappears into the darkness like the stream from the wand.
  15. That long sentence A) contrasts the ones which come before and after it and B) emphasizes Harry's daze by mimicking the slow-motion, hyper-acuity which people experience when shocked and afraid
  16. Two more short images: deathly crack and silence, contrasting the opening images, hiss and darkness. Tit for tat.
  17. Contrast of deathly and Death Eaters emphasizes that one of the self-styled death-dealers has himself been killed
  18. howled emphasizes the animalistic nature of the Death Dealers, and is a cliche of nighttime spookiness
  19. light assonance of l with howled, beastly, bellow, and swallowed, subtly unifies the bad guys.
  20. alliteration with beastly and bellowed unites the ideas and suggests Voldemort is, as their leader, the most beastly. 
  21. rhyming of bellow and swallow 
  22. contrast of bellow and swallow: bellowing goes out and swallowing goes in, also reinforces Voldemort's dominance and power-at-a-distance.
  23. cries contrasts bellows both in pitch and insofar as cries, like howls, conveys lamentation whereas bellows conveys anger. Even the Death Eaters feel for their companion whereas Voldemort is enraged only by the effrontery of the act.
  24. trochaic (-u) conclusion to the sentence contrasts the previous long sentence which, describing the deed of Harry's wand, was its opposite, and concludes with a pattern-breaking long to emphasize the conclusion.
  25. Finally the wand returns control to Harry, who finally reappears in the story.
  26. With Harry awake, the action speeds up again: lunging, jabbing, punching, hurtling
  27. Never mention Voldemort by name, adding to his allure and fear of his agency at a distance.
  28. Five distinct parts of the story: A) the cause of the action, B) the reaction of the wand, C) the bad guys' reaction, D) Harry's reaction, and E) Where the action's going next.
  29. Those five parts come in five sentences, split up between B and C into two parts, by the lacuna of the heavily elided "A deathly crack. Silence."
  30. Simple conclusion tells you where you are and where you're going.

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