How to Bring Pace and Immediacy to Your Narrative.
Suffice it to say that if in constructing a sentence you use a verb in the form ending in “ing” . . . wait a minute . . . Telling you to look for gerunds is my way of trying to . . . no, that’s not it . . . Here you go: Look for the times when you use the form of a verb that ends in “ing” and you’re probably using a gerund. And making your writing weaker by . . . no, darn it, there it is again . . . It makes your written work weaker and less active.
Let me give an example from work with a recent client, Alastair Duncan, on his wonderful upcoming novel, The Last Leprechaun. A particular paragraph in its original form read like this:
Jeff laughed and pushed Art hard. He fell sideways, grabbing onto the desk beneath him, which tipped over, smashing into the desks around it, then crashing down on top of him as he fell to the floor. He lay there, breathing hard, blood running down his face from a cut on his forehead, staring up at Jeff, wondering what he was going to do next and powerless to stop him whatever it was.
Notice all of the gerunds: grabbing, smashing, crashing, breathing, running, wondering. Seems like a lot of action, doesn’t it? So what’s the problem? The issue, and it is a subtle one, is that the use of the gerunds gives the feeling that the actions are simply happening, rather than being caused or motivated by the characters and events. It makes them feel passive.
Here is the same paragraph, with all of the same events and information, but with the gerunds reworked:
He fell sideways and grabbed onto the desk beneath him. It tipped over and smashed into the desks around it. He fell to the floor and the desk crashed down on top of him. He lay there out of breath, and blood ran down his face from a cut on his forehead. He wiped the blood from his eyes, stared up at Jeff, and wondered what he was going to do next. Whatever it was, he knew he was powerless to stop him.
It’s a lot more active, isn’t it? It gives us the feeling that we are there, thrust into the event, that it is happening now, and that there is direct cause and effect between a character’s action and the consequent reaction.
This isn’t to say that the use of the “ing” form is always bad. Let’s look at another passage from the novel:
Art turned away down a hallway covered with framed photos of him: as a baby in his mother’s arms, in a football uniform, playing baseball, with his parents the Grand Canyon behind them, at Yosemite in front of El Capitan. In all of them he was smiling, his parents smiling with him. He swung past without seeing them, heading toward his bedroom at the end of the hall.
In this instance the passive feels okay. The photos are in the past, a memory, and the point seems to be that Art passes them every day without even noticing them. It’s not an active choice on his part to ignore them. If it were an active choice, if there was some reason we wanted to make the point that he does know that they are there, and that they bother him, we might say, “He didn’t look at them.” That would make a different statement.
Going through your writing when you’re editing and looking for these “ing” endings is a good idea. Or rather, as I should say: Edit your work, and when you do, keep an eye out for those tricky “ing” endings. You’ll be glad you did.