Paragraph Lessons from Skinny Dip
Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip rocks with wit and –ing phrases. Each page contains a treasure such as this:
Not even nine in the morning and already Tool was sweating off the fentanyl patches. To cool down, he removed his boots and overalls, then chugged a liter of Mountain Dew that he’d picked up at the Circle K on Powerline. Fiddling with the radio, he miraculously located a decent country station. Shania Twain was singing about how much fun it was to be a woman, though Tool couldn’t see how that could be true. Just about every female he’d ever known, starting with his mother, seemed perpetually pissed off at the human race. Or could be it was just me in particular, Tool thought. (Carl Hiaasen, Skinny Dip, page 110)
This paragraph is more developed, contains more images and actions than many of us dare to introduce into our paragraphs for fear of being wordy or of going over the top. Yet, despite its run of images and actions, this paragraph is focused and a delight.
How can we learn from it?
To begin, a great many novice writers, fond of –ing phrase modifiers, might–maybe even probably–have drafted the Hiaasen paragraph like this:
Sweating in the morning heat, Tool chugged a liter of Mountain Dew that he’d picked up at the Circle K on Powerline. Then, fiddling with the radio, he miraculously located Shania Twain singing about how much fun it was to be a woman. Tool couldn’t see how that could be true. Starting with his mother, just about every female he’d ever known seemed perpetually pissed off at the human race. Or, he thought, it could have just been me in particular. (Imagined Novice Writer)
Had this been Hiaasen’s first draft, he might have looked at “Sweating in the morning heat” and thought, Man, that’s generic. What can I do to make it place and character specific? And syntactically diverse? So he takes a sip of coffee and writes, “Not even nine in the morning and already Tool was sweating off the fentanyl patches.”
With this sentence, our hypothetical Hiaason dispatched the generic, “Sweating in the morning heat,” and gave us a sentence with the time of day, a hint of climate, Tool’s discomfort and the fact he’s fentanyl abuser.” He’s taught us something important.
When we introduce a main clause with a generic –ing modifer, we might want to stop and look at it as an opportunity to convert it to an original sentence that more vividly expresses moment and character. Most likely, this pertains to any generic modifier.
Hiaasen did something else with this sentence that the novice doesn’t always consider. He made it a transition sentence. By showing the passage of time, “Not even nine in the morning and already Tool was sweating…” he made a transition—movement from one place or time or thing to another—that the static, “Sweating in the morning heat,” does not.
We should be aware of the importance of transitions and how to form them.
Hiaasen, had he started with the novice sentence, may have thought, Well, Tool is sweating and he drinks a liter of Mountain Dew to cool down, just as anyone would. But my character Tool is not average. Tool is a man of excess. What else might Tool do? He thinks and adds, “To cool down, he removed his boots and overalls, then chugged …” He’s made Tool, now barefoot and in his underwear, even more vivid.
He’s also provided another transition, “To cool down”, which connects to the fact from the previous sentence that Tool was hot.
These two Hiaasen sentences provide three cause-and-effect beats: Tool sweats, Tool removes boots and overalls, Tool chugs liter of Mountain Dew. The novice example provides only two: Tool sweats, Tool chugs Mountain Dew.
The answer to the so what? is three beats make a less abrupt progression to Tool’s third action, Fiddling with the radio dial, than do a mere two beats. They also provide transition by establishing that Tool is doing things, plural, so the fact that he next fiddles with the radio dial is part of a series and not a change of topic. Hence, the paragraph retains focus.
A series of cause-and-effect beats, by virtue of its sequential movement across time, contributes to transition.
The novice, having written, “Fiddling with the radio, he miraculously located Shania Twain singing about how much fun it was to be a woman,” is most likely well pleased and goes for the glass of wine.
Hiaasen, however, operates from a different dimension. He knows his purpose for this paragraph and sticks to it. It is a transition paragraph, second from first of a new chapter, and he wants it to show who Tool is and what readers might expect from him. He uses the Fiddling opportunity to show more of Tool’s attitude toward life. To do so, he changes the first clause to this sentence: “Fiddling with the radio, he miraculously located a decent country station.” By lingering to state “decent country station” Hiaasen shows Tool’s taste in music as well as his lack of expectation that he’d actually find a decent one. And note, Tool’s station isn’t good, only decent.
Never lose sight of what a paragraph is meant to accomplish and do not stint on the information unique to the paragraph topic. If the paragraph becomes too dense, delete the less than essential.
Here, Hiaasen has reached the apex of this paragraph. He has given us a series of cause-and-effect beats that show Tool and his attitude. The next sentence, “Shania Twain was singing…,” is another transitional sentence. It provides a stimulus different from the heat. Instead of provoking Tool into trying to get cool, Shania’s song provokes Tool to think: “Tool couldn’t see how that could be true. Just about every female he’d ever known, starting with his mother, seemed perpetually pissed off at the human race. Or could be it was just me in particular, Tool thought.”
Keep in mind how Hiaasen wrote about Tool’s actions and then with one apex sentence turned Tool from doing to thinking. This change did not introduce a new topic. Tool’s actions and thoughts show who Tool is. The paragraph remained focused.
Although introductory –ing phrases are risky and generally discouraged, Hiaasen’s choice of the verbal, “fiddling”, is perfect for Tool. Tool’s the kind of guy who would fiddle with a radio dial. Starting this sentence with fiddling depicts Tool more vividly than had the emphasis been on the action, a sentence like this: Tool fiddled with the radio dial and located a decent country station.
Go to Carl Hiaasen, place four fingers to his face and chant, “My mind to your mind. Your thoughts to my thoughts.” If this isn’t readily doable, then think deeply about what every word and phrase should accomplish.
Another way to look at how Hiaasen achieved the pace and coherence of this paragraph is to view the modifying phrases that begin each of the first three sentences as a form of “alternation as a cohesive device” (Virgina Tufte, Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, page 225). Loosely explained, alternation refers to opening a sentence with a phrase rather than a subject.
Sentence 1: Not even nine in the morning and already Tool was sweating off the fentanyl patches.
Sentence 2: To cool down, he removed his boots and overalls, then chugged a liter of Mountain Dew that he’d picked up at the Circle K on Powerline.
Sentence 3: Fiddling with the radio, he miraculously located a decent country station.
Remain aware that this syntactical concept—alternation as a cohesive device—exists and appears to be valid. Hiaasen would not have achieved this same pace and coherence had he begun any of these three sentences with subject and verb as he did in the fourth sentence, which prompted Tool to change from doing to thinking.
Referring to this fourth sentence which prompted Tool to change from doing to thinking. Perhaps a change in sentence structure can be used to signal a change within the paragraph. Something to think about. Hiaasen certainly did it here.
Note too, that the apex of the paragraph begins with a straight Subject-verb-object clause, “Shania Twain was singing about how much fun it was to be a woman …” In the sentence that follows, Hiaasen surrounds the subject with qualifiers that push the predicate to the end. “Just about every female he’d ever known, starting with his mother, seemed perpetually pissed off at the human race.” His construction of the last sentence also closely resembles inversion or a form of alternation: “Or could be it was just me in particular, Tool thought.” He’s approximated the alternated structure of the first three sentences to show this series of thoughts. He’s balanced actions with thoughts using Shania’s song as the apex.
If Vulcan mind meld is still undoable, just remember how Hiaasen did this. Better yet, try using this paragraph pattern for a paragraph of our own, a practice second best to a mind meld. Also, if references aside from Tufte note them, read more about inversions and alternations.
Back to Hiaason’s use of the –ing qualifiers. They fit right in, don’t raise brows, they enhance the paragraph. A contributor to this harmony may have been the paragraph’s two present continuous verbs: “was sweating” and “was singing”. No one –ing stood out, each was a part of a group.
Consider and perhaps experiment with placing –ing modifiers in paragraphs that contain present continuous verbs. Experiment with placing them in paragraphs that do not contain present continuous tenses. See if we can discern an appreciable difference.
Last word. For a study in how to write rollicking prose, read Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip.