Emphasis versus Function

“In addition to watching the rhythm of his scene—the tempo or pace—the writer pays close attention, in constructing the scene, to the relationship, in each of its elements, of emphasis and function. By emphasis we mean the amount of time spent on a particular detail; by function we mean the work done by that detail within the scene and the story as a whole . . . . (If) the moment’s emphasis is disproportionate to its function . . . (it) becomes a dull spot in the narrative, or annoyingly misleading since the author’s hoo-rah . . .  leads us to expect some larger outcome than we get.” – John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, page 59

I pause and slap on my Wolf Blitzer beard, “Readers, in case you missed it . . .”

I certainly missed John Gardner’s counsel on Emphasis versus Function the first ten times I read his Art of Fiction. Only after hours of asking just what was going wrong with this paragraph NOW did the words “emphasis versus function” come alive for me.

In Stephen Hunter’s The 47th Samurai, the protagonist, Bob Lee Swagger, studies Japanese sword fighting under the tutelage of the enigmatic instructor, Doshu. To convey to Bob Lee Swagger the essence of sword mastery, Doshu quotes Miyamoto Musashi, (1584-1645), one of the most skilled swordsmen in history: “The moon in a cold stream like a mirror.” Bob Lee Swagger fails to find relevance in this obscure instruction and regards “the moon in a cold stream like a mirror” a further indication of Doshu’s sadistic approach to teaching him to swordfight. Only after several to-the-death fights with the sword does Swagger realize Musashi’s moon in a cold stream refers to the “oneness” of man, sword and opponent.

John Gardner’s Emphasis versus Function resembles “The moon in a cold stream like a mirror” in that it too refers to oneness, the oneness of story. Dissociated descriptions, dead-ended digressions, non-forwarding backward glances deaden and detract from story focus and flow. For a masterful story, one writes “the moon in a cold stream like a mirror.”

Gardner illustrates misplaced emphasis in this way:

“…at some point Helen steps behind a curtain to look for a lost brooch, and because she is there she happens to overhear a conversation. Since the function of Helen’s stepping behind the curtain is relatively slight and mechanical, the good writer gets her behind the curtain as quickly as possible (having set up the lost brooch earlier, so that her action seems inevitable and natural). If he dwells at length on the appearance of the curtain or Helen’s gesture as she steps in behind it, the moment’s emphasis is disproportionate to its function and becomes a dull spot in the narrative, or annoyingly misleading since the author’s hoo-rah about Helen’s disappearance leads us to expect some larger outcome than we get.”

After intently focusing on an authenticating detail while losing sight of that detail’s function, I saw in my story that I had overemphasized a truck. (Some might argue that the setting received disproportionate detail as well, but in this story, the setting is enormously functional.) In this paragraph, I erred in particular with the truck:

 North of his dune, the first shovels bit into the salt-encrusted sabkha of the Qattara Depression, a militarily impassable basin of close to twenty thousand square kilometers, most of them sixty meters below sea level. The sounds of digging and the voices of the Long Range Desert Group troopers carried as clearly across the saltpan as across water. Their truck, a two-wheel-drive Chevrolet painted in camouflage with three gun mounts and an extendable backboard, sat back a kilometer on the inside edge of the western escarpment. They had driven in last evening at sunset and waited until first light to have a cooler go at the task ahead. Theirs was exhumation duty, digging up the bodies of the three LRDG Indian troopers Evan Montgomery and his men had found and buried four days ago.

By removing this item of miniscule function and the emphasis I’d placed on it, I wrote a more focused paragraph:

North of his dune, the first shovels bit into the salt-encrusted sabkha of the Qattara Depression, a militarily impassable basin of twenty thousand square kilometers, most of them below sea level. The sounds of digging and the voices of the troopers of the Long Range Desert Group carried as clearly across the saltpan as across water. The troopers had driven in last evening at sunset and waited until first light to have a go at the task ahead. Theirs was exhumation duty, digging up the bodies of the four Long Range Desert Group troopers Evan Montgomery and his men had found and buried two days ago.

Once again focusing on an authenticating detail, I disproportionately emphasized yet another vehicle a few paragraphs later:

 A plume of dust appeared in the south. Pink as a flamingo’s feather in the light of the rising sun, it trailed a jeep racing toward the exhumation party. The vehicle with the deflated tires and break-neck speed also belonged to the Long Range Desert Group, called Si‘b Al Aqrab—the Scorpion Tribe—by Evan’s band of Taghazis in deference to the scorpion-within-a-wheel insignia on its vehicles and on its troopers’ caps. Back tires spewing sand, the jeep swerved onto the outcrop and stopped fifty feet behind the Chevy truck. A staff flag flew from the left fender. Evan’s spirits rose. Brass was aboard. This meant, he hoped, his request for reassignment had been approved.

I rewrote it:

 A plume of dust appeared in the south. Pink as a flamingo’s feather in the light of the rising sun, it trailed a jeep racing toward the exhumation party. The vehicle with the deflated tires and break-neck speed traversed the outer edge of the sabkha, then, sharply, back tires spewing sand, swerved onto a limestone escarpment. A staff flag flew from the left fender. Evan’s spirits rose. Brass was aboard. This meant, he hoped, his request to re-join the war had been approved.

Again, I have a more focused, more functional paragraph.

Sometimes we throw together so much of questionable function to a unit’s core goal that the tempo and sheer mass of the mishmash causes it to gravitate about its own axis.  When this happens, we stand back and say, “Well, that’s not bad.” Maybe it isn’t bad, but it’s almost never good enough to be bought by a publisher.

It’s not unusual for an enthusiastic yet-to-be-professional writer’s paragraph to go like this:

Thirty-one-year-old, newly divorced, wedding coordinator extraordinaire, Janie Markham, put away her thoughts of her ex-husband’s new girlfriend and rolled onto the site of her best friends’ upcoming nuptials. She layered on a fresh coat of Coral Goddess lipstick and stepped out of her company-leased Ford sedan, lowered the brim of her J. Crew women’s panama hat and surveyed the church’s parking lot. A lighting crew gathered beneath the white-sprayed arches of the reception tent. It was late. The decorators were decorating-weary. A week had gone by. Staple-gunning white tulle and unloading plastic roses by the mega-dozens had added up to nothing. They were back to where they started: a double wedding and two missing bridegrooms.

 The oomph of this paragraph’s fine punch line with its “two missing bridegrooms” is diminished by the abundance of details overemphasized in relation to their function. A host of close-friend readers might say, “I just love this!” but an editor won’t. It is not a “moon in a clear stream like a mirror.”

Should the writer stop and meditate on the paragraph’s purpose and choose to save the description of Janie for later, she might draft something in which each detail’s function is to make the reader aware—before she reads the punch line—that this paragraph is about an impending wedding.

It might look something like this:

Janie Markham drove into the parking lot of St. Elizabeth’s Church and parked in the pool of light cast by a streetlamp wound with white crepe and paper roses. Her headlights picked out the wedding tent on the church lawn and illuminated the path of white canvas that led to the lovers’ arches already twined with white orchids and roses for tomorrow’s ceremony. It was one of the most beautiful weddings she’d ever planned, and a double wedding at that. Everything had come together perfectly; only two things were missing: the bridegrooms. 

Or, instead of writing this in calm, cool exposition, she could liven it up by dramatizing it, by making Janie and her personality functional, by letting Janie deliver the news of the missing bridegrooms:

Thirty-one-year-old, newly divorced, wedding coordinator extraordinaire, Janie Markham, put away her thoughts of her ex-husband’s new girlfriend and rolled onto the site of her best friends’ upcoming nuptials. She layered on a fresh coat of Coral Goddess lipstick, stepped out of her leased Cadillac, lowered the brim of her J. Crew women’s panama hat and surveyed the church’s wedding-decorated parking lot. She dug in her purse, pulled out her telephone, said, “Damn,” and spit out her chewing gum. She speed dialed the Sheriff’s office. “Otis,” she said, “I’ve got two brides under the hair dryers at Sadie’s and a ceremony at three o’clock. I’ve searched this county and the next. You have any idea where I might find the bridegrooms?”

This may not so much resemble the moon in a clear stream like a mirror, but the sun in a clear stream like a sparkler—and that’s okay too. It’s also a form of oneness.

Backward glances receive emphasis just by being allowed into a paragraph. Since a good story is a story that moves forward, backward glances, aside from the well crafted and deftly placed flashback, are seldom good ideas. For instance, what if our writer wrote:

 Thirty-one year old, newly divorced, wedding coordinator extraordinaire, Janie Markham, put away her thoughts of her ex-husband’s new girlfriend and rolled onto the site of her best friends’ upcoming nuptials. She layered on a fresh coat of Coral Goddess lipstick, stepped out of her rented Cadillac, lowered the brim of her J. Crew women’s panama hat and surveyed the church’s wedding-decorated parking lot. It brought back memories of her wedding to Doug. With a sniff, she felt for the wedding ring that was no longer there. She dug in her purse, pulled out her telephone, said, “Damn,” and spit out her chewing gum. She speed dialed the Sheriff’s office. “Otis,” she said, “I’ve got two brides under the hair dryers at Sadie’s and a ceremony at three o’clock. I’ve searched this county and the next. You have any idea where I might find the bridegrooms?”

Her memories of her wedding to Doug do not work on the behalf of this paragraph. Yes, they may work on behalf of Janie’s past, but this isn’t the place to bring them in. They are non-functional in the context of Janie’s masterpiece of a double wedding about to go wrong.

In our inexpert eagerness, we often write what comes to awareness, thinking little beyond authenticating details, events, story flow, and characterization—and we’re doing well to be keeping all these in our heads. But, when not paying attention to emphasis versus function, all sorts of nonessential, non-functional detail slip into our scenes. Then, at their worst, instead of sleek, elegant slices of story with words that fly off the page, our scenes galumph and bumble like early flying machines, never really getting airborne.

Remember John Gardner:  Emphasis versus Function, and Miyamoto Musashi: “The moon in a clear stream like a mirror,” and write like a master.

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