Risky Business: The As Clause Revisited

A complex sentence has an internal dynamic: the clauses have a distinct relationship to each other and allow us to emphasize the relationship of ideas.” (Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax, Three Rivers Press, 1999, 2013)

For the week of March 18-24, 2015, fifteen of the first 34 submissions to the online critique group, Critique Circle, contained a naively applied as clause in the first or second sentence.

I pulled 43 bestselling novels from my shelves and, looking for as clauses, read their first two paragraphs. Not until I pulled the last two of the 43 novels, Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson and Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, did I find an as clause in the opening paragraphs.

Here’s the math: five percent of the professional writers used as clauses in their opening paragraph; 44 percent of the amateur writers used as clauses in theirs. This difference, 44 percent to five percent, indicates that among amateur writers as clauses do not receive the respect they deserve.

To underscore this distinction between amateur and professional writers and belay the spate of “well, buts” from reader-writers fond of peppering their prose with as clauses, I present my sample: Hollywood Station—Joseph Wambaugh, Dune—Frank Herbert, Fatherland—Robert Harris, The Jericho Sanction—Oliver North, The Columbus Affair—Steve Berry, Surfacing—Margaret Atwood, Hollywood—Gore Vidal, QWB VII—Leon Uris, Whistle—James Jones, Colony—Anne Rivers Siddons, Chasers—Lorenzo Carcaterra, The Laws of Our Fathers—Scott Turow, One More Sunday—John D. MacDonald, Thus Was Adonis Murdered—Sarah Caudwell, All the King’s Men—Robert Penn Warren, Diary of a Mad Housewife—Sue Kaufman, Tough Guys Don’t Dance—Norman Mailer, The Honourable Schoolboy—John  le Carré, Unto The Sons—Gay Talese, The Women’s Room—Marilyn French, Tar Baby—Toni Morrison, What the Night Knows—Dean Koontz, Mystic River—Dennis Lehane, Lord of Light—Roger Zelazny, Warriors of the Storm—Jack L. Chalker, 2001 a Space Odyssey—Arthur C. Clarke, Crime and Punishment—Fyodor Dostoevsky, Rage—Jonathan Kellerman, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—Robert M. Pirsig, Believing the Lie—Elizabeth George, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—Steig Larsson, The Towers of Silence—Paul Scott, Poland—James A. Michener, Gorky Park—Martin Cruz Smith, Journey into Fear—Eric Ambler, Folly and Glory—Larry McMurtry, The Agony and the Ecstasy—Irving Stone, Mr. Sammler’s Planet—Saul Bellow, Noble House—James Clavell, Light in August—William Faulkner, The Winds of War—Herman Wouk, Kidnapped—Robert Louis Stevenson, Master and Commander—Patrick O’Brian.

The as clause is a precision instrument. To deploy it to our advantage, we should consider these elements:

  • Timing
  • Duration of action
  • Internal dynamic
  • Sequential action versus simultaneous action
  • Sounds like writing
  • Causality
  • Emphasis versus function
  • Number of actors
  • Overall simultaneity of the passage
  • If don’t have to use it, don’t use it

Timing

At its most basic, an as clause modifies the action in the main clause by disclosing an action that runs parallel to the main clause action. For instance, As Johnathan chopped the walnuts, Rosie pared the apples.

With regard to timing, the action of the as clause should be of relatively equal duration to the action of the main clause.  We stumble when we write, As Johnathan chopped the apples, Rosie dropped the mixing bowl. Chopping walnuts is an action of longer duration than the drop of a mixing bowl. The experienced reader will note this wobble in the writer’s skill. She may not know how to verbalize it, but she will feel it. The vibrancy of the story and her assessment of the author’s ability diminishes.

Now, we could write, As Johnathan raised his mallet to crack the first walnut, Rosie dropped the mixing bowl. Both are movements of short duration and therefore simultaneous and ought to satisfy the demands of the as clause . . . but they do not.

Internal Dynamic

Here’s the rub. When we introduce an as clause, which is a dependent clause, into a sentence, we create—by definition—a complex sentence. And a complex sentence requires more of its as clause than simultaneity.

Constance Hale in Sin and Syntax wrote, “A complex sentence has an internal dynamic: the clauses have a distinct relationship to each other and allow us to emphasize the relationship of ideas.”

In the example from above, As Johnathan raised his mallet to crack the first walnut, Rosie dropped the mixing bowl, the only relationship the two actions have to each other is they belong within the same set, cooking, and they share simultaneity. But, for good writing, that’s not good enough.

The sentence, As Johnathan raised his mallet to crack the first walnut, Rosie dropped the mixing bowl, lacks an internal dynamic. The ideas are paired rather than related. Thus, this as clause is not emphasizing a relationship of ideas.

A fifth-grade English teacher might slap a star on it, but not so an editor looking for a star writer.

In May, 2014, in my blog article, “Smart ‘As’ Clauses—Dumb ‘As’ Clauses,” I placed myself squarely in the dumb-as camp when I wrote, The pigeon strutted along the ledge, cooing and fluffing its neck feathers into an iridescent display as Sally drew her arrow, notched it and said, “Die, you railing-defiling rat,” and said it was an as clause used well.

I was wrong. There is insufficient internal dynamic between the pigeon and Sally to qualify this sentence as an example in which the as clause is used well. Sally and the pigeon have no distinct relationship. True, a relationship is implied, but Sally’s drawing her arrow is not related to or caused by the pigeon’s strutting. The pigeon would strut and puff while Sally phoned her godmother, while Sally brushed her teeth, while Sally cut up her driver’s license. The pigeon’s strutting does not compel Sally to kill it.

Oh, in context, in a paragraph in which I emphasize the mess the pigeon has made on Sally’s balcony, I imagine I could get away with it. But “getting away with” is not good writing.

Sequential Action Trumps Simultaneous Action

Steve Almond, author of the NYT nonfiction bestseller, Candyfreak, and numerous prize-winning short stories, commented in Writer’s Digest.com on the perils of using “as” clauses in speech attributions.

“How’d you like that move?” Ryan queried, as he twirled Lucy effortlessly in his strapping arms and wriggled his eyebrows.”

People often speak and act simultaneously in real life. And it’s tempting to try to reflect this in your prose. But it’s also, for the most part, a semi-pro move, because readers process sentences discretely. They tend to translate dialogue differently than action. Fusing the two together invites confusion, which is a writer’s sworn enemy. It also diminishes the impact of your prose. Consider the last example, rewritten:

Ryan twirled Lucy. “How’d you like that move?” He wriggled his eyebrows.

When the dialogue and the physical gestures are granted their own sentences, they do more work because the reader is given longer to absorb them. (Steve Almond, Writer’s Digest.com, March 13, 2008)

Almond’s observation of the as clause in dialogue is applicable to prose in general. Regardless of form, readers tend to process actions discretely. Merging two unrelated actions diminishes the power of our prose.

As clauses at their best bring vigor and immediacy to dramatic narration, yet remain a step removed from dramatization. Sally and the pigeon, if written by a better writer, would have lost the as clause:

The pigeon strutted along the ledge, cooing and fluffing its neck feathers into an iridescent display. Sally drew her arrow, notched it and said, “Die, you railing-defiling rat.”

It Sounds Like Writing

Because of that little authorial word, “as”, the as clause—if not exquisitely justified—sounds like writing. In it, we hear the writer at work.

Elmore Leonard’s most important rule, by his own admission, was “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Below is an as-clause structure from the CC queue in which I’ve changed the circumstance and all the words. Like gritty chalk on a blackboard, it screeches writing.

The board slipped out from under my feet as the wave surged upward, tossing me over its shoulder. I felt grit scraping my sunburned back as it somersaulted me onto the beach. I tried to get to my feet as Boom! the surf surged, throwing me against the rocks.

Remove the as clauses and the filtering “I felt” and use a stronger verb, “shot” rather than “slipped out” and change the –ing verbals to active verbs, and the reader is in the waves with the protagonist. The writer is invisible.

The board shot from under my feet. The wave surged upward, tossed me over its shoulder. I somersaulted into the surf, grit scraped my back. Boom! The wave caught me again, threw me against the rocks.

Yes, this is a dynamic relationship, the surf versus the surfer, but it’s mano-a-mano, neither the action of the surf nor the reaction of the surfer need be subordinated to the other. And these actions are not simultaneous, but sequential.

Elmore Leonard, a master of the simple sentence, opened his 1978 novel, The Switch, with this:

Mickey said, “I’ll drive. I’d really like to.”

Frank, holding the door open, said, “Get in the car, okay?” He wasn’t going to say anything else. He handed her his golf trophy to hold, walked around and tipped the club parking boy a dollar. Mickey buckled the seat belt—something she seldom did—and lit a cigarette. Frank got in and turned on the radio.

A second paragraph intervenes and then the car is on the road. And, here, Elmore Leonard shows us how to use an as clause, employing it so skillfully that I, looking for an Elmore Leonard as clause, didn’t see it on the first reading.

The white Mark V—washed daily—turned left onto Quarton Road. Mickey held her body rigid as the pale hood followed the headlight beams through the curves, at 70 miles an hour, conservatively straddling the double lines down the middle of the road, the Mark V swaying slightly, leaning—WJZZ-FM pouring out of the rear speakers—leaning harder, Mickey feeling herself pressed against the door and hearing the tires squeal and the bump-bump jolting along the side of the road, then through the red light at Lahser, up the hill and a mile to Covington, tires squealing again on the quick turn into the street and then coasting—“See? What’s the problem?”—turning into the drive of the big brown and white Tudor home, grazing the high hedge and coming to a complete stop.

A distinct relationship exists between Mickey’s holding her body rigid and Frank’s driving—she’s scared stiff. Leonard’s as clause emphasizes this relationship. Frank’s driving—the speed, the jolts, the tire squeals, running the red light—compels Mickey to hold her body rigid.

And these two actions, Mickey’s holding her body stiff and Frank’s driving like a lunatic, are simultaneous; they endure for mile after mile.

Like Elmore Leonard’s, Patrick O’Brian’s opening as clause for Master and Commander is so perfectly embedded and distinctly related to the action of the main clause that it too is unobtrusive:

The music-room in the Governor’s House at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli’s C major quartet. The players, Italians pinned against the far wall by rows and rows of little round gilt chairs, were playing with passionate conviction as they mounted towards the penultimate crescendo towards the tremendous pause and the deep, liberating final chord. And on the little gilt chairs at least some of the audience were following the rise with an equal intensity: . . .

O’Brian’s sentence contains an internal dynamic: passion. The players’ passionate conviction compels them to “mount towards that penultimate crescendo . . .” which of itself is passionate. These actions are related through the feeling one engenders in the other. The actions are of some duration and they are simultaneous–they played with “passionate conviction” to the very last chord. This is an orchestration. It, especially in concert with the rest of the paragraph in which we find one listener sharing the passion of the players and the music, meets Constance Hale’s principle that the clauses shall have a distinct relationship to each other and shall emphasize that relationship.

Causality

In the O’Brian and Leonard examples, the relationships between the action of the main clauses and the action of the subordinate clauses are distinct because they are causal. Causality is thus, one criterion, by which we can begin to judge if an as clause is appropriate.

This as clause sentence appears in my first chapter:

Julianne and Jacquot raised arms to their faces against the chaff thrown up by the propeller as the Lysander reversed pitch and roared to a near standstill at the far end of the pasture.

It certainly is not in the same league as Leonard and O’Brian’s as clauses, but because the Lysander’s propeller compels Julianne and Jacquot to raise arms to their faces against the chaff, the relationship of the clauses is causal. The sentence also qualifies for the as clause because the actions are related, simultaneous and of duration—so long as the engine is roaring and the propeller furiously fanning, Julianne and Jacquot must protect themselves from the chaff.

Emphasis versus Function

The original draft had two as clauses:

Julianne and Jacquot raised arms to their faces against the chaff thrown up by the propeller as the Lysander reversed pitch and roared to a near standstill at the far end of the pasture. Its wings wobbled and dipped as it turned on the sod close to the watering tank. The heavy aircraft was trundling back toward them when Jacquot shouted, “Go!”

The intent for the second sentence was to show the aircraft from Julianne’s point of view and provide transition to the moment in which she boards it. Its purpose was not to emphasize how the uneven sod caused its wings to wobble.  By using “as it turned on the sod . . .” I created an emphasis that thwarted the sentence’s function. I realized the reader would know the plane had turned and changed it:

Julianne and Jacquot raised arms to their faces against the chaff thrown up by the propeller as the Lysander reversed pitch and roared to a near standstill at the far end of the pasture. Its wings wobbled and dipped on the sod close to the watering tank. The heavy aircraft was trundling back toward them when Jacquot shouted, “Go!”

 Number of Actors

A complex sentence in which an as clause makes a bravura appearance generally contains two actors, not just one. Beginning writers have a proclivity for showing an individual performing simultaneous actions:

As Sally smiled, she knew he was the one.

As Jason held up the fleece, he felt he had redeemed himself.

As Marjorie saw him, she stopped knitting.

These are common but semi-pro applications of the as clause. They lack internal dynamic. They are paired rather than related. They violate sequence trumps simultaneous and they sound like writing. They are better written plainly:

Sally smiled. She knew he was the one.

Jason held up the fleece. He had redeemed himself.

Marjorie saw him and stopped knitting.

In writing Its wings wobbled and dipped as it turned on the sod close to the watering tank, I also blundered by showing the simultaneity of the plane’s wing’s wobbling and the plane’s turning. Like the examples above, this one actor’s actions are not causal. The plane’s turning did not cause its wings to wobble. The uneven sod caused their wobble.

The distinctions are fine, but fine writing requires fine distinctions.

Duration of Action

Another disguised CC paragraph—structure only is original—appears to consider a relationship causal but does not account for the duration of time in which the two actions take place.

The pouty-lipped hitchhiker raised her skirt, exposing long tan legs as she placed her foot on the running board, ignoring Sam’s offer of assistance.    

It’s a mishmash, but we could argue the hitchhiker’s placing her foot on the running board caused her legs to be exposed and thus the as clause is required to show this relationship, ignoring, of course, that emphasizing the relationship is not functional to the purpose of the sentence. That aside, duration of action is missing. Neither of these actions is enduring. The sentence fares better with the actions in a sequence.

The pouty-lipped hitchhiker ignored Sam’s offer of assistance, raised her skirt, placed her foot on the running board and exposed long tan legs.

Overall Simultaneity of the Passage

Elmore Leonard’s opening paragraphs for The Switch focus on simultaneity. He pits Frank’s actions against Mickey’s reactions, not in just one sentence or paragraph but for the entire passage in which they leave the club and arrive at their house.

O’Brian also focuses on the simultaneity of the players playing with passion and their audience following along with passion. It too is not a sentence or a paragraph but–like the music–an opening passage.

In my example, simultaneity runs throughout the passage. Jaquot tells Julianne, “Blackie’s on his way. He’ll land and taxi back here to take off again, but he won’t stop. Stay ready. We do this fast.” The passage then details Julianne and Jaquot’s actions that correspond to the plane’s actions. It too is a passage of simultaneity, not just a sentence or a paragraph in which simultaneity occurs.

If Don’t Have to Use It, Don’t Use It

Best advice for seizing the power of the as clause is study how master writers like Elmore and O’Brian use it. And be aware of the frequency of as clause use. Among bestselling writers, as clauses are rare. For my writing, my ultimate principle is If I can find a way to write it without the as clause, I write it without the as clause.

Good luck with yours!

Advertisements