One particular joy I have as a writer and a reader is sentences that work, because they don’t. Here’s an example (from Dodie Smith again, but I’ll stop banging on about her soon). The narrator is talking about her brother, Thomas, and observes that he can be both older than his years, and absolutely consistent with them, almost in the same minute. She exclaims:
Really, the puzzlingness of people!
Puzzlingness isn’t a word and there are obvious, easy ways to rephrase things to avoid that clumsiness. Smith could have said, “How puzzling people can be!” Or, “What a puzzle some people are!” Instead of just inventing a word – and a rather clumsy word at that – she could have used a regular noun or a regular adjective in precisely the regulation way.
So why didn’t she?
Here’s another little oddity, from Gillian Flynn / Gone Girl:
So I know I am right not to settle, but it doesn’t make me feel better as my friends pair off and … as I go to endless rounds of parties and bar nights, perfumed and sprayed and hopeful, rotating myself around the room like some dubious dessert.
In that case, the oddity isn’t quite as blatant, but it’s still there – lurking in the phrase rotating myself around the room.
Mostly, we use the word rotate intransitively – that is, without a direct object. (“The spindle rotated furiously …”). The most common transitive equivalent is the verb, to turn. (“I turned the wheel …”)
And, OK, in this snippet, it’s clear we want the word rotating not the word turning, but we surely don’t need the word myself. Why doesn’t Flynn just write: “rotating around the room like some dubious dessert”? The meaning of that is totally clear. It avoids the awkward “rotating myself” construction. It just works.
So why didn’t she write that? She’s (by a mile) the best crime writer of her generation, so she presumably had the ability to find the easy, natural, grammatically unobjectionable option.
While you consider that, I’ll offer you one further example from another (less classy) crime writer. Here’s my very own Fiona character talking about a “World’s Best Mum” silver cup that her father has given her mother, and then placed on a shelf above the kitchen door:
On the way through into the kitchen, we had to stop to admire the ‘World’s Best Mum’ trophy, which now looms over the kitchen door like something about to collapse.
There’s no grammatical problem there, as such, but the phrase that ends the sentence (“like something about to collapse”) feels almost like a placeholder, just there to fill space until I actually find the image I was after (“a landslip waiting to fall”, for example.)
And look, none of these three writers - myself included - are dummies. We put words on a page because we think they’re the right words. I don’t know about Gillian Flynn’s creative process, but Dodie Smith spent more than two years painfully editing and re-editing I Capture The Castle, so I’m pretty damn sure she didn’t write puzzlingness just because she was in a rush and couldn’t be bothered to retype properly.
So what’s going on?
I hope you sense the answer already.
In Dodie’s Smith’s case, she wanted to achieve a sense of how knotty and intractable it is to understand others. She could have delivered that thought via a fluidly grammatical sentence – but then the sentence itself wouldn’t have been knotty and intractable. So she placed a knobbly, awkward block right at the heart of the sentence: There! People are knotty and awkward, just like this word.
With Flynn, the same thing.
Amy, the narrator of that little quote, doesn’t go to those parties with the ease of someone wholly comfortable in her surroundings. On the contrary, she approaches those parties self-consciously, as though clumsily executing a plan in which she does not fully believe.
And how to achieve that sense of awkward self-manipulation? Why, how about using a verb/noun pair that embodies that awkward manipulation: rotating myself around the room. It sounds as though she’s heaving some recalcitrant piece of machinery around, not her own beautiful self.
It’s that phrase that really gives the sentence its coherence and its wit. She starts out perfumed and sprayed and hopeful – but hauls herself around like a clunky machine part – and ends up as popular and wanted as a “dubious dessert”. It’s the bit in the middle that lends utter credibility to the transition from perfumed to dubious.
Crucially, it’s also the bit that identifies where the blame lies. So it’s not the other party-goers who are at fault for being too aloof or too drunk or too whatever. It’s her own damn fault, because she wields herself like a lump of machinery, instead of just being a wonderful human. The grammatical faux pas manages to identify precisely where and why the party-experience is going wrong.
Same thing with the “thing about to collapse” phrase. Fiona wants to suggest that the shelf is rickety – and, more than that, she wants to convey that the whole idea of giving a fun trophy to her mother was a terrible one in the first place. And what better way to convey a ramshackle bad idea, than using a clumsily ramshackle and provisional-seeming phrase to end the sentence?
Building it bad to build it right.
As I say, I have a stupidly fond spot for anything like that. I actually prefer a prose style that takes the risk of messiness. It feels more alive and more creative, though I acknowledge that’s a matter of taste, not an Ultimate Truth.
And building bad might seem like a uni-dimensional tool, but it’s really not. Its possibilities are creative and endless. I popped one of these emails into Grammarly, just for fun, to see what it came up with.
You won’t be surprised to learn that it had quite a few gripes with me, but including, for example:
[Publishers’ contracts] look much the same. Long. Written in Legalish. Needlessly complicated.
Grammarly did not love ‘legalish’ and wanted me to correct the spelling. But humans recognise instantly both that there’s a joke there and the purpose of the joke. That single made-up word instantly signifies something like “needless foreignness”, without the need to unpack those meanings any further.
Although “building bad” as a technique will tend to work only when you are dealing with something that is bad / awkward / puzzling / self-conscious / ramshackle – those things have a billion different shades of use, which means a billion different ways to express yourself, gloriously well through glorious badness.