Participial Phrases can Make Your or Break Your Fiction

by Bill Henderson

ONE OF THE BEST ARGUMENTS for becoming technically agile with your written English is the participial phrase. Why? It’s probably the most powerful tool at your command for writing with clarity, subtlety, richness of detail, depth, and significant meaning.

But you’d better deploy it properly, otherwise, you risk causing confusion and boredom in the average reader–and rejection from the professional.

What’s a participial phrase? Nothing more, really, than, a participle (verb form ending in -ing or -ed) plus some other words or phrases to give it flesh. But it’s what it does that’s so powerful.

Check out these examples–the bolded phrases are all participial phrases:

• Having fully prepared for the meeting, Jane had no trouble making her view prevail.

• Watching Ellen move several boatloads of her stuff into his apartment, Jim realized this was the biggest mistake he had ever made.

• Having wandered in the desert for a month, Juan was unaware that war had broken out.

Because participial phrases: are so powerful–so full of modifying information, writers make good use of them to enrich context economically and powerfully. But it’s easy to over-use them, and that’s a mistake that, should you make it, will brand you as at best an unwitting novice, or at worst, clueless and insensitive to the basic tools of your art.

The truth is that abuse of participial phrases: can sandbag your entire writing effort, sometimes even causing unintended hilarity. Here are a few of cautionary examples to show why overloading a sentence with them is bad in all kinds of ways:

• She loved her garden, overflowing with plants from friends and family, knowing a plant was the perfect gift for her.

What’s wrong: The first clause is a “dangling participle” aka dangling modifier – it wants to modify “she” but is trapped grammatically into modifying either “she” or “her garden,” take your pick–which is an absurdity. The second compounds the problem: who knows the plant was the perfect gift? She? The garden? Friends and family?

• Driving to the football game, he was late for the kickoff.

What’s wrong: Was he late for the kickoff WHILE driving to the game? Of course not. He was late WHEN HE ARRIVED. Time frame fail!

• Having grown up poor and received a scholarship for his basketball skills, Jared did well enough to graduate early, his coaches trying to get him to stay on as a graduate student.

What’s wrong: The first clause piggybacks growing up poor and earning a basketball scholarship. There’s the power of the participial phrase in a nutshell: it’s a neat compressed summary that really works–yet it pushes the capacity of the sentence dangerously close to its limit. If the sentence ended with a period after “early,” all would be well. But alas, already stuffed to the limit, it commits suicide by trying to gobble down “his coaches trying to get him to stay on as a graduate student.”

Can you see why breaking up a long, ungainly sentence into two (or more) is the solution of preference?

Summarizing: dparticipial phrase are like thickeners in cooking–the flour or cornstarch of fiction writing. You wouldn’t be able to make pancakes without flour. But dump in too much and your batter is a useless paste. All the fresh blueberries and maple syrup in the world can’t rescue you: your best efforts as a breakfast chef are doomed.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alegra May 4, 2010 at 3:42 am

Grammar has always been a source of anxiety for me. I’ve bought and read various books on the subject, but my mind doesn’t seem to absorb the lessons. This blog, however, was excellent. I really love how you have broken this down into examples.

2 Bill Henderson May 5, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Thanks, Alegra. Personally, I don’t understand how to do anything until I see it done.

3 Joy June 11, 2010 at 2:20 am

Good lesson here with sentences that show exactly why we mustn’t. That first sentence in the summary describes exactly what those participial phrases do. :)

4 Mike Wallbridge October 5, 2010 at 3:01 pm

What happens when the participial phrase is at the end of the sentence e.g “A wall of noise slammed into the old man, driving the breath from his lungs, hurling him across the yard. His back smashed into the concrete, pain flooding his body.” Or are these not participial phrases?

5 Bill Henderson October 6, 2010 at 2:47 am

They are, Mike. And they work nicely as modifiers, placed where they are. The sentence’s subject and predicate come first, so the action has already occurred. The pressure is off. But imagine if they opened the sentence, making us wait…wait…wait for for the main event. Awkward.

6 Terry Rodgers February 23, 2012 at 12:57 pm

Bill,

Great explanation on participial phrases. I didn’t even know what this was until a forum discussion two days ago at Writer’s Digest. So now I’m totally confused. Most of the seasoned commenters on the site are saying do not use these phrases as it indicates novice writing. I’ve written two novels and am working on a third. I use this style, I thought, to convey more powerful sentence modifiers when needed. Now I’m wondering if this is why I’ve haven’t found a home for my novels. Here’s three separate sentences in three separate places in my current work in progress.

* She sucked on a bottle of water, the icy fluid sending a shock of appreciation through her throat.
* He let out a hoarse cough, cotton stirring in the recessed crevasses of his throat.
* He slammed the handset into its cradle, the ringer pinging against its metal neighbor.

What do you think? Am I way off base and need to relearn fifth grade grammar? Am I using this technique incorrectly? Should I stop listening to this forum and go with my gut?

Thank you in advance.
Terry

7 Bill Henderson February 23, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Each of these sentences is fine in isolation, Terry. As I said in the post, participial phrases are powerful tools for good writing. I wouldn’t totally agree with what the forum folks said, but I know why they they said it. Novices do tend to lean on the these constructions way too hard. If you put all three of your sentences in the same paragraph, you’d see what I mean. There’s a certain rhythm to the participial phrase, no matter where it appears in the sentence. After only two or three in close proximity, the rhythm stands out, is predictable, and your style is verging on sing-songy monotony.

There are a couple of other issues, too. (1) When you’re in love with participial phrases, you tend to include descriptive information that’s not needed, thus padding your sentence, which reduces its impact and effectiveness; (2) you also tend to let these phrases, rather than the verbs and modifiers in the sentence proper, do the work. So you’re less likely to look for power verbs or specific nouns, which should be the strong core of your style.

Bottom line: cut your use of these phrases to a bare minimum. Just do it, Terry, no matter how difficult it is to part with some of these beautiful phrases. Don’t avoid them entirely. You can use them occasionally to full effect. But “occasionally” is the operative word. The corollary to the advice you got should be: “Judicious and sparting use of participial phrases–where the moment, the emotion, the intensity of the action requires extra juice–is the mark of the pro.”

8 Terry Rodgers February 24, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Thanks Bill. Great advice.

9 Ken Hughes May 27, 2012 at 9:27 am

One of the better explanations I’ve seen for this great tool, especially how not to overuse it. I’d been blogging on sentence selection myself (http://www.kenhughesauthor.com/the-toolbox-what-goes-around-the-words/), and I had to add a link to it. You nailed it.

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