Saturday, September 3, 2016

Need That Definite Article?

While I was revising my first novel manuscript, my crit partners complained that its descriptive passages did not engage a reader's senses. Here was a typical passage:
Ruth slid the galvanized pail of potato peelings off the table and carried it to the backyard, where half a dozen Plymouth Rocks were scratching for worms. When she dumped the pail in their midst, the chickens cackled with delight and began tearing into the fresh vegetable skins.
My sensory cues were there all right, but their effect was lifeless. For one thing, I leaned heavily on the definite article, the. (In those 48 words I just quoted, the appears 6 times.) So I began noticing what happens when a writer does away with it.

On BBC-TV's series, "The Secret Life of Books," I heard the narrator read several passages from Laurie Lee's coming-of-age novel, Cider with Rosie, which rarely uses the.  I bought a copy from a used book store and found this was his consistent pattern. Here's how he describes the house where he grew up:
Our house, and our life in it, is something of which I still constantly dream, helplessly bidden, night after night, to return to its tranquility and nightmares; to the heavy shadows of its stone-walled rooms creviced between bank and yew trees, to its boarded ceilings and gaping mattresses, its bloodshot geranium windows, its smells of damp pepper and mushroom growths, its chaos and rule of women.
In that 66-word sentence, he uses the definite article...once! Here's how he describes their kitchen:
That kitchen, worn by our boots and lives, was scruffy, warm and low, whose fuss of furniture seemed never the same but was shuffled around each day. A black grate crackled with coal and beech twigs; towels toasted on the guard; the mantel was littered with fine old china, horse brasses and freak potatoes...
In those 53 words, he uses the definite article 3 times (half as often as I would). Instead of employing that colorless, tasteless, odorless modifer, he utilizes words that awaken our senses.

Strictly speaking, English syntax calls for the definite article on only three occasions:
  • The noun you're modifying is specific. 
  • The noun you're modifying is not new to the reader.
  • The noun you're modifying refers to an entire class.
Look back at my manuscript sample. Using these rules, see if you eliminate at least half of my definite articles. How would you rewrite the passage in a more engaging way without them? If you find yourself overusing the (as I do), ask yourself whether you're just avoiding the use of your imagination.

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