Who would believe that a subject as prosaic as punctuation of compound predicates could help dramatize the actions—and thus the immediacy and interest—of a novel? Yet, with apologies for the pedantry, that is what I will attempt to illustrate today.
First of all, though, I’d like to suggest that no structure of writing is too small for a writer to pay attention to. When the poet and dramatist Oscar Wilde said he had worked all day on a poem, someone inquired what took so much time in a single poem. Wilde replied that in the morning he put in a comma, and in the afternoon he took it out. The best writers do spend time on small details that others may think insignificant.
I would also like to cite a concept proposed years ago by literary critic Stanley Fish, that the meaning of a sentence is everything that happens to the reader as he progresses through it. The skilful writer can speed his reader up or slow him down, as appropriate to the events being described.
Now back to compound predicates: Elements of these are connected by coordinating conjunctions, usually and. Thus:
Light from the Jeep's headlights moved at right angles from the highway and then disappeared.
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However, the sentence cannot be written this way:
Light from the Jeep's headlights moved at right angles from the highway then disappeared.
The reason is that then is an abverb, not a coordinating conjunction, so it cannot connect the two elements of the predicate. (Yes, I know that sentences written this way appear in many poorly edited manuscripts, but that does not make them grammatically correct.)
However, another grammatical rule says that a comma is often used to mark an omission. In this example, and.
Light from the Jeep's headlights moved at right angles from the highway, then disappeared.
For fiction, this construction has the advantage of suggesting passage of time between the moving and disappearing.
The principle I’m proposing: Use the and to rush the reader through the sentence to suggest continuous action, but substitute the comma for and to make the reader pause, suggesting a time lapse or at least separation of the predicate’s two actions.
Here is an example from my suspense novel Deadly Additive:
The man hesitated, then spoke.
The comma forces a pause, dramatizing the man’s hesitation. That dramatization is lost if the sentence is written with the and, rushing the reader through to the second action:
The man hesitated and then spoke.
Here, from the same novel, are other examples in which I chose to force a pause for dramatization or to show a separation of the two actions. Also provided are the same sentences written the other way, with the and. It’s not that those are wrong. It’s just that they lose the dramatic or illustrative quality of those with the comma.
He nodded toward the eastern mountains, then threw a glance at [his companion].
He nodded toward the eastern mountains and then threw a glance at [his companion].
He held up the guilty document, then thumbed through her other receipts….
He held up the guilty document and then thumbed through her other receipts….
[The victim’s] twitching grew into violent convulsions, then subsided into stillness.
[The victim’s] twitching grew into violent convulsions and then subsided into stillness.
"Fools!" Contreras permitted himself the one exclamation, then asked for details.
"Fools!" Contreras permitted himself the one exclamation and then asked for details.
The rifle held steady, then wavered.
The rifle held steady and then wavered.
The guard came to present arms and back to port, then stepped aside.
The guard came to present arms and back to port and then stepped aside.
He worked his fingers to restore circulation, then shook hands with [his rescuer].
He worked his fingers to restore circulation and then shook hands with [his rescuer].
Deliberately, he touched his forefinger to his lips, then gently pressed it to hers.
Deliberately, he touched his forefinger to his lips and then gently pressed it to hers.
This is a small distinction, and one that may be meaningless to speed readers. But small distinctions like this make the difference between mediocre writing and good writing.
Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he completed a PhD degree at The University of Texas and taught English literature at two liberal arts colleges. His previous novels include a mystery, Rhapsody in Red, and a suspense novel, The Lazarus File (spies and airplanes in the Caribbean). Poems that he published in various journals over the years are collected in his book Dust and Diamond: Poems of Earth and Beyond. He is a frequent speaker for writers' groups and has taught poetry writing at the Glorieta and Blue Ridge conferences. His current teaching crusade is to promote the writing of good-quality poetry that's accessible to ordinary readers. He and his wife live near Houston, where he writes fiction, poetry, and articles on current topics.