The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.
-Stephen King, The Gunslinger
This sentence is really two – the one about the Man in Black, and the one about the Gunslinger. Combining them with the word and merely smooths out the delivery. Generally, one sentence conveys one idea.
When writing a story, there is a tendency to add variety to the prose. Rather than simply writing out a list of sentences, we try to organize them in a meaningful way, to smooth out the transitions between them, and sometimes we make the mistake of including too much connective tissue.
King’s sentence clearly shows some connection between the two ideas, so perhaps we would be tempted to include the word because in place of and.
Because the Man in Black fled across the desert, the Gunslinger followed.
The word and is not one we need to avoid overusing. It’s like said. The reader doesn’t even know he or she read it. On the other hand, replacing and changes the meaning and focus of a sentence. Here’s another Stephen King sentences:
Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn’t drink because they were creative, alienated, or morally weak. They drank because it’s what alkies are wired up to do.
The word because shows up here again. Notice that there are three ideas being conveyed in the second sentence:
1 – Hemingway and Fitzgerald drank.
2 – Alcoholics are wired up to drink.
3 – The second is the cause of the first.
The word because changes the meaning of the sentence. It’s not about either idea separately. It’s about the relationship between them. Which means, if either of the first two ideas are new to the reader, the sentence is overworked. Three ideas are too many for one sentence – or even two – to convey.
As it happens, the example sentence is taken out of a context where Hemingway and Fitzgerald drank and Alcoholics are wired up to drink are previously established.
In short, use because because the relationship between A and B is what is important. Do not use because just to tell us A and B. It’s too wordy. The word and is free. The reader never sees it. The word because is far more visible.
Let’s look at three ways this problem can sneak into your prose.
The word while sneaks in between sentences.
Mike hacked into the computer while Jill disarmed the bomb.
The sentence tells us three things: What Mike did, what Jill did, and that they happened simultaneously. In all likelihood, that third piece of information is unnecessary.
In other cases, the order things happen might be important, but obvious without any connective tissue.
He drew his gun and I drew mine and fired and missed.
We naturally assume that the actions described happened in the order they were written. Spelling it out with ordinates – such as first, then, next, last, or finally – is unnecessary. If you include them, you’re insulting your reader by assuming he or she won’t understand without your help.
Only spell out the timing of things when the timing is the point. Remember this line horribly misquoted from the movie Scarface:
In this country, first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women.
The actual line is different, but the misquoted version is pretty catchy. Notice, though, how much it loses if we take out all the ordinates.
In this country, you get the money, the power, and the women.
None of these three events individually are the point. The point is the sequence. The words first, then, and then clarify, drawing attention from the individual events to the relationship between them.
Cause and Effect
Our initial examples from The Gunslinger were of this type. Look out for words like because, so, if and then, and therefore.
These words are rarely necessary. When we read something that needs support, we tend to assume that support will follow immediately. Consider this line from the movie Monster’s Ball:
I’ve always believed that a portrait captures a person far better than a photograph. It takes a human being to truly see another human being.
The logic flows naturally. The word because would be superfluous. When we expect things to be a certain place, and they are, we don’t need a sign to point the way.
This problem can sneak into even simple sentences.
He went outside to smoke.
If the point is to convey two ideas – he went outside, and he smoked – just say that. The to seems to qualify the sentence, as though the speaker is specifically trying to avoid saying whether he was successful.
Don’t know, boss. He went outside to smoke.
Fine for characters to hedge their bets this way, but for a narrator it is strangely non-committal.
She applied pressure to his shoulder to stop the bleeding.
Yeah okay. Was she successful? The sentence doesn’t actually address that point.
As before, the word because (and its cousins) should only be used when at least one of the connected ideas is already known. Consider this:
I write because life never works except in retrospect.
Does that sentence feel a little rushed? It’s overworked, just like the quote about Hemingway and Fitzgerald above. It tells us two things – that the writer writes, and why he writes.
The quotation (slightly paraphrased) is from Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club. Here it is again:
I write because life never works except in retrospect.
It’s the exact same sentence, but it works better now because some of the information is not new to us. We know Palahniuk writes. The sentence only has to tell us why. One sentence, one idea.
What is wrong with this sentence?
He was shot but didn’t die.
It’s the same thing that is wrong with this sentence:
She was exposed to radiation but didn’t get any super powers.
The word but is sneaky. It often suggests the reader knows what the writer is thinking. The first sentence says three things:
1 – He was shot.
2 – You probably think he died.
3 – You are wrong.
The second says:
1 – She was exposed to radiation.
2 – You probably think she got super powers.
3 – Not so much.
There are two problems: It’s usually not wise to assume what your reader’s opinions are. You could be wrong, and if you’re wrong you will look foolish.
The second problem should be obvious by now. Overworked sentences. The word but works only when there is some obvious connection between the two ideas. He was shot but didn’t die feels like a safe bet, except that the mortality rate of gunshot wounds is something like 25%. The problem is minor in this example, because it isn’t a stretch to assume a gunshot wound is intended to kill someone – but still. Maybe one of your readers is a trauma surgeon, who reads it and rolls his eyes. Best to avoid when possible.
The word but – along with his friends although, still, and however – becomes a serious problem when used merely for variety.
Russell ran into the bank, but Alex stayed behind to guard the door.
There isn’t any expectation here. I have no reason (at least without context) to assume these two people – about whom I know nothing – would go into a bank together.
At a glance, it looks appropriate, because the characters are doing opposite things. One is going inside, the other is staying outside. But that isn’t enough reason. There are two characters doing two different things. It should be written as two sentences. Using but to emphasize some connection between them is just confusing.
Russell ran into the bank. Alex stayed behind to guard the door.
The phrase stayed behind is plenty to explain the connection between these two actions. Not all sentences need to be strung together. If there’s a clear relation, you shouldn’t need to spell it out. If there isn’t one, forcing it can be artificial and confusing. For example, you would never consider writing a sentence like this:
The Man in Black fled across the desert, but the Gunslinger followed.