?Writing With Absolutes – Why Master Writers Use Them
Absolute Phrases will Make Your Writing Crackle.
Absolute phrases add a sense of action and simultaneity to the main idea in a clause or sentence. They are, without a doubt, the most effective tool that a writer has to depict scenes filled with details that create action and suspense. No other tool exists that is more efficacious.
Nothing enlivens a scene as well placed Absolutes.
Through the apprehension of details all human beings-but in particular, readers-filter whole scenes in order to grasp, evaluate, and pronounce judgments about actions, places, and thoughts.
What gives versatility and flexibility to the Absolute phrase is that it may be embedded just about anywhere in the clause or sentence (beginning, middle, or end). Absolute phrases supply the much needed details at the right time and the right place.
Observe-in the example below-how nouns and the present participle interact:
The trees seemed to advance-to close ranks-as if in menacing formation, branches flailing, trunks forming cavities resembling huge distorted mouths from which the most horrifying and ungodly screams seemed to issue, filling the swamp with a hellish cacophony (M. Guerrero, Poison Pill, chapter 35, p210).
Branches flailing, trunks forming cavities, filling the swamp-are Absolute phrases. When nouns are combined with the present participle (verbs ending in -ing), the results are Absolute phrases.
Absolute phrases are also called Absolute Nominative, or simply Absolutes.
They-absolutes-highlight the immediacy of the action, causing it to unfold right in front of the readers’ eyes. But how can these bits of information-details which are so unrelated to the main idea, even illogical one might say-be so loosely tacked on?
Fortunately for writers, the English language allows for this type of non sequitur. It is a part of the language that not even grammarians such as Otto Jesperson and Henry W. Fowler, or linguists (including Noam Chomsky) have been able to explain with convincing adequacy; a conundrum as puzzling as ‘why do humans grow arms and not wings?’
Writers should be thankful for such aberrations of the English language, and take advantage of them.
In addition to the present participle form of the verb (tears
coursing down her cheeks), we may also use the past participle to form another variation of the Absolute: teeth
clenched, box cutter tightly
gripped in her hand.
Because many grammar and syntax textbooks begin the discussion of Absolute Phrases with convoluted definitions, regrettably many readers abandon the topic, never to revisit it again. So, let’s look at what Absolutes do, what they accomplish, and then at the end of the chapter we’ll attempt a working definition.
Forms of the Absolute
Although Absolute Phrases may be written in many ways, the following four usages are the most prevalent:
(1) Noun and the present participle: branches flailing.
(2) Noun and a past participle: teeth clenched.
(3) Noun and a prepositional phrase: a blade in her hand.
(4) Noun and an adjective or adverb: ears forward.
Absolutes: Group (1) – Noun + Present Participle
The thug saw him and hurried to the waiting Honda, which took off with a loud squeal, screeching and lurching forward, the engine revving up. (M. Guerrero, Poison Pill, chapter 3, p22).
Just then Morales opened his eyes only to see the old man’s harsh stare, his droopy eyelid twitching. (N. Guerrero, Poison Pill, chapter 27, p145).
As you can see in the above example, the noun eyelid is qualified by ‘his droopy,’ implying that any qualifier may either antecede or follow the noun; yet, this fact doesn’t negate that the phrase is an Absolute Phrase formed by a Noun + Present Participle.
The bullet ripped the stick out of the huge man’s lips hitting the wall with a thud, Gil’s lips turning ashen, teeth chattering, and clicking like gag dentures. (M. Guerrero, Poison Pill, chapter 33, p193).
But just as he said this, the floor under the hand truck caved in, the smile fading off his face. (M. Guerrero Poison Pill, chapter 29, p162).
“”And Lord Julian, then?”” he asked, his eyes watching her, bright as sapphires in that copper-coloured face. (R. Sabatini, Captain Blood, chapter XXXI, p337).
He wore a black, short mid-riff tank top under his black leather jacket, his pale face glowing with unnatural light, thin lips twisting in an evil smile. (M. Guerrero, Poison Pill, chapter 15, p89).
Cowboy felt the frigid mud shifting and tugging downward at his feet, sucking and crushing around his waist and chest, large bubbles surfacing, gurgling and popping around him, filling his nostrils with the vilest putrid stench. (M. Guerrero, Poison Pill, chapter 29, p162).
He did things to me that I’d only read in books, and at the end of it, legs trembling, heart thudding, I laughed and he buried his face against my belly, laughing too. (Sue Grafton, ‘A’ is for Alibi, p177).
By now you should have noted how the
-ing participials cause the nouns to zoom in and become extremely visible.
As Joey and Lenox strode to their van, Cowboy felt eyes watching him, his rat-tail stiffening, and a chill running down his spine. (M. Guerrero, Poison Pill, chapter 18, p103).
Even though the narrator purports to be objective and camera-like in his observations, he manages to inject inner-state details that only an omniscient narrator could know. This technique empowers the writer to get inside the character’s mind, body, and even his central nervous system: “”a chill running down his spine.””
We puttered past the barn, the diesel thumping, the trailer creaking, and turned south toward the lower forty, a tract next to Siler’s Creek. (John Grisham, A Painted House, p43).
Grisham, by his adroit use of two Absolutes (diesel thumping and trailer creaking), augments the acoustics of the passing scene. Had he chosen to simply say, “”We puttered past the barn, and turned south…”” the scene would have fallen dead on arrival.
Note how Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice uses the Absolute to objectify an otherwise internal sensation felt by a character:
Elizabeth made no answer, and walked on, her heart swelling with indignation.
And feel the chills Bram Stoker brings to the reader as he depicts count Dracula’s wrath:
As my eyes opened involuntarily I saw his strong hand grasp the slender neck of the fair woman and with giant’s power draw it back, the blue eyes transformed with fury, the white teeth champing with rage, and the fair cheeks blazing red with passion.
The Absolute “”the blue eyes transformed with fury,”” is discussed below, as it belongs to Group (2), since ‘transformed’ is a past participle rather than a present participle.
To conclude this section, see how Tolstoy uses this absolute construction in his War and Peace:
“”Do you or do you not know where that will is?”” insisted Prince Vasili, his cheeks twitching more than ever.
Pierre obediently sat down, his eyes asking if he were doing right.
The spot chosen for the duel was some eighty paces from the road, where the sleighs had been left in a small clearing in the pine forest covered with melting snow, the frost having begun to break during the last few days.
Absolutes: Group (2) – Noun + Past Participle
Less dramatic than the -ing Absolute is the past participle Absolute. While the former causes the action of the noun to unfold in front of the reader’s eyes, the latter conjures up an image of something that has already happened.
His head-piece was gone, his breastplate dinted, his right sleeve a rag hanging from his shoulder about a naked arm. (R. Sabatini, Captain Blood, chapter XXX, p331).
“”I’ll check with them, Joey, and then I’ll let you know. Where are you planning to bury them?”” he asked, his forehead wrinkled with curiosity. (M. Guerrero, Poison Pill, chapter 29, p159).
…he charged straight on howling with wild fury, arms flailing, and eyes closed. (M Guerrero, Poison Pill, chapter 36, p230).
In his mind he saw the picture of the boy that the police photographer had taken, his flesh eaten black by the flames. (Elizabeth George, In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner, p267).
His men stood, grinning, awaiting orders, the two prisoners now fast pinioned. (R. Sabatini, Captain Blood, chapter II, p16).
Here’s an example from a master story-teller:
Her friend, Pixie Dark, was backing away from the whole deal, small white hands clasped between her breasts, eyes wide. (Stephen King, Cell, chapter 2, p8).
Stephen King wrote a best seller book on writing; yet, nowhere will you find –in this famed book– a single word about Absolutes. Go figure.