A theme running through much of the writing I’ve critiqued in the last few weeks revolves around the concept of logical agency. Consider the following example:

The door slammed, sending a loud clang throughout the cellblock. Bob’s eyes scanned the room, looking for danger. Suddenly, a knife slashed from between two bars, almost nicking his forearm.

Three things in these three sentences are worth calling out:

  1. “The door slammed.” Doors don’t slam themselves. Someone slammed it. Who? And why?
  2. “Bob’s eyes.” Technically, Bob scanned the room—his eyes were just the instrument of that action. His eyes are not (presumably) independent of his conscious control.
  3. “A knife slashed.” Knives don’t slash; people slash with knives.

In all three of these examples, the agent of the action is syntactically subrogated to the object of the agent’s intent. Put differently: the action is interrupted because although all three sentences are rendered in the active voice, the actor of each sentence is hidden and some inanimate object or constituent body part is substituted as the actor (the grammatical subject of each sentence). So it’s active-voice prose that feels passive in intent, because the object is emphasized instead of the subject.

Of course, there’s technically nothing wrong with any of the sentences, from a grammatical perspective. The literary device called metonymy is in full effect—in a nutshell, it’s a technique where some related object is substituted for another, as with calling a businessman a “suit.”

The challenge with metonymy, however, is that when it’s deployed too frequently, it tends to interrupt the voice of a passage and could confuse the point of view.

Aspiring writers sometimes gravitate toward metonymy because it emphasizes what the writer sees in his or her minds’ eye. Fantasy writers, for example, are notorious for allowing wands, swords and arrows to do the heavy lifting in an action scene, instead of focusing on the characters themselves.

When you’re writing in a first-person construct, metonymy is more challenging because it either breaks the POV or implies some sort of depersonalization between the character and his surroundings. Consider:

I didn’t think the alley looked safe, but I had no choice—the thugs were hot on my trail. My feet ducked to the left, hiding me behind a wall, and then a flash of steel glinted in my hand. Let the thugs come. I’m ready.

The problem here is that “my feet” didn’t duck left, I did. Thus, “hiding me behind a wall” implies that the POV character is not actually in control of his feet; he’s merely going wherever they autonomously take him. And then a “flash of steel glinted,” but how did it get there? Magic? This passage is much smoother as:

I didn’t think the alley looked safe, but I had no choice—the thugs were hot on my trail. I ducked to the left, hiding behind a wall, and then opened my knife. Let the thugs come. I’m ready.

Not only is the adjusted prose more concise, it doesn’t break the “I” perspective of the POV character. No inanimate objects or autonomous body parts wrestling for control of the scene. The POV character’s voice is not interrupted and there’s no confusion about who is the agent acting throughout these sentences.

Used well, metonymy can advance a story. Used poorly, it confuses the flow of the narrative and diminishes the voice of the POV character.

Thoughts on Metonymy, Agency and Voice
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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Metonymy, Agency and Voice

  • 2018-03-17 at 12:12 pm

    Most writers these days could benefit from a good copy editor, a job with which I’ve had lots of experience. I hope you’ll agree that I’ve done well in copy-editing “Swept Away.”

  • 2019-04-06 at 7:19 pm

    Good advice and good examples. I have to clean up a lot of that–I think because I tend to panpsychism–or perhaps I just wanted to toss out the word panpsychism. 🙂 But, seriously, good advice and good examples. Thank you!


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