Making Word(s) Count #2: Playing the Trump Card

Queen of SpadesAction and suspense sequences and scenes with high emotional content are among the most easily sabotaged by excess verbal baggage and convoluted sentences. So, too are sentences that are intended as “trump cards” and which are played with a flourish at the end of a scene, chapter or story. They function like the punch line in a joke, and they work only when they are punchy (concise) enough to convey their full meaning in one or two bites.

I use these a lot in my short fiction especially. My last Analog story—”Garden Spot” which was published this last December—was an extremely short first contact story that relied on such a trump line (which is also the trump line of one of our filk songs). I rewrote that line multiple times until I had it down to the fewest number of words I could contrive, because I wanted the reader to get the joke and I wanted the punch line to be a surprise.

What does speed of delivery have to do with surprise? A lot.

When you’re setting up a trump line, you need it to unfold rapidly because otherwise you give the reader time to guess where you’re going. If the trump is too complex, by the time the reader gets to the destination, the surprise will no longer be a surprise.

There are also trumps a writer puts into a story that are intended to elicit a gasp or an aha! as a piece of the puzzle falls into place. Obviously, you can’t get a gasp out of someone if they see the end of the sentence coming from a mile away.

Years ago in a writers’ workshop at a regional con, I was given a comedic story that had a trump sentence reveal. The story was based on real world scenarios in which a dolphin saves a drowning person from a shark attack. In the course of the shark attack, each swimmer got a finger snapped off. The writer posited a conspiracy between sharks and dolphins calculated to cast dolphins as man’s best friend. The punch line went something like this: “Those people were probably drowning because they just had their ring finger snapped off”. (In reality, I’m pretty sure you could swim without one ring finger, though I’m equally sure it would hurt like bloody hell.)

This is rather long to be a trump sentence it dilutes any surprise or “aha!” the writer might’ve been trying to set up. Since I didn’t have a clear idea of where the writer was going with this, I couldn’t even suggest a punchier rewording. I could only hope that the writer understood what I was trying to convey when I said, “There are too many words here. And the ones you used aren’t that clear.”

This is one of those “sometimes less is more” situations. Trying to achieve the “less”—fewer words, a quicker pay-off—will either make for a zingy trump line or alert you to the fact that there’s none to be had.

Next time: Immediacy and Concurrency



Making Word(s) Count #2: Playing the Trump Card — 2 Comments

  1. Of course, by the time of the trump line, you have — or should have — the entire weight of the earlier sentences thundering along to keep the reader moving into the punchy last line.

    • So true. Which is why it’s especially devastating to a story when the writer tries to cram too much into that last line.

      The key is in setting up the line such that it becomes inevitable. The hat trick is when you can arrange it so that the trump line is both inevitable AND unexpected.