An author had written a post asking a group of us authors to determine which sentence was better "stylewise":
- As they fled upwards, the structure buckled with each successive tremor.
- They fled upwards, the structure buckling with each successive tremor.
The original poster gave no context for the sentences, just wanted a simple vote.
What got me interested in this post?
I didn't initially understand why the author would worry about such a small matter. The sentences are nearly identical; neither one is "better" than the other stylewise. There is in fact little that is "stylistic" about the two sentences at all. They are about as simple as sentences get.
I focused instead on the content of the sentence itself, because, as I commented, "Sometimes a sentence rankles... because the sentence itself needs to be recast."
What does it mean that a structure is "buckling," first of all? Usually it means that whatever is supporting a load has failed, and whatever's underneath that structure is going to get squashed. It stands to reason that much squashing will occur if there is more than one "successive" tremor.
Where are the fugitives? What effect does the buckling have on them? Are they squashed?
A commenter suggested that the sentence be recast to focus on the individuals involved: "They stumbled upwards as the structure buckled with each successive tremor" was her first suggestion. She also suggested "The (stair/ladder?) buckled beneath them. 'We've got to keep going.' (Name) grabbed (name's) hand and hauled (him/her) upwards."
These suggestions work much hard to convey a picture. Instead of the generic "fled," you've got "stumbled" or "hauled." And there's a connection between the violence of the action and the people involved with it.
In short, there's a reason for the sentence to be there.
The original sentence, in fact, put me in mind of scenes from two Star Wars films, both involving a collapsing structure and people fleeing it.
In Episodes IV, VI, and VII, there are Death Star-like, moon-sized contraptions that the good guys destroy in the end (not a spoiler-- just like sand castles, Death Stars are created to be pulverized). As these machines explode in impressive fireballs, the viewer sees spaceships buzzing away from the conflagrations. The next scene: the spaceships safe and sound on the good guys' home planet.
Because of the brevity of the shots, the viewer is encouraged not to worry about how it is possible for spaceships to outrun the explosion of a planetoid that has absorbed enough energy to destroy a planet or planets much larger than itself. I just have a feeling those spaceships wouldn't have made it out scot-free.
These shots, to me, are the equivalent of the "As they fled" sentence. The difference is that in the book, there are no fancy golden fireballs to dazzle the reader, and so the author rightly judges that the sentence needs to work harder.
If a structure is going to buckle in a book, I would like to look back in horror at the twisted metal, be dinged in the head by flying rivets, hear the screeching and groaning of the collapsing beams, taste the dust that comes up between my teeth when a tremor pitches me chin first on the ground, and smell the sour scent of concrete dust in my nostrils.
I would, indeed, cross out the "As they fled" sentence and put in something that makes the reader forget that all of what is happening is pretty impossible.
Hard work produces hard-working sentences-- and successful stories.