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Bob Nailor

Where's The Caboose?

Remember back ... by the way, I talking to those over 40 years of age ... when, as a child, you'd sit in the car and watch the train pass in front of you? The crossing lights would flash and soon you'd hear the distant whistle. If you were really lucky - you'd get to hear the Doppler Effect as suddenly, the big locomotive with its horn blaring, charged across your field of vision. You'd start the count as the engine was followed by freight cars, oil tankers, flat bed cars and then the final car. Like a cherry on top of a soda - the caboose whisked away as the train sped down the tracks.

Sometimes, to my delight, a trainman might be riding that car and be standing on the back deck, hanging onto the black railing. I'd wave and if he saw me, he'd wave back.

Today the trains pass in front of my vehicle as I impatiently wait, fingers tapping away on the steering wheel. Suddenly, the last car flicks by and I see a little flashing red light. There is no caboose. No trainman. The train has lost its magic.

Sometimes, our writing is exactly like those trains.

No magic. No caboose.

You've heard the adage: Putting the cart before the horse.

Some do that in their writing.

He closed the door and waved good bye.

He what? The caboose got moved to the front of the sentence. Yes, the cart is not following the horse, but instead is now pushing the cart. The sentence should read:

He waved good bye and shut the door.

This is an obvious and glaring example. Others are much more subtle.

Matt's hip burned after he slid down the ravine.

The sentence 'seems' perfectly okay but if you read it closely, the horse (sliding down the ravine) is after the cart (a burning hip) which is awkward. A better construct would be:

Matt slid down the ravine's rough wall. His hip burned from the abrasive action.

Splitting the sentence into two segments and getting the proper timeline aligned, you've actually added more description and depth.

Another way to look at this would be -- Action / Result, Response or Reaction.

He yelled bloody murder and grabbed his hand as the car door shut on it.

A better way to write that and put the action first, reaction following it, rather than at the start of the sentence would be:

The car door slammed on his fingers. Aaron screamed bloody murder, yanking his hand away and gingerly attempting to bend them.

Again, by fixing the sentence timeline or putting the horse first, the cart next, you've added more detail and description thereby making a stronger story for the reader.

Of course, if you want to remove the caboose from the train and just have that red flashing light at the end, you can simply write the sentence as:

He slammed his hand in the car door.

You have the action. You don't have the reaction - the caboose - and therefore, are missing a little of the magic. By removing the magic, your reader is cheated.

A train is only as good as the cars that compose it. We love to see the snappy locomotive, the nifty coal car, followed by a mixture of box cars, flat cars, tankers and, finally, at the very end, the car we all love - the caboose with the trainman who waves at us.

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Elyse Salpeter
Ugh, how many times do I put the "horse before the cart?" Too many - very good post, Bob. This is going to make me think about action oriented sentences now as I write. Thank you.

Lisa Jey Davis
Some great tips here Bob, thanks! Sharing!

Luann Robinson Hull
There are so many things writers should look out for. This is a great basic list. Thank you!

Tara Fairfield
You always have great writing tips, thanks!

Really enjoyed the post and even had a couple of smack my forehead moments, lol.

Thanks for the comments. I appreciate them.

Onisha Ellis
Great tips!