Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Writing Sequences of Events

Congratulations to Elizabeth Varadan, the winner of last week's ebook giveaway! Elizabeth has won an ebook of Julie Musil's new release, THE BOY WHO LOVED FIRE


Today I'm pondering sequence problems, things I've noticed in others' writing, as well things my eagle-eyed critique partners have caught me doing. (Guilty!)

As I hurried along the sidewalk, I saw Mr. Bagley and stopped to talk to him for a few minutes.

Not possible. Everything in the sentence has to happen in the timeframe of the introductory phrase, "as I hurried along the sidewalk." There is no way the character can hurry along the sidewalk and stop to talk to Mr. Bagley at the same time. You could fix this easily:

As I hurried along the sidewalk, I saw Mr. Bagley. I smiled and stopped to talk to him for a few minutes.

Gina couldn't believe it. Her heart slammed against her ribcage as she strolled into the kitchen and saw Dean clutched in a passionate lip-lock with Rosalinda

Here, the reader is puzzled for an entire sentence and a half before the writer reveals what the main/POV character is reacting to. It's better to let the reader see what the character sees, WHEN the character sees it. Even the verbs don't match: her heart is slamming (already reacting) and she's strolling, which is a casual/carefree walk. You could rewrite the scene like this:

Gina strolled into the kitchen. There stood Dean, clutched in a passionate lip-lock with Rosalinda. Gina couldn't believe it. Her heart slammed against her ribcage and left her struggling for breath.

Especially when using present tense, where things happen in real, immediate time, it's often awkward and inaccurate when you put the "cart before the horse":

Dahlia's voice lowers, sounding husky and vulnerable. "Please. Do this for me."

This structure poses a problem. How would the main character who's listening to Dahlia know if her voice was low, husky, and vulnerable if Dahlia hasn't even spoken her line yet? You'd need the dialogue line first:

"Please. Do this for me." Dahlia's voice is lower now, husky and vulnerable.

Intro phrases are usually set off by commas at the beginning of a sentence, and often present an action in gerund form (running, glancing, frowning, etc.):

Racing down the stairs, Kent's heart pounded into his throat as he whipped around the corner.

Multiple problems, here! First of all, "racing down the stairs" is similar to the example above, with "As I hurried down the sidewalk"—everything after that has to occur in time WHILE Kent is racing down the stairs. Can his heart pound during this time? Sure. Can he whip around the corner? Um…no. He's still on the stairs.

Also, what comes right after "racing down the stairs" needs to be the object doing the racing. Here in this sentence, it's Kent's heart. Kent's heart is NOT racing down the stairs—Kent is. This is a detached or "renegade body part." This sentence needs to be restructured. Maybe something like this:

Racing down the stairs, Kent felt his heart pound into his throat. He whipped around the corner.

Although as a note, it's not good to have too many "feel" or "felt" words diluting the strength of your sentences.

I used "as" in most of my examples, but any kind of time/sequence words may pose these problems in your writing. These simultaneous-action words may include: WHEN, WHILE, DURING, etc.  A common place this might snag you is during action scenes.

Do you have trouble with sequences of events in your sentences, using AS?
Can you think of any other examples, or tweak the ones I have here for better flow?
If you use present tense, have you ever thought about the order of what's happening in your scenes?


  1. Sentences that start with "while" or "when" can also have the impossibly simultaneous actions happening within. So I'd suggest doing a keyword search through the manuscript for them (as well as "as") when revising.

  2. Do you ever have a difficult time reading a book for just the fun of it? Back when I conducted interviews with writers, I found it hard to read because my brain was still jotting down questions, finding their patterns as writers and all that stuff that comes along with it.

    Not that that's the same thing, but your post made me wonder where you stood on being able to just read a book for fun, no correcting.

  3. What wonderful examples! I know I've been guilty of a few of these (probably more than I know!). Funny how it makes sense in my head, but on paper it can be so confusing!

  4. Hi, Carol,
    Excellent article and tips. I don't catch the reaction and then action bloopers until I'm editing.

  5. Hehehe, I'm also guilty, as you well know. Yay for great critique buddies.

  6. ack! I think I'm definitely guilty of starting with a present participle phrase and then doing things in the midst of it that are impossible. What about "Starting with the Septilian sword forms, they went through all of them and then into free sparring." Actually, I just don't like that sentence anyway.
    Critique partners are golden.

  7. This is good! I'll have to pay attention and see if I'm doing some of these things in my writing. (I hope not!)

  8. These are awesome examples. I wonder if I have sequencing problems. I'll definitely be more aware of them after reading this.

  9. I always have to pay close attention to those things to make sure the actions work in order and can actually happen. It's a good reminder. :)

  10. Good post, Carol! These really can make a line confusing if not corrected. And they are just the kind of bloops that slip by one's awareness when focusing on plot and character, etc.

  11. PS: I'm so glad I won Julie's book. Really looking forward to reading it!

  12. Congrats to Elizabeth - TBWLF was a great read :)

  13. Great reminders, Carol! I'm pretty sloppy with this stuff in my first draft but catch them later with edits. Mostly. It helps to have smart CPs. Love the new profile pic!


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