Have you ever been engrossed in a novel, reading along, then you hit a blip that made you go “huh?” for a nanosecond? Then you had to reread the sentence to figure out what’s going on? Often, it’s because actions are written in a jumbled-up order, rather than the order they occurred. When writing fiction, it’s usually best to show actions and events in chronological order, and to describe the cause first, then the effect. Something happens, then the character reacts to it, not the other way around.
So when showing actions and reactions in your fiction, pay attention to the syntax of the sentence. State the cause before the effect, the action before the reaction, the stimulus before the response. This way, the ideas flow more naturally and smoothly, and the readers don’t have to skip back in the sentence to figure out what’s going on, which confuses them momentarily and takes them out of the story.
As Ingermanson and Economy say in Writing Fiction, “Here’s a critical rule: Always get the time sequence correct and always put the cause before the effect.”
Here are some “before and after” examples, disguised, from my fiction editing. The “after” examples are just one or two of many possibilities.
State cause before effect, action before reaction, stimulus before response:
Instead of: David yelled out in pain when the door slammed on his fingers.
Write: The door slammed on David’s fingers and he yelled out in pain.
Or: The door slammed on David’s fingers. He leaped back and yelled out in pain.
Instead of: She pulled her arm away when the man tried to grab her.
Write: The man tried to grab her, but she pulled her arm away.
Or: The man tried to grab her arm, but she pulled away.
Describe physically sequential actions in the order they occurred:
Instead of: Jake walked the five hundred yards over to the police station and left his car in front of the restaurant.
Write: Jake left his car in front of the restaurant and walked the five hundred yards over to the police station.
Instead of: Rushing to escape the flames, he turned towards the fire escape as soon as he'd left the room.
Write: Rushing to escape the flames, he ran out of the room towards the fire escape.
Instead of: Boyd jumped out of the car as he reached the parking lot and ran into the bar.
Write: Boyd drove into the parking lot, jumped out of the car, and ran into the bar.
If you don’t write the actions in the order they occurred, it causes momentary confusion for the reader. Do that enough and they start getting subliminally annoyed.
Watch those “ing” verbs:
Also, avoid using the way-too-common “ing” verbs for actions that occur one after the other. Verbs ending in -ing imply simultaneous action where there is none:
Instead of: She slammed the car door, running up the sidewalk.
Write: She slammed the car door, then ran up the sidewalk.
Instead of: He took out his keys, starting the car.
Write: He took out his keys and started the car.
In the “before” examples above, the –ing verbs imply that the actions occurred at the same time, which is impossible—she can’t run up the sidewalk as she’s slamming the door. He can’t start the car while he’s taking out his keys.
Instead of: He disappeared for fifteen years, coming back better dressed, and full of stories.
Write: He disappeared for fifteen years, then came back better dressed and full of stories
Instead of: Sarah stood up and stretched, ambling over to the trash can, tossing her empty coffee cup and the newspaper into it.
Write: Sarah stood up and stretched, then ambled over to the trash can and tossed her empty coffee cup and the newspaper into it.
Think through action or fight scenes and chases:
Writing so that one action happens after another, in a logical sequence, makes for a smoother, more natural, flow of ideas. This can be especially troublesome for fight scenes or chases, where so much is happening that it’s easy for the readers to get confused. For example:
Before: In this scene as it was originally written, the sequence of events is unclear and out of order, with essential actions missing.
Another officer leaped from a second PD unit that had been following dogging the two officers, taking the stance with a drawn gun aimed at the pickup. Kurk slammed the truck in reverse and gunned the engine, knocking down the officer behind him, dragging him as he smashed the gears into drive, then gunning it forward using the truck as a battering weapon. Just then a delivery truck parked at the far end of the alley. Kurk slammed the truck in reverse seeing the end of the alley blocked by the delivery truck.
After: As it’s written now, it’s much easier to visualize what’s going on.
Another officer leaped from a second PD unit that had been dogging the two officers. He sprinted toward the alley, then took the stance with a drawn gun aimed at the pickup. Kurk slammed the truck in reverse and gunned the engine, knocking down the officer behind him, then smashed the gears into drive and gunned it forward, dragging him along as he used the truck as a battering weapon. Just then a delivery truck parked at the far end of the alley. Seeing the end of the alley blocked by the delivery truck, Kurk slammed the truck in reverse.
But sometimes it’s good to break the “stimulus before response” rule:
To add more suspense and intrigue, occasionally it’s effective to show a character’s reaction to something shocking before describing what she is reacting to. In this case, you’ll create a more dramatic effect if you have your character react first, and then show what it is she’s seeing. This way, you’ll have a moment of suspense between the horrified reaction and the revelation of what’s being seen. Also, it may take a paragraph or more to describe what she’s seeing, so her reaction would be delayed, which can be a bit anticlimactic.
“…the beam of her flashlight scanned the floor ahead. She stopped and gasped in horror.
Calvin lay on the concrete, his eyes starting unseeing at the ceiling. Blood spattered the floor around him. His throat had been cut from ear to ear.”
Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in thrillers, mysteries and other crime fiction, as well as mainstream, YA, and historical fiction. Jodie's craft-of-fiction articles appear here and on five other blogs. To find out more about Jodie's editing services, please visit her website.