I was recently editing a novel and came across a recurring problem I thought would make a good, informative post about fiction writing. Here’s an example of what I want to address.
John yelped as Mitch smacked him hard across the jaw while he was watching his baby sister.
This sentence poses several problems for the fiction editor and the reader. Do you see what’s wrong with it?
First, way too much is going on in this sentence.
1. John yelps.
2. Mitch smacks John hard across the jaw.
3. And one of the guys is watching his baby sister, but we don’t know which one because “he” is unclear. Who’s the babysitter—John or Mitch?
A lot of beginning writers think they can join all sorts of details using the word and as if the word were Scotch tape. Technically, this is true—the sentence may make fine grammatical sense. But if the ideas do not relate—if they aren’t cohesive—additional sentences may be needed to show separate ideas. The altercation between John and Mitch has nothing to do with babysitting, so a new sentence may be in order.
There’s an additional problem, and many beginners miss it, based on some of the manuscripts I’ve been editing lately. It’s important to see the problem and understand why it doesn’t work. Do you see it?
If not, here’s an important tip. Look at the word as.
4. John cannot yelp at the exact same time Mitch smacks him. John needs time to respond.
Here’s the logical order: Mitch smacks John, John’s brain registers pain, and John responds by yelping. John cannot technically yelp at the exact same time Mitch smacks him because he hasn’t felt the pain yet. Do you see why the passing of time is so important?
Therefore, the word as doesn’t logically work here. Rarely in fiction should events occur at the exact same time. Above all, they need to occur one by one in their logical order. What would be the most logical order here?
Mitch smacked John hard across the jaw, and John yelped.
Do you see the difference? Now the sentence makes sense. Adding in the babysitter, we could write the sentence this way:
While John was watching his baby sister, Mitch smacked him hard across the jaw. John yelped.
Yes, sometimes events may occur simultaneously. For example…
John whistled as he walked the dog.
But newbies often abuse this idea of simultaneous action, and it’s like a red flag. So simultaneous actions may sometimes occur, but they must do so logically.
Do you have any fiction-writing questions? Feel free to shoot them my way. I’m learning and don’t know everything, but I’ll do my best to help.
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