Prose Tip: Simultaneous Syntax
When fiction writers come to me and ask me to add some spit shine to their prose, there’s a pair of problematic sentence constructions I’m almost guaranteed to run into (nonfiction writers also use these construction, but not as often). These two constructions are grammatically correct, and sometimes they are appropriate to use, so they’re hard to catch. But once you know what to look for, it’s fairly easy to keep a wary eye out for these sentences when you’re revising your work.
These sentence constructions center around
–ing words and as. Permit me two examples:
- Pulling out her red pen, she sighed.
- As her eyes hit another –ing sentence, she reached for a match.
As you may have noticed, and as I’ve already pointed out, neither of these two sentences is grammatically incorrect. As far as correctness goes, they’re completely sound. The problem with these two sentence types is twofold: 1) you’re making some of your action subordinate to other action, and 2) you’re making two actions simultaneous.
Subordinate action. The first issue is kind of like the argument against passive voice: these constructions minimize action and weaken the impact. As editors Renni Browne and Dave King* say:
Both these constructions take a bit of action … and tuck it away into a dependent clause. … This tends to place some of your action at one remove from the reader, to make the actions seem incidental, unimportant.
If that’s what you intend to do, then you have no problem; using these constructions will be just what you need.
Simultaneous action. The second issue is something you should consider any time you use one of these two constructions. The syntax of these sentences means that both the as or –ing clause and the other clause happen at the same time. In my examples, she pulls out her red pen and sighs at the same time. That’s not a problem. The problem arises when your characters start doing impossible simultaneous things.
- Pulling on his shoes, he ran out the door. (You can’t run and pull on your shoes at the same time.)
- She pulled open the door, climbing the stairs. (Unless the staircase is really short, it’s unlikely she can open the door at the top while she’s climbing. Alternately, if the stairs are on the other side of the door, there’s no way she can climb them while she’s opening the door.)
- Jumping astride the horse, he tucked the trinket into her hair. (I’m not even sure what this guy is doing, but I’m pretty sure it can’t be done all at once.)
The other problems with these constructions exist mostly because the constructions are difficult to use properly. The subject of your sentence needs to come immediately after the comma (i.e., Jumping astride the horse, he tucked the trinket into her hair; not Jumping astride the horse, the trinket was tucked into her hair) and you need to punctuate them properly. If you don’t set it up right, then not only are impossible simultaneous things happening, but generally impossible things are happening (how the devil does a trinket jump astride a horse?).
Even if you use them properly, be wary of using these constructions too often. They’re just unconventional enough that they stick out a bit, so if you overuse them your writing starts to draw attention to itself (instead of the story) and it begins to feel false.
The cure for these constructions is a pretty simple one: don’t use them. Here are all my examples reworked:
- She pulled out her red pen and sighed.
- Her eyes hit another –ing sentence: she reached for a match.
- He yanked on his shoes and bolted out the door.
- She pulled open the door and started climbing the stairs.
- N/A (The last sentence was too messed up for me to fix without knowing what’s going on, and I didn’t think through my example that far. Is the horse a she? Is there another she on the horse?)
If you use one of these constructions, consider whether or not you mean what you’re saying. Is the –ing or as action really subordinate? Do both actions really happen at the same time? If the answer to both questions is yes, then using one of these grammatically correct methods is perfectly all right. But as I mentioned before, be wary of using them too often, even if you use them correctly. If it starts standing between your reader and the story, even the most elegant prose needs to meet either a red pen or a match.
*This quote is taken from Self-editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne & Dave King. I highly recommend this book to writers who want to do all they can to polish their work before handing it off to an objective eye (whether that’s a reader, a publishing house editor, or a freelance editor).
Image by Simon Howden via FreeDigitalPhotos.net