Simultaneity: And How it’s Ruining Your Writing

Harsh words. But true…

There is a little talked about writing habit that slowly drains the life and excitement out of your story. It slows readers down and confuses them, often without anyone being able to articulate why. It is so common, most people don’t even recognize it as a problem. But if you fall victim to this habit often, it becomes the death of a thousand cuts. You are effectively killing your story, one sentence at a time.

Are you scared yet? Have you been the unwitting victim of this insidious monster?

Yes. Yes you have. And I’m willing to bet my daily caffeine ration that no one has ever pointed it out to you. I’m going to shine a light on this demon now, and together we’ll banish it for good.

Are you ready to face it?

The Devil You Know

I’m talking about SIMULTANEITY. You know, things happening at the same time. In real life, stuff happens simultaneously. The phone is ringing while the kids scream about the toy truck while you wipe up the coffee you spilled trying to reach for the phone, while your husband stumbles, bleary-eyed out of the bedroom and asks “What’s for breakfast?”

No? Just my house?

My point is, life is often chaotic. We are pulled in a hundred different directions at once. Even the more peaceful moments of life are a beautiful blend of simultaneous events. You sink into the cool grass as a warm evening breeze kisses your skin as the birds sing their final songs of the day as the sun disappears behind the trees as shadows lengthen into long purple fingers to envelope your body.

Whatever.

It is natural for writers to want to recreate that feeling of being “in the moment” with life happening all around us. It is “realistic” we say. That may be. But it’s also a huge mistake.

Fiction isn’t Real.

Fiction pretends to be real. Good fiction is so good at pretending to be real that we forget it is not. A gripping yarn takes something real or potentially real, and cuts out the boring bits embellishes the interesting bits. It plays around with the sequence of things in order to achieve the maximum emotional impact.

Fiction manipulates reality.

If you ever find yourself defending a writing choice as “realistic” you must pause. Reflect on what you mean by realistic. It is not always a compliment. Real life is tedious and often confusing. Your writing doesn’t have to be.

In real life, you must cross the room, reach out your right (or left) hand, turn the door handle, and pull (or push), in order to answer the door. Readers know this. If your character hears a knock and goes to see who it is, we do not need to know the precise details of how he gets from point A to point B. This is called stage direction. It is “realistic.” And that’s BAD. Let your reader fill in the blanks.

Simultaneity is also realistic. It is also bad. Not because it is boring, like stage direction, but because it is confusing. Why?

In real life, our brains can process many different things at the same time. You do not have to think about every sensation and thought individually in order to experience them. Do you remember the last time you stepped in dog poop? It is annoying. You do not have to think about it–the smell, the slippery sensation under your brand new shoe, rage at your neighbour’s apparent inability to keep his animal out of your yard–in order to experience annoyance.

The way we process written language is different from the way we experience events in real life. In real life, simultaneity is natural. Fiction isn’t real, and reading is different from first hand experience. No matter how good a writer you are, there is one inescapable fact that makes actual simultaneity impossible.

It’s so obvious that we don’t even think about it.

We Read One Word at a Time!

Attempting to create simultaneity in your writing will weaken it. Every time. This is not because you are a bad writer who cannot write realistically–would you stop trying to do that already? Your job as a writer is to create the illusion of reality. You are a magician!

The very nature of written language makes true simultaneous events impossible. Does that mean, like stage direction, you should cut these details out and leave them up to your readers imagination?

NO!

Details are the life-blood of your story. You want the reader to feel that they are really there with your characters, and you need details–the right details–to do that. And then you need to put those details into the right order.

“In wrhiting, one word follows another, instead of being overprinted in the same place… Any attempt to present simultaneity… obscures the cause-effect, motivation-reaction relationship that gives your story meaning.”

Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer


In real life, things happen simultaneously. But this is fiction. You are going to manipulate reality. You are going to create the illusion of simultaneity. Magic, in order to be believable, has to follow rules. The rule we are following today is that of chronological order.

If you want your writing to be clear, quick to read, and easy to follow (read: salable) you must pay close attention to the order in which you present your material. Whether it is the order of your sentences, or the elements of the sentences themselves, a strict chronological order is necessary.

You need to turn your whiles and ases into and thens, even if it’s just in your own head.

Let The Magic Begin!

Show, don’t tell. That’s another rule. And I’m going to show you what I mean right now.

Examples

Ex.1 The Phone Call

a) As the twins were screaming about whose turn it was to have the red car, the phone began to ring. I was reaching to answer it when I spilled my coffee. Cursing, I attempted to wipe up the mess while my husband emerged from the bedroom, stumbling into the kitchen.

Rubbing his eyes he asked “What’s for breakfast?”

“Answer the phone!” I snapped, barely able to contain my anger.

b) The twins were screaming about whose turn it was to have the red car. Again. The phone, not to be outdone, added its voice to the racket. I jumped to answer it and lukewarm coffee spilled into my lap. Shit! The kids shrieked louder. I grabbed a towel to contain the mess and reached for the cordless. My husband stumbled into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes.

“What’s for breakfast?” he asked.

I whipped the handset at his head. “Answer the damned phone!”

Ex 2. A Glorious Evening

a) Samantha sunk into the cool grass while relishing the warm evening air kissing her skin. As the birds sung the last songs of the day, the sun slipped behind the trees, causing long purple shadows to reach out to envelop her body. It had been a glorious day!

b) Samantha sunk into the cool grass and relished the warm evening air kissing her skin. The sun slipped behind the trees. Birds sung their last songs of the day into the deepening dusk. Long purple fingers of shadow reached out to envelop Sam’s body. What a glorious day!

Discussion

Are any of these examples glowing examples of literary brilliance? No. But which examples are easier to read? I hope you have answered “b!”

In The Phone Call, attempting to create simultaneity in a) actually decreases the tension of the scene. It adds confusion. The reader has to hold all of these bits of information in their heads and piece it together like a jig saw puzzle once they have all of the information. In b) the reader is able to imagine each event separately, and move onto the next step in the scene without having to hold on to loose pieces. This makes the scene move more quickly, and builds tension rather than confusion.

In A Glorious Evening, simultaneity might seem like a nice way to create a lovely flow of imagery that adds to the dreamy feel of the scene. However, allowing each image to stand on its own gives the reader the opportunity to linger on each moment without other images competing for attention.

Conclusion

As with all “rules” about writing, nothing is set in stone. It’s perfectly fine to write something like “Grinning, Mack laid his cards on the table,” or “Sucking on her pipe, Gretta glared at her grandson.” But in general, it is best to avoid simultaneity when you can. Be conscious of it. When you use it, use it on purpose. Ever word you write is a choice. You, the writer, get to choose the words that best tell your story. You are in control!

What do you think? Have you fallen victim to this attempt to write “realistically?” Have you ever read something that was awkward or confusing, and not been able to articulate why? Simultaneity be the culprit.

Do you agree with my assessment? Or is this just another rule you’re going to ignore while channeling the muses as you let the words flow through you water from a vessel?

Whatever your opinion, tell me all about it in the comments.

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Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer is my absolute favourite writing craft book. It’s a little old-fashioned, and is geared toward writing salable fiction rather than literary fiction. But I honestly believe it applies to all writers. Give it a go and let me know what you think! Here’s the Amazon.com link.

17 thoughts on “Simultaneity: And How it’s Ruining Your Writing

  1. Great post, and I agree completely. I have an issue with simultaneous things happening in different locations to different characters. That’s hard to write, but since the story is corny and includes graphics for comedic purposes, I’m going with a graphic of “Meanwhile back at the ranch.”

    1. Yes! Some genres you can totally get away with that.

      On an individual sentence level, simultaneity usually isn’t that bad. But they pile up and bog you down if you do it too often. My writing was full of it before I read Swain’s book (from the quote above). Once I noticed myself doing it and tried to kill some of them, the pace of my writing picked up a lot. I credit him 100% as the inspiration for this post. I should probably link the book in the body of the article, come to think of it…

  2. I’m with you on this and something I’m wary about in my writing is not to over detail. You’re not writing a procedure, but a story. 😀

  3. I’m sure I do this from time to time – I’ve just been going back over the book I’m editing and couldn’t find any but I’m sure I’ve seen examples recently. I hope it’s one of those things that works when used sparsely.

    1. I hate my browser. It randomly decides not to log me into WordPress. I’m not Anonymous, I’m a hairy retired physicist. Not the same thing at all.

      1. Haha, I actually assumed it was you because you had just replied to my comment on your blog. I have another commenter who shows up as the mysterious “someone” occasionally, too, and I knew you weren’t him!

        1. I got grumpy about it last night and went hunting. On my laptop, there’s no problem, so I knew it had to be a setting on the browser on the desktop…
          Turns out it’s the ad-blocker. If I shut that down, the wordpress login happens smoothly. If I was prepared to take the time, I could work out what to disable in the ad-blocker but the simple answer is to just turn it off, which is fine except for the way the ads gobble up our limited bandwidth.
          I’ll just go away and grumble some more.

          1. It is frustrating! I’ll pass that on to my other Anonymous poster. It’s funny because it never happens on your own blog, only when you comment on someone else’s. I think mine cooperates because I usually browse in my reader after I’ve been logged into the editor. But maybe it’s just that I’m not using an ad-blocker… I actually don’t even know if I am!

    2. Yes, it’s really not a problem when it’s just an occasion thing. I found that, in an effort to vary my sentence structure and keep things interesting, I was falling back on really convoluted sentences that dragged the pacing a lot. I’m particularly bad for “As_____, ______ happened” type sentences.

      Before Swain’s book pointed out how the brain processes simultaneity in written language, I thought I was being really intriguing and clever by withholding information from the reader and making them read ahead to figure out what I was talking about. Now I see why that’s not such a great idea, haha. And I really wish I could go back and rewrite my first book, but I suppose I should finish books 2 and 3 before I start messing about with book 1 again. Live and learn, I guess!

      1. I’m always amazed by people who can take a step back and decide how they’re going to write. I pretty much do it all “seat-of-the-pants”, although it’s interesting to then read articles like this and think “hey, I do that” or “why don’t I do that?”

        As for going back and re-writing…
        My urban fantasy was only ever meant to be a one-off. Doing books 2 & 3 were not in the “plan” so I just have to live with what came before and how I did it.
        Elsewhere, I have a part-complete space opera that my partner keeps prompting me to publish, but I’m holding off on that until all four (or maybe five) parts are done so that I can go back and make sure book 1 matches book 4 (or 5, depending on how this pantsing business works out). It’s sufficiently convoluted with multiple and distinct (I hope) first person narratives that I suspect the prose style(s) may drift over the course of the books.

        1. I was 100% a “pantser” until about two years ago. I wrote my first novel that way, and managed to get by—I think—just because I’ve been such an avid reader my who life that I’ve internalized a lot of the story structure and literary devices that I like to read. I applied them without ever having to think about it.

          However, I had to do such extensive and painful edits in order to get it published that I decided I should invest some time in developing my craft. I’d really like to be able to make a modest living at this gig, and it would increase my productivity a lot if I had a bit of a plan, I thought. So I have been studying story structure and writing craft and applying what I learn in short fiction. It’s really helped me to develop a clearer “voice” even when I write in different genres.

          For example, I really love literary fiction, complete with the purple prose and multi-layered imagery and symbolism. However, modern readers for the most part have no patience for slowly built tension that revels in “the art” of writing too much. I’ve found a good balance between what I like and what readers like simply by shortening my sentences, being direct with my M-RUs (Swain talks a lot about motivation-reaction units in this book, too), and then getting deep enough into the POV character’s head that anything I reveal about the setting or other characters, is actually a mirror of the POV character. The things the MC notices enough to comment on in the narrative naturally become multi-layered as they are also a reflection of them and where they are in their journey. Then I can shift the imagery as the character develops as a way of signalling change. When I get it right, the reader doesn’t even notice it, and I satisfy my own artsy fartsy itches without being annoying, haha. That’s the goal, anyway.

          But I started like you said, reading articles and thinking why I do or do not do some things. Then I’d experiment with them in 500 word chunks, trying something new or removing something “bad” and seeing how it changed my writing. It ended up being quite fun! I highly recommend writing or rewriting a couple of paragraphs to completely remove “to be” verbs in all the various tenses. It isn’t necessary to get rid of ever “was” that ever was, but for the sake of the experiment be very strict. I was amazed at how much I used them and how much tighter my POV got when I removed them.

          I’m going to try to write up some of the ones that have had the biggest impact on me, and I might put some assignments in there for those who want to follow along. I’m not big on black and white “rules.” But I do think we should be aware of how the things we write affects our writing so that we can choose to use them effectively.

          I would absolutely hang on to those space operas and make sure they’re all consistent, as annoying as that is. I wish I had done that with my own trilogy! I’m hoping not too many people will be annoyed if I rerelease book one with changes some day, haha.

          1. I suppose I do lot of my hunting down of awkward or clumsy sentences when I do the read aloud passes. It’s amazing the rubbish that becomes obvious when you have to go through the process of verbalising what’s written.
            Of course the other thing is that I err on the side of sparse – my partner often marks up a draft with phrases that translate as “more words needed here”.

          2. Yes, reading aloud is extremely helpful! I often get that kind of feedback, too. Fellow writers like to “helpfully” suggest all kinds of cringe-worthy ways to fluff up my prose, lol. But I like sparse. Largely it’s a personal choice, too, which is easy to forget. I’m equally guilty of suggesting all kinds of ways to tighten up wordy prose, haha.

  4. It makes whichever cat is sleeping on the bed very unhappy – I sit in the bedroom and talk for a week. I’ve done that once for book 3, and there’s another pass, if not two, to come.

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