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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.