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Monday, July 24, 2017

Structuring Events in the Correct Sequence

Lately while editing, I've noticed several stories that are quite good, but are lacking in small areas here and there, one of them is slightly inaccurate structures of events that take place.

These most often manifest themselves in sentence structures. Grammatically, these sentences are fine, but they give the reader a slightly inaccurate experience of the story. For example, look at the following sentence.

Before I arrived at the grocery store, I brushed my teeth at the house.

Technically, this sentence is fine. It's a complete sentence. It's punctuated correctly. But do you see why it gives the reader a slightly inaccurate experience of the story?

It is asking the reader to imagine the character arriving at the grocery store and then to go back and imagine her brushing her teeth. The reader's experience and perception of the story is not in the same sequence as the character's, and so not only is it more work cognitively, but it also distances the reader from the story, very slightly.

Ideally, you structure the sentence in the order that the events happen:

I brushed by teeth and went to the grocery store.

But this sort of thing can also happen on more subtle levels. Look at this sentence.

Carrie screamed at the top of her lungs when Barry's hunting knife sunk deep into her thigh.

Again, grammatically, this sentence is fine.

But again, the events are out of order.

Carrie doesn't scream at the top of her lungs before Barry's knife sinks into her. On a micro-level, it's probably more accurate that Barry's hunting knife started hitting her first, causing her to scream.

So the sentence would render the experience more accurately if it was rearranged:

When Barry's hunting knife sunk deep into her thigh, Carrie screamed at the top of her lungs.

If you read those two different arrangements again, paying very close attention to your reading experience, you will see that the second example carries more intensity and immediacy. Now, you could still take it further, if you wanted. Since this is a horrific event of action, you might actually want to slim down, split, and shorten the sentence, so it feels faster and stronger:

Barry's knife sunk into her thigh.

Carrie screamed.

Sometimes inaccurate structures happen over a paragraph or over pages.

For example, if I'm reading a scene where a character wakes up, jolts upright in bed, and is now suddenly blind, but the writer doesn't mention anything about blindness for paragraphs and instead opens describing the feeling of the bed and blankets, the sounds outside, and the latest dreams of the protagonist . . . something's going to feel really off when I get halfway down a page to read that the character woke up inexplicably blind.

The blindness needs to be mentioned first, or nearly first.

The events and descriptions are out of sequence.

Most of the time, what your character notices first should be mentioned first, especially if it's something as drastic as that.

There are, of course, situations where in might serve the story, style flow, or reading experience to structure events out of order. But 95% of the time, the best way to structure a sentence or paragraph is in the order the events happen. This creates the most accurate reading experience, and is more immersive and intense.


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