Sequence and Simultaneity – Know the Difference
Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Reading, like life, is mostly linear. Things happen one after another after another. I get up in the morning, take a dump, brush my teeth (sometimes), get some coffee, check email, shower (occasionally), etc. So why is it when writers get to their keyboards, they want to mash everything into forced simultaneity with strings of present participles? Forced simultaneity is one of the hallmarks of amateurish writing. Knock it off!
Forced simultaneity usually occurs when writers want to make a sequence of actions seem like they are happening fast: “She picked up a rock, throwing it at the annoying editor, and hitting him in the head.” Did she really pick up the rock at exactly the same time she threw it and it hit the editor in the head? Of course not, it’s physically impossible. Or the classic example: “Sipping her tea, she said ‘hello.’” Can she really do that without dribbling tea down the front of her clothes? If so, she must be very talented. Forced simultaneities distort reality and make for ugly, awkward prose. Look at some of your favorite Big House-published writers, and you will rarely find this type of textual diarrhea.
So what to do?
If you think you might be writing forced simultaneities into your action scenes, first see if you are using present participles (verbs that end in 'ing'). If so, make sure that the actions you are writing are not actually sequential rather than simultaneous. In my first example above, what really happened is this: “She picked up a rock, threw it at the annoying editor, and hit him in the head.” All the verbs are correctly lined up in the sequence they happened, and all are in past tense. Similarly, “She sipped her tea and said ‘hello,’” or “She said hello and sipped her tea,” depending on which action comes first in your fictional reality. This is how reality actually happens. Most of the time, it’s linear and sequential, and your writing should reflect that.
Now, of course there will be times when actions happen at the same time, or more likely one action will happen during another action. “The gymnast flew through the air, twirling and somersaulting, and hit the landing perfectly.” In this series of actions, the “twirling” and “somersaulting” actually happen while the gymnast is flying through the air – the gymnast is simultaneously flying, twirling, and somersaulting – so the present participle is correct here. The gymnast hits the landing after flying through the air, so “flew” and “hit” are sequential and as such are both in past tense. If you wrote “hitting,” it would be inaccurate: she can not fly and twirl and somersault and hit the landing at the same time. It’s impossible. Some writers will write, “The gymnast flew through the air, twirling and somersaulting, before hitting the landing perfectly,” but, though this might force the correct sequence, it is unnecessary and awkward because the simple past already implies the correct sequence. If you write simple past tense verbs in sequence there is no need for the present participle here, much less the preposition “before,” because the sequence tells us the order of actions. Additionally, the verb “hit” shows us the action in real-time, whereas “before hitting” tells the reader the sequence of actions but does not show that the action itself, the hitting, takes place exactly at that point in real time; it just tells us that the other actions came “before” it, and it happened sometime after.
I hope this clears up some confusion that you might not have known you had about forced simultaneity and sequential action, and I hope your editors are catching these textual farts and helping you fan them away before someone important, like an agent or a slush reader at a publishing house, notices the stink. What critics (and editors) call “clean prose” does not have forced simultaneities. Write your best.
Well, that’s probably enough for now. If you have read all the way to here, I thank you very much. If you have any comments or questions about this post or its contents, or you just have a writing question, please contact me through my website. Sorry there’s no comments section on the blog. There’s something funky about the way wix.com websites implement comments that I have not yet figured out.
Until next time, I am available to edit your writing projects, and I enjoy the work. You can contact me through my website <sffeditor.com>, by email <mike.myers.editor(at)gmail.com>, or at my Facebook page www.facebook.com/SFFEditor. I’d love to help you make your writing as excellent as it can be.