Making Word(s) Count #3: Immediacy and concurrency

juggling-womanAnother form of convolution I see writers struggle with occurs when a writer is trying to suggest immediacy and concurrency of action. In other words, when things are coming fast and furious (or swiftly and furiously :)).

This happens a lot in battle scenes, fight scenes, chases (and juggling) in which the writer is trying to convey that everything is happening suddenly or swiftly and/or all at once.

I often see writers over-use “as”, “while” when trying to suggest concurrency of action. That is,

While the cat played his fiddle, the dish ran away with the spoon and the cow jumped over the moon as it sang “Moon River”, which caused the little dog to laugh uproariously.

In this construct, as, while, and, and which all function as conjunctions:

The cat played his fiddle and the dish ran away with the spoon and the cow jumped over the moon and it sang Moon River and the little dog laughed uproariously.

Here’s a secret about writing action sequences and implying concurrency: long, complex sentences in which you try to describe every action don’t make action seem more immediate. They have the opposite effect. Short, quick sentences (subject, verb) give a sense of swift movement. Stacked up, they can also convey concurrency.

As Dirk leapt from the top of the staircase, he brought his right leg around in a swift arc and connected with the werewolf’s head while he pulled the stake out of his coat pocket in preparation for taking on the vampire which was trying to escape through the basement window.

Contrast and compare with:

Dirk leapt from the top of the staircase and took out the werewolf with a kick to its shaggy head. He had the stake out of his coat pocket before he hit the floor. The vamp was next.

hey_diddle_cat_with_a_fiddle_2Using shorter sentences with a quick noun-verb progression also gives you room to put in some more descriptive phrases to characterize the action you’re depicting. There’s room for craft.

The cat was fiddling like mad when the dish and spoon ran off together. Meanwhile, the cow jumped over the moon, singing Moon River at the top of her lungs. The little dog fell to the ground laughing, overcome by the absurdity of it all.

Using conjunctions in action also can create false concurrency as in this passage about the mysterious appearance of a tank in a suburban driveway:

Jacob walked up and went on a few steps and rubbing his knee came back.

The way the sentence is worded, Jacob would have to have done all of those things at the same time because they’re joined together with “and.” Because there are commas missing from the sentence, it actually suggests that someone named “Rubbing His Knee” came back in Jacob’s place. Here’s what really happened:

Jacob walked up to the tank, paused, then literally stepped into it. He came out rubbing his knee.

Next time: TMI



Making Word(s) Count #3: Immediacy and concurrency — 4 Comments

  1. Love this. I think that the influence of the movies makes it more difficult for writers. The eye can take in more than the pen can convey on the page.

  2. Yes! And it can tighten even more if “the cat fiddled like mad”–most of the time we don’t need the progressive tense, and all those repeats of ‘was’ while NOT BEING THE PASSIVE VOICE (which is something else entirely) can deaden the effect of swift flow of action.

  3. Heh. I tended toward “the cat fiddled like mad” construct until I got an copy editor who changed every single simple past construct I used to past continuous (“was fiddling”). I fought to put most of them back the way they were because I felt they gummed up the works.

    In this case, I think it would have to be “The cat fiddled like mad WHILE the dish ran away with the spoon”. It doesn’t work with WHEN because it suggests the dish and spoon taking a hike caused the cat to fiddle: “The cat fiddled like mad when the dish ran away…”

    • Urgle.

      Not to dump on copyeditors, most of whom are awesome, but it’s especially irking when one gums things up. (Like the one who changed my correct verb–“The sheets lay on the floor”–to “The sheets laid on the floor” making me want to reach through my computer, grab the c.e. by the throat, and shriek, “What were they laying, eggs???”