Have you ever read an action scene that felt a little “off” and disorienting, but you couldn’t quite pinpoint why? I would submit that it is often a result of authors who bounce around in time when they write action, which means our brains have to do extra work to piece together a chronology that makes sense.
I’m no neuroscientist, but I will play one on this blog today and say that our brains are wired for causality. We interpret the world as X action having Y result. Mess with a reader’s interpretive inclinations at your peril. When you make the reader’s brain do needless extra work by putting the result before the action, they’ll have a feeling that something is off.
There are lots of exceptions to this guidance, so don’t go overboard with this advice. But when in doubt: err in the side of chronological order. Be mindful of departing from the natural order of things.
Here are some places this often arises.
Action, then reaction
I often see a peculiar writing tic where writers rush and put the dramatic effect of an action before the actual action.
Tires squealing, Nathan peeled out of the driveway.
The arrow found its mark when Nathan released the bowstring.
I find these backwards descriptions of action really disorienting.
Channel your inner Isaac Newton: action, then reaction. The action is that Nathan peeled out of the driveway, the effect is that the tires squealed. The action is that Nathan fired the arrow, then it found its mark
Nathan peeled out of the driveway, tires squealing.
Nathan released the bowstring. The arrow found its mark.
If you describe things in order the reader will absorb what’s happening and won’t feel a momentary pang of disorientation.
Avoid false synchronicity
I have a deep suspicion of the word “as” when describing action. Often writers create use “as” to imply two events are happening simultaneously when that would be physically impossible.
Gromer flails from the blow as Nathan hit him with a foam mallet.
Again, let things unfold in chronological order. Nathan hits him with a mallet, then he’s sent flailing.
Sure, there are times when things really do happen simultaneously, but more likely there’s an order to things. Don’t rush to the dramatic effect before you’ve shown the reader the action that causes it.
Be careful with micro-flashbacks
Often I’ll see writers start a scene in one moment, only to recap what literally just happened to the character to “bring us up to speed.” So we might start off in a diner where a kid throws a french fry at someone, and then we circle back to how they arrived there. It’s a version of the “*record scratch* *freeze frame*” effect, which is a cliche for a reason.
I almost always think: do we really need to bounce around? Wouldn’t it be clearer and more palpable to start with the events of the micro-flashback and just let the scene proceed in a linear way? Why juggle multiple timelines when you don’t have to?
Now, I’m a big ole hypocrite on this bit of advice because Jacob Wonderbar for President of the Universe starts off with a micro-flashback. So yes, I obviously believe you can get away with this on occasion. But use them sparingly and be extra mindful of making it a smooth experience for the reader.
Have you seen other instances of false synchronicity? Any tips? Take to the comments!
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Art: Pelagio Palagi – Newton’s Discovery of the Refraction of Light
JOHN T. SHEA says
With Nathan’s demand for linearity Yoda does not agree!
Nathan Bransford says
Johannah S. says
The sharp arrow of advice found its mark after being released into the void.
Err, yeah. 😉
This feels very obvious on a larger scale in writing, like when sequencing scenes, but wow! One of my critique buddies struggles with this problem in his prose, and I was not able to put my finger on it until I read this post. My advice to him will be much more useful now – thanks!
Neil Larkins says
In my writing, I once did this all the time. Oops! I mean, I once did this all the time when I wrote. A little better, but I’m working on it. Darn it! I did this all the time when I wrote; now I don’t.
BW Christopher says
Excellent advice and wonderful timing!
Marlene Cullen says
Yes! Thanks for clarifying what I couldn’t put into words. A pet peeve, making the reader go, “hun’h?” instead of smoothly moving the story along.