Thursday, 23 March 2017

Respecting the Natural Order - Time Sequencing in Sentences

We're all so entitled these days, so focussed on ourselves. The world of my youth was more other-directed, and I find myself wondering whether the very poor quality of some of the fiction I have been reading lately can be ascribed, at least in part, to this. It seems to me that when a writer becomes so fixed upon his inner vision that he fails to consider the reader, the work is almost certainly going to suffer.

Remember those days when writers used to preface their work in the second person, addressing their remarks to 'Gentle Reader'? These chaps had the right idea. Your reader should be always in your mind, because that nebulous composite person is the one who writes your paycheck. Just as if you were slaving away offering people fries with their Yukburgers, if you fail to please The Boss, your employment is likely to be either curtailed, or made less profitable in some other way.

One way in which you can please your reader, of course, is by constructing a good plot. That's bound to help. I've just been reading a tremendously good book about this - Writing To Sell, by Scott Meredith. It's been around a long time, but it's just as on point today as it was when it was first published, in the 1970s, I think. I thoroughly recommend it.

I'm not going to address plot construction today. That's been very ably done by Mr Meredith, and I've given you the reference. Today I am going to talk, as I so often do, about sentence construction.

It's not just the big things, you see, that can affect how your reader sees your book. Tiny issues, when allowed to flourish unchecked, can annoy a reader just as much as a gaping plot hole or lack of dramatic tension, even when they are below the level of his conscious awareness.

This is really important, so let me say it again. Your reader doesn't have to be aware of a problem to be affected by it. Just as invisible radiation can nibble away at your health, so subtle infelicities in your writing can chip away at your reader's commitment to your book.

It isn't all about your reader's emotional reaction, either. You must also consider his energy levels. Think about this - when you are writing, you do not know what state Gentle Reader is going to be in when he is reading your book. Perhaps he is enjoying a coveted half-hour of peace in bed, before turning out the light after a long, gruelling day rescuing flood victims. Exhausted in body and mind, he turns to your book for a little light entertainment to lift his mind away from the scenes of destruction he has been facing.

Get this? He is tired. And if you do not maintain his interest above the level where his tiredness becomes more important to him than turning the page of your book, he is going to close the book, turn out the light and go to sleep. Your job is to prevent him from doing that, for two reasons.

Any time your reader puts down the book, he may not pick it up again. You do not know what are the calls on his time, the other books in his To Be Read pile, his genre preferences. You don't know any of that. Lots of people start books and don't finish them. You cannot, ever, rely on a reader's resuming reading after he has closed the book.

There is one thing you can rely on, though, and that is that if you can keep him turning the pages, he is not going to put it down, absent some major supervening event that calls him away from it. And no reader ever decided not to bother finishing a book while he was avidly turning the pages. No. Reader. Ever. 

Supervening events cannot be predicted

If he doesn't finish this book, he is unlikely to seek out more of your work. This is a truism. When people have reference to a writer's name in their book-buying decisions, it is nearly always either because they have enjoyed that writer's work in the past, or because a friend has recommended him. So by letting your reader get away from this book, you are potentially costing yourself other sales. Similarly, no one, or almost no one, ever recommends a book to anyone if he has not bothered to finish it himself. He may, of course, recommend it while he is in the process of reading it, but to do so he must have stopped reading, at least for the moment, and that is what you want to avoid.

So, you don't want to bore your reader or annoy him, but also you don't want to tire him more than necessary. You want him to have enough energy, if possible, to finish your book in one sitting, because that is the supreme goal of every writer. The very act of finishing a book in a single sitting immediately produces in your reader a frame of mind where you, the writer, are haloed in golden light. "I could not put it down," he will say to his friends. "It made me late to the board meeting." "I stayed up all night to finish it." Ah, what music to one's ears these, and similar, statements are. There is no higher compliment a reader can pay your book than to stay up all night to finish it.

One way in which you can help your reader to preserve his energy is by not forcing him to fritter it away. To do this, you should be aiming to make your writing as easy to read as possible. Now I'm not suggesting you limit your vocabulary to an eighth grade level, or confine yourself to only the simplest and shortest of sentences, or in any way 'write down'; when I say 'possible', I say it within the context of whatever the work is. But you don't want to waste. Do not, for example, write with a thesaurus at your elbow and constantly search for unusual words to replace those in common, everyday use. If you mean 'dog', say 'dog'. Not 'canine quadruped'. Don't say 'alternative destination' when you mean 'somewhere else'.

There's more to consider here than word choice, though. If you don't take care with your sentence structures, your reader may be bleeding energy just to follow your writing. Energy that he could have used for more page-turning. Unnecessarily long and complex structures, for example, require more energy of the reader than do more simple ones. In particular, avoid long, run-on sentences. A good rule of thumb for light fiction is that if a sentence goes for more than, say, three to five lines on a paperback page, it may be a candidate for reduction.

So, you're not being silly about word choices, and you're not writing Kant-esque sentences. That's good. But there is one more thing you might wish to consider, and that is sequencing. 

When I say sequencing, I am referring to the sequencing in time of events in your narrative. There is a convention that goes back to the dawn of time, dictating that the natural order of events in a story is the order in which they happen. This probably goes right back to our ancestors squatting around the fire in a cave, chewing on mammoth bones. "I tracked him to the waterhole," says your great-great-great-great-great etcetera grandfather. "I threw my spear. He fell down dead. It took three people to drag the beast back to the cave." Compare this straightforward recitation to the kind of account that always makes me insane with irritation; I am thinking of certain people who, apparently unable to organise their minds at all, insist on recounting the latest movie they have seen. "He falls in love with her, oh but before that his dog dies, and then they live happily ever after, oh and there's a mad scientist, he blows up the galaxy, no that was after the dog, no wait, there's a canary too..." You know the kind of thing. It's maddening.

Of course you aren't going to do this kind of thing in your narrative. But sequencing glitches can creep in unnoticed. One of the chief offenders in this regard is the misuse of the time sequence words, 'before' and 'after'.'


The simplest construction using 'before' is of the form 'X before Y'.

Rover broke the rat's neck before eating it.

Now, there's nothing grammatically amiss with that sentence, but the use of 'before' is redundant, because of the basic default we discussed supra. You could just as easily leave it out:

Rover broke the rat's neck and ate it.

Not only have you shortened the sentence doing it this way, but you've replaced a gerund with a declarative verb. Your reader will use less energy to understand this sentence; the difference may be infinitesimally small, but it is there, and tiny amounts of energy wasted can accrue to large amounts very easily, especially as things like this never appear in isolation in a person's work, but are the result of habits.

There is a worse thing you can do with 'before', though, and that is to disorder your natural sequence for no good reason. Consider:

Before he ate the rat, Rover broke its neck.

Here we have two story elements: Rover breaks the rat's neck, and Rover eats the rat. The sequence is obvious and necessary, for Rover can hardly break the rat's neck after eating it. 

If you examine in detail the processes of a reader's mind with this sentence, you will find that you must hold in your short-term memory the fact of Rover eating the rat, having it, as it were, ready to go, while you read and process the breaking of the rat's neck. Doing this takes energy, energy that would be better spent reading the next sentence or turning the page. It's a very small amount of energy, but then it's a very short, simple sentence. Typically, when I see this done, the sentence is longer and more complex, for a corresponding increase in energy wastage.

There may, of course, be occasions where you really will have a valid reason for using this construction, but it's like antibiotics - best left alone until it will actually do some good.


Using 'after' instead of 'before', the two structures are reversed. The relatively innocuous redundancy has the same structure as the second sentence above:

After breaking its neck, Rover ate the rat.

The really toxic one, in which the natural sequence is reversed, is the structure of the first sentence above:

Rover ate the rat after breaking its neck.


You may be tempted to say that the first sentence in each pair, having merely redundancy instead of actual screwing up of the natural sequence of events, is the lesser of two evils. I will remind you, however, that whenever you are choosing between two evils, they are both evil.


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