Continuing the theme of strengthening sentences, one of the things that I see a lot of in MSS is the order in which the characters do and say things. This may not seem too important, and it’s one of those things we don’t necessarily pay much attention to, however when it comes to clarity, being able to put the action or reaction or dialogue in the right order makes for tighter, polished and better sentences.
And they make more sense, of course.
The aim is to write actions and their reactions in chronological order. Not only does it create clarity but it also keeps the flow of the sentence, without interruption, and it reduces ambiguity. It makes life so much easier for your reader, and by putting the action before the dialogue, it increases the effectiveness of the sentence.
Here’s a simple example:
He grabbed the phone, startled by it.
Essentially this sentence isn’t actually grammatically incorrect, but it does read as though he grabbed the phone first, then he was startled by it, so the order is a little misleading for the reader.
To give it clarity, and inform the reader, it’s better like this:
The phone rang, startled him. He grabbed it.
This version is punchy and to the point and supplies the reader with a chronological order, i.e. that the phone startled the character and is this is followed by his action of grabbing it.
Here’s another example:
He sipped his coffee as he sat down, watched the assembled faces.
Again, while the sentence is okay, it can be much tighter. This tells us he sat down while drinking his coffee and looked at the people around him. There’s almost a hint of nonchalance about him, but if we change the sentence order, it takes on a slightly different feel.
He sat down, watched the assembled faces as he sipped his coffee.
The character’s action of sitting down and then looking at those around him infers that perhaps he is nervous or he’s carefully gauging those around him.
Here’s a typical example of what many writers tend to slip into their narrative, a reaction to action sentence:
She saw the shock on his face when she opened the door.
Here, the writer has opted to show the reaction first (the shock on his face), followed by the action (opening the door). If we think about it logically, it makes more sense to do the action first, and then show the reaction.
She opened the door; saw the shock on his face.
It’s now clear and concise, and it gets rid of the ‘when’ which is of no use whatsoever. More importantly, it sets the correct order of action to reaction.
On the whole, action is better before dialogue. Why? Often the sentence doesn’t read correctly when the person says something and then does the action afterward, like an afterthought. Sentences are tighter and better with action, then dialogue. Not only that, but the placement of action/dialogue can affect how a reader interprets the events/speech.
This is also a way of informing the reader of your character’s actions or thoughts prior to the action. For instance:
‘Hello?’ he said, grabbing the phone.
This sentence isn’t incorrect, but it’s not great either. The character says hello while grabbing the phone, so this causes inadvertent ambiguity. How many of us say hello before we’ve put the phone to our ears? By rearranging the sentence order, the sentence becomes clearer:
He grabbed the phone. ‘Hello?’
This sentence is now unambiguous. The action of the phone ringing is immediately followed by the response.
The idea is to always make your writing as clear as possible for your reader. Take a look at these sentences and decide which you think work better.
1. ‘So, what happened?’ he said, getting out of the car.
He got out of the car. ‘So, what happened?’
2. ‘I don’t care what he thinks,’ she said, taking a cigarette from the packet and lighting it.
She took a cigarette from the packet, lit it. ‘I don’t care what he thinks.’
3.’I don’t have time for this nonsense,’ he said and stomped around the office.
He stomped around the office. ‘I don’t have time for this nonsense.’
There are no hard rules about sentence order, but having clear sentences that follow a simple chronological order with actions and reactions or dialogue makes for better writing and helps writers improve their writing skills.
Of course, not every single sentence in your story will be like this, but following these simple guidelines will help to improve the standard of your writing. It makes it much easier for your reader, and ultimately, more enjoyable for them to read.
Next week: Avoiding narrative oppositions