Monday, November 14, 2011

Setting Your Story to Right Order

As story-crafters it is our job to give our readers a powerful emotional experience - that, after all, is what keeps them coming back for more.

To that end, we want our writing to be gripping, easy to follow, and emotion inducing.

One very simple tool in our "easy-to-follow" tool box is to keep the actions of your characters and your descriptions happening in the correct order. It is subtly jarring to your reader when things are stated out of order.

Let's look at a couple examples to clarify what I mean by this.
"Taylor walked down the hallway toward her office. She smiled when the scent of new carpet and fresh paint assailed her as she paused to absorb the peace of her little domain after opening her door."
What is wrong with this little bit of description? It's a bit jarring, isn't it? The reason is, we've stated the characters actions out of order. She can't smell the new carpet and fresh paint until she opens the office door. So as readers, with the way this little paragraph is written, we jump ahead to the scent of new paint and then are thrust backward to see the door opening. Instead try wording it like this:
"Pushing open her office door, she paused to absorb the peace of her little domain. The scent of new carpet and fresh paint assailed her and brought a smile to her face." 
The second way is nice and smooth and easy to follow because we do everything in the correct order. First we open the door, then we pause, then we are assailed by the scents and respond to them.

This might seem like a fairly obvious technique, but if you look over your manuscript, I'll bet you'd be surprised at the number of times character actions and responses happen out of order. It is a very easy little glitch to miss.

I'll give you one more "before" example here. How would you correct the order of the paragraph below to smooth it out?
"She reached into her top drawer and snatched up the bottle of pain killers to alleviate the headache that had been pressing at the back of her head all morning. Lifting her ever-present Dasani water bottle she swallowed down the three pills she tapped into her palm."
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  1. Good point, Lynnette. Keeping the action in order helps with the flow.

  2. Good morning, Linda. :) Yes, it really does. Sometimes when a scene is not quite right but we can't put our finger on it, the order of responses and actions might just be what we need to look at.

  3. Great article, Lynnette! The transposition of cause and effect is an error I run into a lot in editing others' manuscripts. Fortunately, it's an easy one to fix once you're aware of it.

  4. I agree, Lynnette. Stating actions in order brings immediacy to writing.

  5. I'm guilty of having done this, Lynnette! It's good you pointed it out, and Katie's right. Once you're aware of it, it's an easy fix.

  6. When you're drafting it can be quite easy to let little things like phrasing slip. Worse, yet, you may not even notice that one slip in-between the other 90K words. The power of line-edits saves us all.

  7. PW, That is a good item of note. Write the story first - this is something that can be corrected in edits. Thanks for stopping by.

    Cindy, it really is an easy mistake to make because we often talk that way. Glad to see you here. Hope all is well with you!

    Janalyn & Katie, Immediacy is a good word for it. And yes, effect should almost always follow cause, although I can think of a few times when you might want to show effect before a cause.