In fiction writing, events occur in strict chronological order. If you would like to know what this means, please read on!
In previous articles Iâ€™ve used my fictional tongue-in-cheek character Detective Jake Bullett to help me along. Jakeâ€™s tough and gets into a lot of scrapes where things happen quickly. Letâ€™s see what a sample could be like:
â€˜Jake lashed out and the gunman fell over, taking Jake with him. At the same time Sally screamed â€˜Look out, Jake!â€™ and Jake saw another man pulling a gun as he scrambled free.â€™
Jakeâ€™s in trouble, and so is this snippet. Yes, itâ€™s how things happen in real life – it all happens at once – but this is not real life; itâ€™s fiction. In any fictional piece, be it short story or epic novel – things happen one at a time. Itâ€™s a convention in writing and it sure makes life a lot easier for the writer!
The above snippet would be written something more like this:
â€˜Jake lashed out. The gunman fell over on top of Jake. Jake scrambled free from beneath the gunman. Sally screamed â€˜Look out, Jake!â€™ Jake saw another man pull a gun out.â€™
Yes, itâ€™s wooden, but itâ€™s just an illustration of chronological writing. One thing happens, THEN another, THEN another, until the sequence of events are over. If you are writing in an active mode – i.e., things are occurring at the moment, this is how itâ€™s done.
In this type of writing, words such as â€˜whileâ€™, â€˜asâ€™, and phrases such as â€˜at the same time thatâ€™ are not to be used. Beginners, in their efforts at total realism, use these words a lot: â€˜She screamed as the shark bit her leg.â€™ Wrong. â€˜The shark bit her leg. She screamed.â€™ is correct because she woudnâ€™t scream BEFORE the shark bit her! Similarly, you wouldnâ€™t write â€˜He laughed as the man fell over.â€™ It would be â€˜The man fell over. He laughed.â€™ Itâ€™s cause and effect.
Letâ€™s look at that shark again. Could the sentence â€˜She screamed as the shark bit her legâ€™ also have been written â€˜She screamed AND the shark bit her leg.â€™? (Okay, maybe the shark bit her because she screamed but for this example it didnâ€™t happen that way. No startled sharks on my watch!). Of course it doesnâ€™t sound right at all, does it?
This is because the two events did NOT happen at the same time. As I said, until the shark bit her, she had no reason to scream. So – bite=action, scream=reaction. That is how it works and, if you can remember this simple rule â€˜action then reactionâ€™ you will find your active writing sequences read a whole lot better.
So donâ€™t think that trying to describe events as they occur in the real world works in fiction. It doesnâ€™t. Remember that a thing has to happen before it is reacted to. If things really do have to happen at the same time, and itâ€™s important to show this fact, use â€˜-ingâ€™: â€˜Keeping his hand steady, Jake squeezed the trigger.â€™ is a correct example, NOT â€˜Jake kept his handy steady as he squeezed the trigger.â€™ The difference is subtle but important.
Another point to remember when youâ€™re in the thick of an active sequence is: donâ€™t summarise. Donâ€™t say things like â€˜Jake told Sally what had happened.â€™ Show it happening, as it happens, one thing after another – or leave it out altogether.
There are no tricks to writing in this style – and itâ€™s a great way of writing really explosive action pieces as well as tense, nail-biting scenes. Master the simple art of chronological writing and you will see your work improve immensely.