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Fiction Writing: Getting Your Events In Order

Aug 17, 2007
In fiction writing, events occur in strict chronological order. If you would like to know what this means, please read on!

In previous articles I've used my fictional tongue-in-cheek character Detective Jake Bullett to help me along. Jake's tough and gets into a lot of scrapes where things happen quickly. Let's see what a sample could be like:

'Jake lashed out and the gunman fell over, taking Jake with him. At the same time Sally screamed 'Look out, Jake!' and Jake saw another man pulling a gun as he scrambled free.'

Jake's in trouble, and so is this snippet. Yes, it's how things happen in real life - it all happens at once - but this is not real life; it's fiction. In any fictional piece, be it short story or epic novel - things happen one at a time. It'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:

'Jake lashed out. The gunman fell over on top of Jake. Jake scrambled free from beneath the gunman. Sally screamed 'Look out, Jake!' Jake saw another man pull a gun out.'

Yes, it's wooden, but it'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 it's done.

In this type of writing, words such as 'while', 'as', and phrases such as 'at the same time that' are not to be used. Beginners, in their efforts at total realism, use these words a lot: 'She screamed as the shark bit her leg.' Wrong. 'The shark bit her leg. She screamed.' is correct because she woudn't scream BEFORE the shark bit her! Similarly, you wouldn't write 'He laughed as the man fell over.' It would be 'The man fell over. He laughed.' It's cause and effect.

Let's look at that shark again. Could the sentence 'She screamed as the shark bit her leg' also have been written 'She screamed AND the shark bit her leg.'? (Okay, maybe the shark bit her because she screamed but for this example it didn't happen that way. No startled sharks on my watch!). Of course it doesn'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 'action then reaction' you will find your active writing sequences read a whole lot better.

So don't think that trying to describe events as they occur in the real world works in fiction. It doesn'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 it's important to show this fact, use '-ing': 'Keeping his hand steady, Jake squeezed the trigger.' is a correct example, NOT 'Jake kept his handy steady as he squeezed the trigger.' The difference is subtle but important.

Another point to remember when you're in the thick of an active sequence is: don't summarise. Don't say things like 'Jake told Sally what had happened.' 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 it'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.
About the Author
Steve Dempster writes fiction, copy and informative article such as the one above. For more information about writing in general, try visiting his website I Want To Write!
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