Toe the Crack: Tips for Structuring Sequential Action in a Sentence

 

Have you ever climbed a rock? Even if you haven’t, I’ll bet you can imagine what it’s like. Harness. Rope. Helmet. Rock. That’s me in these pictures, a novice taking on some of the best climbs in Joshua Tree National Park.

Rock climbing is one of those absolute experiences. You’ve gotta be all in. There’s no popping onto social media, checking makeup, or restlessly changing the station. All. In. Total concentration. One action at a time. There are lots of moving parts: your body, the wind, the rope, the sun, your partner. But when you pick up a foot and toe into a crack, all your concentration must be right there. That crack. Your toe. Fingers curling. Feeling the tension in the rope, squinting against the glare, and… up. Every movement is distinct, every action intentional… and in the proper sequence.

This is always a hard message to share with authors. But sometimes something that sounds lovely is simply not possible. Why does that matter? Why isn’t it okay to just write stuff? The reader will get what you mean, right?

Not right. Words are our tools, like the rope, the harness, or the helmet.Misusing the tools of our craft means we slip and we stumble. Hopefully we never take a life or death fall… but a critical writing fail? Perhaps. Take a look at these examples:

I put the brownie in my mouth, licking my fingers.

He picked up the knife in his hands, slicing the bag open.

Standing in the doorway of the room, she whipped the bedding from the mattress.

The way these sentences are worded, there should be actions that are sequential (one  before the next) but in fact they are written as concurrent or simultaneous action.

If you write an action and then toss a descriptive clause on the back end, make sure that clause doesn’t create an impossible or improbable concurrent action.

Read these sentences a little more closely now.

The first sentence strictly states that I was licking my fingers AS I put the brownie in my mouth. Well, unless my fingers were already in my mouth and I somehow jammed the brownie in around them… you see the problem. How to fix this impossible simultaneous action?

 

I put the brownie in my mouth and licked my fingers.

After putting the brownie in my mouth, I licked my fingers.

 

There are many other ways to revise this, but as long as you make it clear that one thing happened, and then another, you’ll have a sentence that matches real human behavior.

Now the guy who  picks up the knife has a serious problem… he’s been slicing the bag AS he picks up his knife. I hope that doesn’t mean he was IN the bag… How to fix this?

I’ll bet you’re getting the hang of it.

How about the woman? If she is standing in the doorway of a room, how is she going to reach the bed to yank off the bedding?

Don’t be confused by this lesson. This does NOT mean you have to spell out every single step your character makes. Not at all. If you show a character waking up in the morning, we can safely assume that character went to bed at some point prior to the scene we are being shown. We can safely assume that character will get out of bed, even if you never actually show us the covers being pulled back, the stretch and yawn, and so on.

But if you’re going to show two or even three or more (although please see my post Balancing Style and Structure and the 1-2-3 test if you’re writing multiple actions) actions in one sentence, make sure they follow a realistic, logical sequence. Think about the rock climber, whether that’s me, or you, or anyone else. One action at a time. Find your balance. Lift your foot. Find a fingerhold. Test it for stick. Toe the crack. And up you go! You can combine those actions into one lovely sentence, but make sure you’re not toeing and finding and lifting all at one time. You’ll just end up giving that safety harness-and your editor-a workout.

 

**Thanks so much to my dear friend Julie Burgener for taking these pics and for introducing me to the joys of bruised knees and sticky shoes.

 

 

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