What the heck is the Inciting Event?

Today TKZ welcomes K.M. Weiland as our guest blogger. Katie will be sharing a critical but often misunderstood element of the novel: the Inciting Event. Enjoy her insights and be sure to visit her highly informative, award-winning writer’s blog, Helping Writers Become Authors.

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katie1What the heck is the Inciting Event? That’s a question just about any writer can answer. The trouble is that sometimes we all have a different answer.

  • Is the Inciting Event the first thing that happens in the story?
  • Is it the moment that kicks off the plot and the conflict?
  • Is it the First Plot Point at the end of the First Act?
  • Is it something in between?
  • Is it something that happens before the story ever starts?

The chief trouble with identifying the Inciting Event is that the term is used rather wildly to apply to just about any of the above. One writer calls the Hook the Inciting Event, another calls it the First Plot Point. Argh! No wonder we’re all so confused.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165The confusion has grabbed me in its claws as well. In Structuring Your Novel, I wrote the following about the Inciting Event:

What’s important isn’t so much nailing down your Inciting Event to a specific place in the story, as it is presenting the Inciting Event at the optimal moment. Sometimes that means throwing the Inciting Event at readers right away, and sometimes that means holding off a bit.

I admit it: that’s a little vague, isn’t it?

Since writing Structuring Your Novel, I’ve made some extremely interesting discoveries about the Inciting Event, which have helped me refine my own stories far more than did such vague notions. So let’s all advance our understanding of this frustratingly important moment in our stories, shall we?

The Single Most Important Thing to Understand About “The Inciting Event”

The most important thing you can take away from this post is this: There isn’t just one moment that can be called “the inciting event.” There are three.

The vast majority of confusion over this structural pillar is the fact that we find different writers referring to three very distinct moments in the story by the same name. I’ve been guilty of it too, if only because I hadn’t yet grasped the differences between the three. These three different story structure moments are completely different from one another and all equally necessary to your story.

First Act Timeline

The 3 Different “Inciting Events”

1. The First Moment in the Story

Probably the most common understanding of the Inciting Event is that it’s the first moment in your plot. This is the beginning of your story–possibly even the first sentence. This opening scene will introduce your main character and the main conflict. It’s the first domino in the line of dominos that forms your plot. It’s the beginning of your story. If you open before this moment, then you’ve opened too soon.

Why We Think This is the Inciting Event

It’s no wonder we think of this moment as the Inciting Event. “Incite” seems to indicate the match striking the tinder of our plot. Therefore, this moment necessarily has to be the starting point, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, this first moment in your plot is what starts the whole thing moving. But, no, this moment is more about introducing your story than inciting it.

What It Really Is

This first crucial moment in your story is more properly the Hook. There is, of course, more involved in the Hook than just this (namely, its responsibility to grab your readers’ curiosity). But the Hook is the first structural moment in your story. It’s the first interesting moment, and, as such, it’s what flicks over that first domino and starts things rolling.

Where It Belongs

This opening moment–the Hook–belongs (surprise!) in the opening. It’s your opening scene–the first thing that happens in your story–possibly even the first line.

What We Should Really Call It

The Hook.

Examples

Bram Stoker’s Dracula opens with Jonathan Harker arriving in Budapest on his way to meet with his strange client, Count Dracula. This moment launches the plot (after all, prior to Harker’s meeting with Dracula, there is no story) and grabs reader curiosity.

Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is

Stephen Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with the famous sequence in which Indy–dogged by his nemesis Belloc–infilitrates the South American temple and steals the golden idol. The sequence itself has nothing to do with the main conflict, but it brilliantly introduces the protagonist, grabs the viewer, and kicks off the rivalry between Indy and Belloc.

Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha’s Ice Age kicks off with the subplot character Scrat, whose single-minded pursuit of his acorn causes the Ice Age.

2. The First Plot Point

Okay, so if the Hook is something different from the Inciting Event, then perhaps the Inciting Event is the all-important big moment that happens at the end of the First Act: the First Plot Point. The First Plot Point is where your story gets going in earnest. Something dynamic and irreversible happens at this moment. It kicks your character forever out of the passivity of his Normal World and launches him into a desperate series of reactions as he scrambles to gain some control over the conflict.

Why We Think This is the Inciting Event

Like I said, this is the moment where your story really begins. This is the moment that fully engages your character in the conflict. He couldn’t walk away now, even if he really wanted to. It’s definitely a moment that incites your character. But if this is the first incendiary moment in your story, then your pacing is likely to be pretty dull. Remember, the First Plot Point is going to take place around the 25% mark in your story. Something had to happen in between the Hook and the 25% mark, right?

What It Really Is

The First Plot Point is just that–the First Plot Point. It’s the doorway between the end of the First Act and the beginning of the Second. It’s also very likely to be the Key Event (which I’ll get into below).

Where It Belongs

The First Plot Point always ends the First Act. Optimally, it should be placed at the 25% mark.

What We Should Really Call It

The First Plot Point.

Examples

In Dracula, the First Plot Point is the moment when the dreaded Count arrives (via spooky shipwreck) in England. Lots happens prior to this scene, but this is the moment that irrevocably engages all of the main characters in their mortal struggle with the vampire.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the First Plot Point occurs when the Nazis burn down Marian’s bar, forcing her to escape with Indy to Cairo. Again, lots happened prior to this, but this moment irrevocably launches the main plot by bringing the two primary characters together and sending them to the primary setting.

Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is

In Ice Age, the First Plot Point happens when Manny and Sid rescue the human baby and meet Diego. This launches their main story goal (return the baby to his father) and the main conflict with the saber-tooth tigers.

3. The First Act’s Turning Point

And now, at last, we reach the secret member of our trio of “Inciting Events.” This is a vital structural moment–and yet most authors overlook it completely. Halfway through the First Act, something happens–a turning point. Usually, this is the Call to Adventure (which the hero starts out by rejecting). It’s the moment when his Normal World is significantly rocked by the conflict for the first time. His world won’t yet be upended by that conflict (not until the First Plot Point), but we might think of it as the moment when the match is officially lit and held over the tinder of the conflict.

Why We Think This is the Inciting Event

Technically, most writers don’t think of this turning point as the Inciting Event for the simple reason that they really don’t think about it at all. But let’s think about it now, shall we? Aside from breaking up the potential monotony of the First Act and providing focus for the first quarter of the story, this turning point fulfills one of the most important roles in your story’s beginning.

The first eighth of the story (from the Hook to this turning point) is all set-up. Readers are familiarizing themselves with your characters, figuring out the characters’ goals, and learning the stakes. Readers need that time in order to get their bearings before the main conflict really starts heating up.

Then comes this all-important turning point at the 1/8th mark (around the 12% mark). It shakes everything up, redirects readers’ focus to the primary conflict, and sends the protagonist hurtling right for the deciding moment of the First Plot Point.

The next eighth of the story (from the turning point to the First Plot Point) is where you then start positioning the final pieces necessary for the main conflict, while ramping up the tension to lead right into the First Plot Point.

What It Really Is

This turning point doesn’t have a proper name other than the Inciting Event. It’s the moment that truly launches the main conflict. It’s inciting and (hopefully) exciting. When I talk about the Inciting Event (including in the Story Structure Database), this is the moment I’m referring to.

Where It Belongs

The Inciting Event–the turning point in the First Act–should optimally be placed at the 12% mark, halfway through the First Act. The timing is important because it gives you the space you need in the beginning of the book to get everything set up, and then provides the necessary space to build upon the Inciting Event before you reach the place of no return that is the First Plot Point.

What We Should Really Call It

The Inciting Event.

Examples

In Dracula, the Inciting Event is the moment (back in Budapest) when Harker first witness the Count’s unearthly powers when he sees Dracula crawling down the castle wall, upside-down.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Inciting Event occurs when Indy is summoned from his classroom and recruited by the U.S. government to track down the Ark of the Covenant.

In Ice Age, the Inciting Event occurs when Manny the mammoth and Sid the sloth meet for the first time.

Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is

How Does the Key Event Play In?

The final element in this intricate tapestry is the Key Event. What is the Key Event? Think of it as the missing half of the Inciting Event. The Inciting Event Screenplay Syd Fieldkicks off the plot; the Key Event is what then involves your character in the Inciting Event. In Screenplay, Syd Field describes it like this:

The Inciting incidentsets the story in motion … [while] the key incident [is] what the story is about, and draws the main character into the story line.

As such, the Key Event will always take place after the Inciting Event and within the First Act. Almost always, the Key Event will coincide with the First Plot Point.

The Inciting Event (remember: that’s the turning point halfway through the First Act) brings the conflict to the protagonist’s awareness. But the protagonist still won’t fully engaged with the conflict. He may make a half-hearted attempt to resolve it. Or he may try to walk away from it entirely. Until the Key Event.

The Key Event is what sucks him irrevocably into the conflict. Sounds an awful lot like the First Plot Point, doesn’t it?

  • Dracula‘s main conflict is that of his preying upon the Englishwomen Mina and Lucy. As such, the Key Event occurs at the First Plot Point when he is shipwrecked in England, bringing the conflict right to their doors.
  • Indy’s Key Event is also his movie’s First Plot Point, since it is both the first time Indy has engaged with his Nazi antagonists and also the moment when he becomes personally involved thanks to his relationship with Marian.
  • Same for Ice Age. Up until the Key Event at the First Plot Point, Sid and Manny didn’t even know about the human baby’s danger, much less have any stake in helping him.

If we recognize the Inciting Event as this oft-overlooked turning point in the First Act, the entire structure of our beginnings becomes much clearer, much tighter, and much more effective. Take a look at some of your favorite books and movies. How are they using the time before the turning point to set up their stories–and then utilizing the turning point to tighten the focus up until to the First Plot Point? Even more importantly, how can you do the same in your own stories?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, as well as Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

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How are short stories evaluated for publication or awards?

Captivate Your Readers_med– A glimpse into the minds of acquiring editors and judges for short (or any) fiction

Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

Have you tried your hand at writing short stories yet? If not, what’s holding you back? As award-winning blogger Anne R. Allen said in an excellent article in Writer’s Digest magazine, “Bite-sized fiction has moved mainstream, and today’s readers are more eager than ever to ‘read short.’” To check out Anne’s “nine factors working in favor of a short story renaissance,” see “9 Ways Writing Short Stories Can Pay off For Writers“, and there’s more in her post, Why You Should be Writing Short Fiction.

Here’s another Argument for Writing Short Stories, by Emily Harstone.  She says, “Writers who are serious about improving and developing their craft should write short stories and get editorial feedback on them, even if they are never planning on publishing these short stories. Short stories are one of the best ways to hone your craft as a writer.”

Okay, you’ve decided to take the plunge and craft a few short stories. Good for you! Next step: Consider submitting some of them to anthologies, magazines, or contests. But wait! Before you click “send,” be sure to check out my 31 Tips for Writing a Prize-Worthy Short Story, then go through your story with these tips in mind and give it a good edit and polish – possibly even a major rewrite – before submitting it.

What are some of the common criteria used by publications and contests when evaluating short story submissions?

I recently served as judge for genre short stories for Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Contest, where I had to whittle down 139 entries to 10 finalists, but I wasn’t provided with a checklist or any specific criteria. However, a friend who regularly submits short stories to anthologies, magazines, and contests recently received a polite rejection letter from the editor of a literary magazine, along with a checklist of possible reasons, with two of them checked off specifically relating to her story.

While useful, the list of possible weaknesses is very “bare bones” and cries out for more detail and specific pointers. Editors, publishers, and judges are swamped with submissions and understandably don’t have time to give detailed advice for improvement to all the authors whose stories they turn down. Perhaps you could help me interpret and flesh out some of these fairly cryptic, generic comments/criticisms, and add any additional points that occur to you, or checklists you may have received.

Can you think of other indicators of story weaknesses that could be deal-breakers for aspiring authors submitting short stories for publication? Or do you have links to online publishers’ checklists for fiction submissions? Please share them in the comments below.

Here’s the list my friend received, with my comments below each point. Do you have comments/interpretations to add?

Checklist from a Publisher/Editor/Publication in Response to Short Story Submissions

“Thank you for submitting your short story to …. We’ve given your work careful consideration and are unable to offer you publication. We do not offer in-depth reviews of rejected submissions, due to time constraints. Briefly, we feel your submission suffered from one/several of the following common problems:”

– “Tone or content inappropriate for… (publisher / publication / anthology / magazine)

Check their submission guidelines and read other stories they’ve accepted to get an idea of the genre, style, tone, and content they seem to prefer.

– “Stylistic and grammatical errors; too many typos

Be sure to use spell-check and get someone with strong skills in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure to check it over carefully for you. Read it out loud, and where you pause briefly, put in a comma. Where you pause a little longer, put in a period. You could also try using editing software or submit it to a professional freelance editor. This last choice has the most likelihood of helping you hone your fiction-writing skills.

– “Structure problems

For a novel, this could mean some chapters could be rearranged, shortened, or taken out. What do you think it could mean for a short story? Too many characters? Too many plot lines?

– “Formatting problems made reading frustrating

Be sure your story is in a common font, like Times New Roman, 12-point, and double-spaced, with only one space after periods and one-inch margins on all four sides. Don’t boldface anything or use all caps. For more white space and ease of reading, divide long blocks of text into paragraphs. Start a new paragraph for each new speaker. Indent paragraphs. Don’t use an extra line space between paragraphs. Use italics sparingly for emphasis. For more specifics on formatting, see “Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)”.

– “Characters were problematic/unbelievable/unlikeable

Your characters’ decisions, actions and motivations need to fit their personality, background, and character. And make sure your protagonist is likeable, someone readers will want to root for.

– “Content and/or style too well-worn or obvious

This likely refers to a plot that’s been done a million times, with cookie-cutter characters and a predictable ending.

– “Word choice needs refinement

This one could cover the gamut from overused, tired words like nice, good, bad, old, big, small, tall, short to overly formal, technical, or esoteric words where a concrete, vivid, immediately understandable one would be more effective.

– “Overbearing or heavy-handed

This probably refers to a story where the author’s agenda is too obvious, too hard-hitting, maybe even a bit “preachy,” rather than subtle, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.

– “Nothing seems to have happened

To me, this probably indicates no major problem or dilemma for the protagonist, not enough meaningful action and change, and insufficient conflict and tension.

– “Strong beginning, then peters out

This is an indicator that your plot needs amping up and you need to add rising tension, suspense, and intrigue to keep readers avidly turning the pages. Also, flesh out your characters to make them more complex. Give your protagonist secrets, regrets, inner conflict, and a strong desire that is being thwarted.

– “Needs overall development and polish.

This indicates you likely need to roll up your sleeves and hone your writing skills. Read some writing guides (like those by James Scott Bell or my Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, or Writing a Killer Thriller). Also, read lots of highly rated published short stories, paying close attention to the writers’ techniques. Here’s where a critique group of experienced fiction writers or some savvy beta readers or a professional edit could help.

We didn’t get it.

This is likely a catch-all category that means the story didn’t work for a number of reasons. This could be an indicator to put this story aside and hone your craft, critically read other highly rated stories in your genre, then, using your new skills, craft a fresh story.

“While all of these criticisms open doors to further questions, we regret that we cannot be more constructive….”

That’s understandable. They just don’t have time to critique or mentor every writer who contacts them. But I hope my comments above help aspiring fiction writers hone your craft and get your stories published – or even win awards for them. Good luck! For tips on how to actually submit, check out “Writing Short Stories? Don’t Make These 4 Submission Mistakes“.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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Plot Motivators

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

For most novelists, one of the easiest things to come up with is an idea for a story. It seems that intriguing ideas swirl around us like cell phone conversations—we just use our writer’s instinct to pull them out of the air and act upon them.

The next step is to develop characters and stitch together the quilt of a plot that will sustain the story for 100k words. And right up front, we must consider what plot motivation will drive the story and subsequently the characters. Fortunately, there are many to choose from.

So what is a plot motivator? It’s the key ingredient that provides drama to a story as it helps move the plot along. Without it, the story becomes static. And without forward motion, there’s little reason to read on. Here is a list of what I consider the most common plot motivators.

Ambition: Can you say Rocky Balboa.

Vengeance: Usually an all-encompassing obsession for revenge such as in THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK.

The Quest: LORD OF THE RINGS is a great example as is JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.

Catastrophe: A series of events that proves disastrous like in THE TOWERING INFERNO.

Rivalry: Often powered by jealousy. Remember CAMELOT?

Love/Hate: Probably the most powerful motivators in any story.

Survival: The alternative is not desirable. Think ALIEN.

The Chase: A key element in numerous thrillers including THE FUGITIVE.

Grief: Usually starts with a death and goes downhill from there.

Persecution: This one has started wars and created new nations.

Rebellion: There’s talk of mutiny among the HMS Bounty crew.

Betrayal: BASIC INSTINCT. Is that boiled rabbit I smell?

There are many other sub-motivators that are strong enough to drive a scene or section or secondary character of a book, but I don’t consider them global motivators. Examples include fear, pleasure, knowledge, lust, sacrifice, thrills, and others.

You can easily find a combination of these in most books especially with a protagonist and antagonist being empowered for totally different reasons. But the global plot motivator is usually the one that kick starts the book and moves it forward.

What plot motivators are you using in your WIP or latest novel? Did I miss any?

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Keep an offhand remark on hand

by Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Quick writer tip: How can you get a ton of info across in a few short words without the infamous “info dump”? Use an offhand remark.

Example: Harry is one of the characters in your WIP. He has a history of falling from grace. He was a successful businessman with a wife a kids. The economy crumbled in 2008, he lost his job and his home. His wife divorced him and took the kids. He developed an addition to alcohol and became homeless, working at low odd jobs. Last anyone heard he was living out of his car.

You want to get this information across to the reader fast. You have a couple of choices: wordy narration, wordy dialog between a couple of characters, or an offhand remark. Instead of the first two, how about something simple. “Harry is down to his last friend—Jim Beam.”

Example: Sue is an actress who will do anything to get a part in a movie. She started out with the best of intentions and a heart full of integrity. But her popularity slipped and so did her income. Now it’s all she can do to make a living in B- and C-grade movies.

You can tell her backstory through narration or dialog, or use an offhand remark: “She performs best between the sheets.”

Here’s the point. If it takes 100 words to say something, figure out how to say it in 50. If it takes 10 words, say it in 5. If the backstory is not critical in its entirety, use an offhand remark and move on.

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Crafting an effective opening

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

We do an ongoing series of first-page critiques here at TKZ and all too often the same set of issues come up when analysing these draft first pages. I thought today’s post could provide a summary of some of the key elements needed to provide a really effective opening to your novel. Most of these elements apply not just to the first page per se but to those all important first few chapters which (lets face it) are the critical ones in terms of enticing and keeping reader’s interest.

On my list, the following are crucial to providing an effective opening:

  • An initial ‘disruptive’ event that changes everything for the main protagonist: This event doesn’t need to be on the scale of a nuclear accident but it does need to profoundly affect the path the main character must take. It helps set up the plot, motivation and tension for the first chapters of the book.
  • Act/show first explain later: Often there’s way too much explanation and back story in the first few pages, which often serves to diminish tension and momentum. It’s better to show/have the protagonist act first and then wait to provide the reader with explanation. The only caution I would add is to beware of introducing actions that make no sense or which are completely unexplained to the reader which leads to…
  • Ground the book: It’s important to make sure the reader has a solid grounding in terms of the ‘world’ you have created. This means a solid foundation of time, place, character and voice. The reader shouldn’t have to work too hard to figure out what’s happening in the first few pages. An intrigued but well-grounded reader wants to read on, a disorientated reader may just put the book down.
  • Establish a strong, appropriate POV and ‘voice’ for the genre of book you are writing: Occasionally in our first page critiques we’ve found it hard to reconcile the ‘voice’ with the subject matter or tone of the book. Sometimes a POV ‘voice’ might sound like  ‘YA’ but the book doesn’t appears to be a young adult book. This is especially tricky when using a first person POV – as the ‘voice’ is the only point of reference for the reader.
  • Edit, spell check and edit again: We’ve seen some first pages that still contain many grammatical and spelling mistakes. Those first few pages have to be as perfect as possible so  make sure all errors are corrected. 


I usually spend a considerable chunk of time getting the first line, page and chapters more or less right before I move on with drafting the rest of the book. To me the first few chapters provide the all important ‘voice’ and guidepost to the world I’ve created. But it’s important also not get too bogged down in perfecting the first line/page/chapter. I’ve seen too many people write, re-write and re-write the first three chapters only to never move on and actually finish that all important first draft of the novel. 


So how do you strike the balance? 
What makes an effective opening for you and what items would you add to my list?

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Phrasing for Immediacy and Power

Jodie blogs (563x640)I’m excited to announce that editor and award-winning author, Jodie Renner, is joining TKZ. Jodie has made numerous guest appearances here, sharing her wealth of knowledge and experience with everyone. She will be a terrific addition to our team. We look forward to seeing Jodie’s posts as she alternates with Clare on Mondays. Welcome to the Zone, Jodie. – Joe Moore

Thanks so much, Joe! I’m honored to join such a talented, articulate group of writers here on The Kill Zone! – Jodie Renner

BTW, for any of you authors interested in techniques for adding tension, suspense and intrigue to your novels, I have two articles on this topic in the latest two issues of Suspense Magazine.

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State Cause Before Effect, Stimulus before Response

by Jodie Renner

Have you ever been engrossed in a novel, reading along, when you hit a blip that made you go “huh?” or “why?” for a nanosecond? Then you had to reread the sentence to figure out what’s going on?

Often, it’s because actions are written in a jumbled-up or reversed order, rather than the order they occurred. Do this too often, and your readers will start getting annoyed.

For example:
John pulled the Mercedes up and Karen got her brand-new shoes soaking wet when she quickly opened the door and stepped right into a puddle.

First the reader reads: “John pulled the Mercedes up and Karen got her brand-new shoes soaking wet” and goes “Huh?”, then reads the rest and is subliminally irritated that he had to reformulate his original thought-image.

Better: John pulled the Mercedes up and Karen quickly opened the door and stepped out — right into a puddle. Her brand new shoes were soaking wet.

In my blog post here last Wed. on bringing your characters to life by showing their reactions and emotions, I discussed showing immediate, visceral reactions before the delayed, reasoned ones. In other words, showing character reactions in the order they occur, starting with the emotional reaction and automatic reflex, which should occur immediately after the stimulus, just like it does in real life, not with a delay to explain anything.

Along the same vein, when showing actions and reactions in your fiction, it’s important to pay attention to the syntax of the sentence.

In general, state the cause before the effect, the action before the reaction, the stimulus before the response.

This way, the ideas flow more naturally and smoothly, and readers don’t have to skip back in the sentence to figure out what’s going on, which confuses them momentarily and jolts them out of the story.

As Ingermanson and Economy say in Writing Fiction for Dummies, “Here’s a critical rule: Always get the time sequence correct and always put the cause before the effect.”

Similarly, Dwight V. Swain discusses this same issue when he talks about “motivation-reaction units” in his excellent book, Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Here are some “before and after” examples, disguised, from my fiction editing. The “after” examples are just one or two of many possibilities.

~ State little actions in the order they occur:

Before: David yelled out in pain when the door slammed on his fingers.

After: The door slammed on David’s fingers and he yelled out in pain.

Or: The door slammed on David’s fingers. He leaped back and yelled out in pain.

Before: She pulled her arm away when the man tried to grab her.

After: The man tried to grab her, but she pulled her arm away.

Or: The man tried to grab her arm, but she pulled away.

~ Describe physically sequential actions in the order they occurred:

Before: Jake walked the five hundred yards over to the police station and left his car in front of the restaurant.

After: Jake left his car in front of the restaurant and walked the five hundred yards over to the police station.

Before: Rushing to escape the flames, he turned towards the fire escape as soon as he’d left the room.

After: Rushing to escape the flames, he ran out of the room towards the fire escape.

Before: Boyd jumped out of the car as he reached the parking lot and ran into the building.

After: Boyd drove into the parking lot, jumped out of the car, and ran into the building.

As I said, if you don’t write the actions in the order they occurred, it causes momentary confusion for the reader. Do that enough and they start getting subliminally annoyed.

~ Watch those “ing” verbs:

Also, avoid using the way-too-common “ing” verbs (gerunds) for actions that occur one after the other. Verbs ending in -ing imply simultaneous action, where often, there is none:

Before: She slammed the car door, running up the sidewalk.

After: She slammed the car door, then ran up the sidewalk.

Before: He took out his keys, starting the car.

After: He took out his keys and started the car.

In the “before” examples above, the –ing verbs imply that the actions occurred at the same time, which is impossible — she can’t run up the sidewalk as she’s slamming the door. He can’t start the car while he’s taking out his keys.

Here are a few more disguised examples from my editing:

Before: He disappeared for fifteen years, coming back better dressed and full of stories.

After: He disappeared for fifteen years, then came back better dressed and full of stories

Before: Sarah stood up and stretched, ambling over to the trash can, tossing her empty coffee cup into it.

After: Sarah stood up and stretched, then ambled over to the trash can and tossed her empty coffee cup into it.

~ But break the “stimulus before response” rule occasionally for effect:

To add more suspense and intrigue, show a character’s reaction to something shocking before describing what she is reacting to. This way, you’ll have a moment of suspense between the horrified reaction and the revelation of what’s being seen. Also, it may take a paragraph or more to describe what she’s seeing, so her reaction would be delayed, which can be a bit anticlimactic.

Example:
“…the beam of her flashlight scanned the floor ahead. She stopped and gasped in horror.
Calvin lay on the concrete, his eyes starting unseeing at the ceiling. Blood spattered the floor around him. His throat had been cut from ear to ear.”

Look through your WIP and see if there are places where you’ve put the cart before the horse. To avoid reader confusion and possible annoyance, it’s almost always best to describe events in the order they happened.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
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