Life is Random
When writing your novel, you want your story to mimic real life. The goal is to create such life-like scenes, action, emotions, and dialogue that the reader feels as though she is right there in the midst.
That said, always keep in mind that fiction has order – real life does not. Everything in a novel is planned and has a distinct purpose. And you and I know – life is much more random than that.
Perfect Simultaneity is Impossible
In real life, things can happen simultaneously; several things can happen all at the same split second. Unless you have a way to pile the words on the page on top of one another, you’ll never be able to achieve perfect simultaneity in your novel. Once you accept that fact, creating your scenes will become much easier.
The answer is not to continually use the phrase, “at the same moment…” “at exactly the same second…” Or something similar. While you may fall back on this ploy once in a while, it’s better if you attack this challenge like a true professional, and experiment as to how to pull it off in an artful manner.
Let’s revisit the principle of order in fiction. This covers a wide array of facets of novel writing, but for the sake of this blog post, we’ll focus in on the cause-effect, motivation-reaction relationship.
Confusing Sequence Can Be Subtle
Some of what I cover here will seem as if it should “go without saying.” However, the act of confusing sequence can be subtle and can sneak past your editorial eyes.
Hal walks into his office. There’s a note on his desk notifying him that his job has been terminated. His stomach feels like he’s been gut-punched. He slams the desk with his fist and kicks the metal wastebasket across the room.
Granted, in real life, some of these actions happen at the exact same moment. But it cannot be written that way. Everything in the novel is presented in chronological order so there is never any doubt of what happens when.
Give Your Reader Credit
You, then, must pretend that only one thing can happen at a time. You cannot write that Hal’s stomach feels like it has been gut-punched and at the same moment he slams the desk and kicks the wastebasket. Again, you don’t want to be constantly stating that everything is happening at the same time. Taking that route means you will be talking down to the reader. Give your reader credit; the reader gets it.
The very nature of writing follows this pattern – one word follows another on the page. Not printed on top of one another. The reader understands that Hal can be blinking, breathing, sweating, and swearing all at the same moment. But if you, as the novelist, feel you must present simultaneity rather than sequence you will most certainly confuse the reader.
Simultaneity obscures the cause-effect, motivation-reaction. (Or I should say an overplayed attempt at simultaneity.) Stick with sequence because that’s what gives the story meaning to the reader.
Granted, it is possible to write, Scowling, Hall grabbed the note off his desk. Again, as you become more aware of this potential challenge, you’ll discover your own secret methods of creating scenes that flow smoothly.
The logical progression of the motivation-reaction unit is this:
- Motivating stimulus
- Character reaction
We can almost hear Hal swearing under his breath as he kicks the wastebasket. Or perhaps he swears right out loud. But it can be written only in sequence.
In the course of working with novelists over the years, I have often read scenes that are out of sequence.
Jake stiffened as the judge slammed the gavel down.
In this example, the motivation-reaction unit has been reversed. In an awkward attempt to create simultaneity, the author confused the sequence. When looked at closely, it proves to be an impossible occurrence. It can happen only thus:
Suddenly, the judge slammed down the gavel. Jake stiffened.
A Small Matter? Or Not
You may be thinking, The issue of simultaneity is a small matter in the whole scheme of things in novel writing.
And yet, this is what it means to hone your craft and sharpen your skills – disciplined attention to details. Check through your own writing and see if you have been faithful to the cause-effect, motivation-reaction sequence.