Thursday, November 26, 2009

Sequence in sentence order

I don't think there's a RIGHT answer to this, but I keep coming across this issue with submissions and usually deciding how to edit based on context and other stuff. But I wonder how you all deal with it, what logic you use.

That is, how do you sequence when you have different types of sentences? Arrgh. I can't find the words. Let's say there are different types of info you can put in this passage or paragraph:

His perception.
Something that happens that causes that perception. (That is, the approaching car turned on his brights.)
The physical reaction to the event (flinching, say).
Emotional reaction to the event.
Thought or conclusion.
His action in response to event (not the immediate flinching, but the flashing his own lights or putting down the visor).

The two that seem the most movable are those first two, the event and the perception of the event. Which comes first? And what does POV have to do with it?

For example, with a deeper POV, his perception is all we get of the event, right? I mean, it's not objectively the car is approaching and the brights come on. Rather he sees the car approaching and the brights on. The perception statement is how we know what is happening.

But what about in a more objective narration, where there is a distinction between what actually happens and what is perceived? Maybe the event is really the big important thing:

And then the space ship imploded, and space debris rushed into the hole where The Pacifica used to be.
Well, that's maybe separate from:
Junie Warren chewed her peanut butter sandwich while watching the news on TV.
Which then would you lead with? Does it depend on whether Junie or the space ship is your focus?

What about when it's all pretty personal and there's a cause/effect:

I panted like a plowhorse.
I climbed the four storeys to my apartment. (If ever we needed an intro participial phrase... but which verb to participlize? Panting, or climbing? Which goes first, the cause (climbing) or the effect?)
Panting like a plowhorse, I climbed the four storeys to my apartment. (Hmm. Do you pant WHILE/simultaneous to climbing? Do we want to show that?)
Climbing the four storeys to my apartment, I panted like a plowhorse.

Or would you think there's a cause and effect here and do it in two sequential clauses, but reversed to show cause then effect:

After I climbed the four storeys to my apartment, I was (past progressive... why?) panting like a plowhorse.

I climbed the four storeys to my apartment, and by the time I reached the top, I was panting like a plowhorse.

Here's a sentence I just came across:

He stopped walking, his attention caught by a ruckus at the entrance.

Just a workman sentence, nothing special. So I'm not saying it can or should be brilliant. But notice this might have something to do with how deep the POV is.

This presumably is the sequence of events from inside him (in his POV):
He's walking.
He sees the ruckus.
It catches his attention.
He stops walking.

But let's be outside, omniscienty, more distant-- observing him rather than being him. What's the sequence from outside him?
He's walking.
He stops walking.
Why? The stop-walking means something has caught his attention.
He is looking at the entrance.
There is a ruckus there.

That is, from the outside, his action is before the perception. But from the inside, his perception is before the action.

Let's have some examples? What determines what sequence you have put a passage or sentence in?


Julie Harrington said...

I'm going to have to read this again before I can really form a coherent thought, but one that I did have was that I'll organize actions by putting the physical reaction to the event first when it adds concrete imagery to a physical action (like panting like a plow horse as you trudge up the steps) BUT I'll put the event first when the event (say a car's headlights flashing into my character's eyes) is the more sensory evocotive element.

Hm. I hope that made sense.


Edittorrent said...

I'm likely to put the perception first-- he's blinded-- but I tend to park pretty close in personal pov.

Jami Gold said...

Hi Alicia,

Yes, I don't think there's necessarily a right answer to this because it might depend on what you want the focus on. As with one of the examples, do you want to focus on the ruckus or his reaction? The imploding spaceship on the news, or her reaction? You might want to focus on her reaction because you're showing how odd it is, or maybe because you want the reader to skim over the cause (like burying a clue), or it's a character-revealing moment, etc.

I often try out several different structures until I hit on the one that's saying what I want it to say. I'd use the While climbing the four stories to my apartment, I panted like a plowhorse. construction if I was focusing on the process and had something more to say about the climb, the stairs, the building, etc. (I liked it better with a "while", sorry. :) You've done too good of a job at turning me away from PPPs. LOL!) And I'd use either the After I climbed the four stories... or a I panted like a plowhorse when I had to climb... construction if I was focusing on the result (either the physical shape of the character or what happened next after the climb, etc.).

I can't talk about things from an omniscient POV as I haven't done that before.

Jami G.

Meghan Ward said...

I agree that it depends on the focus. In the first example, however, I'd start with Junie Warren chewing her peanut butter sandwich because it's personal, and I think people tend to be more drawn to the personal than to greater events like a spaceship imploding.

Whirlochre said...

With no more info to go on, I'd go with

A ruckus caught his attention, and he stopped.

Sherri said...

For me, it depends on how immediate the reaction is. If the character has time to chew it over before reacting, I'll say what the stimulus was first. If it's a flinch or a startle or something like that, I'll usually put that first, with the stimulus immediately following. "Drina started at the sound of Abram's voice." That way the reader feels the immediacy. Or so I tell myself. :)

Adrian said...

For me, the answer to the sequencing is just intuition. I'm writing first-person, so I'm only inside.

Whether you show the immediate reaction or the stimulus first is a choice that can help you control the emphasis. Logically, yes, we perceive and then we react. But some stimuli can be startling and our reactions can be almost reflexive. Thus, even in deep POV, I often reverse these to emphasize the startling nature of the event.

Using the bright headlights example. The flinch is almost a reflex. The first perception in the character's mind might actually be recognition of the flinch itself. Then the brain asks, Why did I just do that? And then it becomes consciously aware of the oncoming headlights.

This is almost an accurate representation of what really happens. Reflexes are--by definition--actions taken in response to a stimulus before (or without) conscious processing of the stimulus. When you touch a hot stove, the neural signal is sent toward the brain, but it's also reflected at the spinal cord so that your muscles begin to pull away literally before the message even reaches the brain.

While there are very few reactions that are truly reflexive, portraying them as such can be a useful trick. If your character reacts without much forethought, it can be useful to invert the stimulus and response. Sometimes our reactions surprise ourselves, and this reaction-before-stimulus patterns can convey that. I think the pattern is familiar enough to readers.

I especially find it useful in deep POV when the character is dealing with emotions he or she doesn't understand. Even if first person, they describe their reactions to a stimulus as surprising because they don't understand (or immediately recognize) the suppressed feelings that are driving the behavior.

Obviously, you don't want to overdo this. I don't actually think about it much, I just try to get into my character's mind and imagine how they perceive the order. It's one of those things that I often fiddle with during revisions in order to shift emphasis.

green_knight said...

As everybody else said, it depends on the viewpoint, the distance you want, and the desired effect, but I think this is a really neat way of looking at a scene when it _doesn't_ flow. I particularly like the idea of using it to control the reader's impression of the character (impulsive, stoic etc).

Jordan said...

I think it's important to note, however, that as far inside our characters' heads as we are, the readers will not understand what is going on if we don't tell them. However, it's pretty minor if we sometimes wait until the second half of the sentence to give the stimulus: he flinched away from the high beams. It's also possible to preserve the stimulus-response chain: High beams flashed and he covered his eyes.

(Note, though, that either way, both the stimulus and response are short. If we got a long description of how bright the high beams were or exactly how he turned away, the stimulus-response chain is also broken for a fast, reflexive reaction.)

On the larger level, in deep POV, I like to present evidence (observations), then draw conclusions: She turned around and almost ran into—buttons? (And then she concludes the dude behind her is tall.)