Thursday, April 22, 2010

Time and sentences

Here's an interesting article about steampunk--

One of the little things we edit for is time sequence in sentences. Usually (not always, but remember that we want to establish the convention so the unconventional can stand out and be important), you want the sentence and the action to proceed in the same direction, so the reader doesn't have to puzzle out what happened first. The order of the sentence should make that clear.

Again, there are times where you want to dislocate the reader and make her stop and puzzle out what you mean. However, you don't want that when you don't want that. Don't puzzle the reader when you really just want the reader to read on and accumulate what's happening and make sense of it without stopping.

So notice that when you have:
Before he caught Rover, he put on his running shoes after taking off his loafers. Then he chased the dog down the street.'re likely to get a "huh?" from the reader, and a momentary rejiggering of events:
"Oh. Okay. First he took off his loafers. Then he put on his running shoes. Then he chased the dog down the street. THEN he caught Rover. Got it."
Now notice, all those events really happened, and they happened in a sequence (just not the one in the sentence :).

I'm thinking that you might want to have a breach in sequence when the connection is causal:
Before he stepped into the street, he looked both ways.
That is, presumably the first event is that he realizes he's about to step into the street, SO he looks both ways. So we might want to have the cause (the imminence of stepping) before the effect (looking both ways).

Also, all intent is not to be fulfilled. "Before" implies a potentiality, and that means something might not happen. And in that case, the "before" which never happens will work at the beginning:
Before she could stop him, he'd run into the street.

But, again, the subtleties of sentence are preserved when you reserve them for when you actually want that meaning. So I try not to mess with sequence unless I mean it.

Here's a sentence similar one I recently edited. (Don't count on the editor to catch and fix these. Make your sentences mean what you want to mean.)
She went into the kitchen and started cooking but only after he first stopped her to tell her about all his many food allergies.
Unless there's a reason not to, assemble the sentence elements chronologically.


Julie Harrington said...

I actually just very recently discovered Steampunk when I picked up Gail Carriger's book "Soulless" and its sequel "Changeless." It's very interesting. A very different style from what I'm used to, but I like it so far. I'm looking forward to her third book "Blameless" (and hoping and praying she ends the series well).

As for event order in sentences, there is nothing more frustrating for me -- as a reader -- than out of order "Wha!?" events that make me stop and reread to figure out what the heck just happened. Talk about jar you right out of the story.


Jami Gold said...

Yes, after my CP pointed it out, I did a find and replace to try to catch most of these before/after errors. The ones to look out for usually seem to be a 'before' clause at the beginning of a sentence and an 'after' clause not at the beginning of a sentence.

In checking my work, I've found most of my beginning 'before's have the structure: Before they could..., something else happened. And I check all the embedded 'after's to ensure the sentence works the way I want it to. So, it turned out that I didn't have too many of these problems, but it's always good to make sure. :)

For those interested, in MS Word, I did a Find on Before (click Match Case to find only the capital 'b's for those beginning 'before' clauses) and Replace with Before (change the Font Color to something else). And then I did the same thing with lower-case 'after's.

Thanks for the tip!
Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Jami, what did we do before computers!!!


Anonymous said...

This is a great post, Alicia. I'm doing the same as Jami G and I'm disappointed to find too many "before"s. Sigh. Lots of work, but it's a goal set and attainable. I'd be lost without my computer!

Jami Gold said...


With how many editing passes I've had to do on my 'learning-curve' project, I wouldn't be a writer without a computer. :)

Jami G.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post, Alicia.

I'm searching my MS like Jami G. Too many "before"s, but not so many at the beginning of a sentence. Sigh. Still lots of work. But now there is a current goal and it's attainable.

I'd be lost without my computer!