1/04/2016

Simultaneous vs. Sequential Actions


There's one argument I seem to have over and over in my editing career, and it centers on sentences like these:
Pulling off her gloves, Jane closed the door.
or:
Jane closed the door as she pulled off her gloves.
or:
As she closed the door, Jane pulled her gloves off.
The first example uses a construction called the Participle Phrase (underlined). The second two examples use Subordinate Clauses (underlined). I spend a great deal of my time as an editor encouraging writers to avoid these constructions--which I collectively (and somewhat erroneously) call "as/ing clauses"--whenever possible. To understand why, we need to take a deeper look at the very idea of communication itself.

At the deepest level, an idea is wordless; that is to say, it's more like a picture or a movie than a sentence. Some are even more abstract than that. Emotions, for example, might have images or words associated with them, but the word "happy" can hardly be said to be equivalent with the feeling of happiness. When we think of happiness, we might imagine someone smiling, but is that what happiness is? I doubt it.

When it comes to writing fiction, what we usually have in our minds is some mental-visual representation of an action or set of actions. Our task is then to take this wordless thought--our intended meaning--and translate it to the next level; semantics. We arrange a set of symbols that denotes the wordless idea we have in our minds. When I think of sitting down, I can see some generic faceless character completing that action in my mind's eye. I can then choose from among the nearly infinite number of symbols that denote that action: "he sat", "he took his seat", "he slumped in his chair", etc. All of those sentences will cause the reader to envision something approaching what I visualize when I think of sitting, and I have thus communicated the idea.

However, all methods of communicating the idea are not equal. Some carry connotations that refine or expand upon the image in the reader's mind. In my previous examples, "he slumped in his chair" implies that he performed the action lazily, or with exasperation. It connotes tiredness, or surliness, or any of a hundred other implied meanings, depending on the context.

Because of the multi-layered complexity of meaning, it is important to choose the right words in the right order, otherwise you risk misinterpretation, confusion, and worst of all, the reader's inability to picture what you are describing. In many writing situations, it's not critical that the reader picture things exactly as you did when writing it (that's another argument I spend a lot of time on), but it is always important that you don't accidentally lead the reader into confusion. Most importantly, you want to give them something they can visualize easily, whether it's what you visualized or not. Achieving this is a matter of syntax.

So we have three levels:
  1. Ideas/Intention: The deepest level, these are the thoughts we intend to cause in the reader.
  2. Semantics/Content: The middle level, this is the meaning contained within the words we choose.
  3. Syntax/Structure: The surface level, this is the ordering of the words themselves, which gives rise to subtler meanings.
My rule of thumb is:
Structure supports Content, which supports Intention.
What this means is that the syntax (grammatical structure) should support the semantics (meaning and word choice), which in turn supports the idea you're trying to get across. Avoiding confusion is a matter of creating congruence between the levels. You don't want simple ideas couched in lengthy, overbearing sentences, and vice versa. Simple intention = Simple content = Simple grammar.

I majored in Philosophy. Does it show?

So anyway, you're probably asking what all this highfalutin' mumbo-jumbo has to do with participle phrases and subordinate clauses. I'll try to explain that.

When one constructs a sentence, the very structure of the grammar carries an implied meaning. As/ing clauses present two actions in the same sentence, and the grammar implies that the two actions are simultaneous.

When we read a sentence like "John pulled off his shirt as he walked into the locker room", we see those two actions (removing the shirt and walking into the locker room) as happening at the same time. And yet, at the semantic level, there are no words in the sentence that explicitly denote that these two actions happen at the same time. The sentence does not say "John simultaneously pulled of his shirt and walked into the locker room." The simultaneity is implicit in the grammatical structure.

You're welcome, ladies.
When it comes to John removing his shirt, there's no problem. It's not only possible to do those two things simultaneously, it's easy to visualize. But when we return to my earlier examples with Jane, the door, and her gloves, we run into trouble. It is physically impossible--or at least unlikely--to take off gloves while shutting a door. You might assume that Jane kicks the door shut, but then the writer should tell us she kicks the door: "Pulling off her gloves, Jane kicked the door shut." When we think of shutting a door, our first and most likely image is of a person doing the job with their hands, not their feet, elbows, or face. So what you have here is two actions that are, at least presumably, performed with the hands, and you have them happening at the same time. Even if it is possible with some mental acrobatics, it's harder to visualize, because the simultaneity of the actions forces you to posit all kinds of explanations for how those two things are done at the same time.

The problem here is that the structure does not support the content. The structure is: "Actions A and B occurred simultaneously". But the content is: "Action A occurred, and Action B occurred." And though small, the difference is important.

Overall, sequential actions are easier to visualize, and much less likely to trip up the reader.
Jane shut the door, then pulled off her gloves. 
Or:
Jane shut the door and pulled off her gloves.
Or even:
Jane shut the door. She pulled off her gloves.
All three of those examples use grammatical structure that implies the actions happened sequentially; one after the other. They are easier to read, because they don't require you to do any mental gymnastics envisioning the action. You see the actions without even having to think of them. Instead of a participle phrase or a subordinate clause, you have two independent clauses, which are easier to read.

The weirdest thing here is when writers erroneously write actions as simultaneous, the average reader probably imagines them as sequential anyway. So why bother forcing yourself to write them sequentially? Well, you don't want readers imagining things correctly in spite of your writing, do you? You want them imagining things because of your writing.

As/ing clauses work like thickeners in a stew. Used in proper proportion, they can be good, and sometimes they're necessary. But add too many and your writing becomes difficult to digest. And anyway, why write stew when you could be writing bacon? Wouldn't you rather write stories that people can't stop reading?

Not only that, but the laziness of the as/ing clause is apparent to grammar Nazis, linguistics aficionados, and word nerds of every stripe, and those are the people you want reading your books. Don't write for the lowest common denominator. Write so anyone can understand and enjoy.

I think writers lean on grammatical constructions like the as/ing clause because they sound "writerish". Many less experienced writers have a tendency to write more complex sentences because they are eager to show off their ability to wield a complex sentence. Being praised for that ability is likely part of the reason they aspire to writing in the first place. At least, that was the case with me. But the truth is, the best sentence is not the one that makes the deftest use of collegiate-level grammar, but the one that most clearly and concisely creates an image in the reader's mind. The words themselves are not what the reader is after, at least, not usually. The reader is after the story. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)

Sequential actions are easier to read and write, and chances are that's what your reader sees in his or her head anyway. So be the path of least resistance.