Doing Everything At Once: the ‘simultaneous action’ problem
I last bloggged about silly stylistic fads and Rules for Writers. These often arise from perfectly good editorial advice (don’t overuse passives) that get generalised into sweeping laws (don’t use passives at all!) and are applied regardless of whether the author is doing the thing well or badly.
One of the more pervasive of these is the Simultaneous Action fad. This wildly popular editorial trend holds that actions must be spelled out in sequence lest the reader interpret them as being simultaneous. So:
Bob drew the gun, pointing it at Janey.
Simultaneous Action tells us that this sentence presents Bob as doing both things at once. However, obviously enough, the gun must be pulled before it can be pointed. Both things cannot happen at the same time, yet (Simultaneous Action devotees say) the grammar of this sentence means the reader is presented with exactly that. Therefore this sentence must be amended.
Bob drew the gun before pointing it at Janey.
Bob drew the gun and pointed it at Janey.
As you may suspect, I disagree profoundly with this as a generally applied rule. Let’s do some digging. We will start, as we so often do, with a video of a man juggling knives on a unicycle while playing the harmonica.
Asked to describe what you just saw, you would probably say “inexplicable”. Further pressed, you might say, “The man rode a unicycle while juggling knives and playing the harmonica.” You would not say, “The man rode a unicycle before juggling knives and then played the harmonica” because that isn’t what happened. Some actions are in fact simultaneous. Got it? Good. Hold that thought.
That principle grasped, let’s look again at our examples.
Bob drew the gun, pointing it at Janey. / Bob drew the gun and pointed it at Janey.
Imagine this action as if it’s in a film. Does Bob draw the gun slowly, wringing out the tension as his arm comes slowly up, and we wonder who he’s going to point it at–the woman he’s only just met and has no reason to trust, or the best friend who we know has betrayed him? Or does Bob draw the gun in a single swift arc of the arm, almost too fast to see, leaving us gasping at the sudden threat of violence?
You can picture both of those, right? One of them is a sequence of actions, both of which are important—Bob draws the gun, then points it, as two separate things. The other is a flowing action—Bob produces and aims the gun, as part of the single action unit of the draw. His movement isn’t “two things at once” simultaneous in the way of Knife-Juggling Unicycle Guy, but neither is it separated into “draw [pause] point”. We see it as one sequence, draw to point, which I’m going to call an action flow.
This crucial distinction between individual actions and action flows is what Simultaneous Action faddery ignores. And that causes problems. Because authors, lacking cinecameras and large casts of pretty people, have to convey what happens using words and style.
Janey ran down the corridor, vaulting the fallen bodies of zombies, skidding around the corner, barely breaking stride even when she saw the tentacled horror that had eaten Bob, and dived out of the window.
(Looks like Bob should have trusted Janey. Bad decision, Bob.)
The above is a pretty standard action sequence. We start with “ran” as the verb to kick us off, then use present participles (vaulting, skidding) to convey the breathless ongoing sequence of her non-stop movement, and conclude with “dived” to mark the final action. Did you have any trouble understanding what was happening in the action (except for the tentacle stuff)? Were you confused about the sequence of events?
No. You didn’t and weren’t. Nevertheless Simultaneous Action editors will insist that this entire sequence must be rephrased because events must be clearly stated as happening one after another, with markers.
Janey ran down the corridor. She vaulted the fallen bodies of zombies before skidding around the corner. She barely broke stride even when she saw the tentacled horror that had eaten Bob. Then she dived out of the window.
This is quite seriously what is being done to text as we speak. If you have been affected by issues raised in this blog post, call the hotline.
It should be obvious that the second example is not as good. I’m not claiming the first is deathless prose—I do these posts for free, you know—but it uses style and structure to mimic Janey’s non-stop hurtling to escape. The reader doesn’t get a break from the action till Janey does. Whereas the second presents what was a single action sequence as a series of discrete events, making it slower, and losing the impression of breathless speed, in order that nobody should read the sentence as Janey running, vaulting and skidding all at the same millisecond–a misreading that no English speaker would ever make.
Needless to say, there are times when actions aren’t part of a flow and shouldn’t be presented as such.
He walked into the room, sitting down on the sofa.
As it stands this isn’t a smooth sequence, so it does indeed jar the reader. The sitting doesn’t happen as a natural consequence of the walking, so it looks weird to run them together in this specific phrasing. The editor is quite right to flag it, no argument there. But consider this:
He walked into the room, dodging waiters with trays of champagne, ducking behind a tuxedoed businessman to avoid an importunate fundraiser, and finally sitting on the sofa with a loud sigh of relief designed to attract his target’s attention.
Here we have a continuing stream of action that starts with walking in and concludes with sitting, and it works perfectly well. You might argue that the present participles (ing words) become repetitive, and that would be very fair. Change it up on that basis by all means. But to change it on the grounds that each action must be clearly demarcated as separate is nonsensical. No reader would interpret the above as our hero walking, dodging, ducking, and sitting simultaneously, like Unicycle Juggling Guy. It is a sequence of movements, their order made clear by the sequence of phrases, which are all part of an ongoing action flow.
Whereas if you break it up:
He walked into the room. He dodged waiters with trays of champagne as he went, and ducked behind a tuxedoed businessman to avoid a fundraiser. Finally he sat on the sofa with a loud sigh of relief designed to attract his target’s attention.
This breaks the flow of action, and foregrounds the people who were formerly just background description, making the dodging sequence seem more important than it is. It also creates a very repetitive sentence structure akin to a primary school essay. “And then I did this and then I did that.” That is pretty hard to avoid if you’re turning text into strings of separate actions, and I have seen far too many examples of Simultaneous Action editing leading to this effect.
I hope it goes without saying that I don’t think all text should be action flows and full of ings. My point is one that regular readers will recognise: authors need to consider what they are trying to do, and then do it mindfully, using whatever tool is appropriate.
Consider this pair:
He walked into the room, dodging waiters with trays of champagne and ducking behind a tuxedoed businessman to avoid an importunate fundraiser, and seated himself on the sofa with a loud sigh of relief designed to attract his target’s attention.
He walked into the room and immediately had to dodge two waiters with trays of champagne, which put him in the sights of a fundraiser. He ducked behind a tuxedoed businessman, cursing the crush, and saw his target on a sofa against the wall. He took a steadying breath, sauntered over as casually as possible, and seated himself on the sofa with a loud sigh of relief designed to attract her attention.
These two passages are using different sentence structures (action flow vs events in sequence) to do different things.
This first passage whizzes through everything between entry and locking onto the target. The ing clauses give us a bit of scene setting and atmosphere without slowing the pace of the sequence, so that we get from entry to target in one manageable sentence, and can now get on with the plot without further ado. The overall impression is that our MC is smoothly and competently doing his job.
The second passage uses a series of discrete actions because this MC is different. He’s having more trouble with the job than the first guy. There’s more detail in order to slow the pace and point up the challenge of what he has to do, but the consecutive-actions structure is also crucial here. He’s got to dodge, then to duck, then to spot his target, then to go over and sit down. We’re as relieved as he’s pretending to be by the end of all that.
If I told you that one of these passages stars a James Bond style spy hero, and the other has an accountant who must track down his brother’s killer, would you find it difficult to guess which was which? Thought not. And the flow of action (or lack thereof) is an important stylistic trick in achieving that. It’s not as immediately obvious as the added text, but it makes a vital contribution to the overall impact. Which is what style is for.
Simultaneous Action is basically just another overly-prescriptive trend that takes perfectly good advice (“don’t do this badly”) and turns it into a meaningless law (“don’t do this at all”). See also Disembodied Parts and Don’t Use Was. Of course editors should change text that jars the reader by running events into one another when they don’t flow.
He drew the gun, blowing Bad Jack’s head off.
But to apply that principle to all action flows because some are done badly is pointless, restrictive, and takes perfectly good tools out of the author’s kit. It can’t go out of fashion soon enough.
Simultaneous Action fans will doubtless disagree. Feel free to argue, with the proviso that I am not at home to circular reasoning along the lines of “editing for Simultaneous Action improves style because Simultaneous Action is bad style, QED”.
KJ Charles is an editor of twenty years’ experience turned romance novelist. An Unseen Attraction and Wanted, a Gentleman have just been nominated for EPIC awards for historical romance.