As you know from our articles on participial phrases, there are some structures that imply simultaneous action. But did you know there are other ways in which simultaneous action can go wrong? Generally, this involves adverbial clauses and phrases that begin with words such as: while, during, when, and as.
It is necessary to make sure that the action happening in the clause or phrase is compatible with the action going on in the rest of the sentence. When it isn’t, you have an issue with non-simultaneous action. At worst, wrongly using a phrase or clause that implies simultaneity can make your character grow a third arm. As best, you can imply they have mad, almost inhuman skills. 🙂
Now for some examples.
–Non-simultaneous adverbial clause:
Wrong: Alan dropped off a bouquet of flowers, kissed his mother, and checked his e-mail when he sat down to dinner.
That’s a lot of action during the simple act of sitting. This needs to be revised so the action is more logical.
Better: Alan dropped off a bouquet of flowers and kissed his mother. He decided to check his e-mail before he sat down to dinner.
–Non-simultaneous adverbial within a participial phrase:
Wrong: Stomping through the house as she pulled on her pants and shoes, Sally thought about her deadbeat brother.
In this example the use of a participial phrase is feasible but the adverbial clause in the participial phrase is not. One doesn’t stomp through a house at the same time they are getting dressed, but one can stomp and think at the same time.
Better: Sally, thinking about her deadbeat brother, pulled on her pants and shoes and then stomped through the house.
–Non-simultaneous adverbial phrase:
Wrong: While on campus Tommy went to his apartment on the other side of town to check on his pet cat.
Tommy cannot be in two places at once as this sentence implies.
Better: While on campus Tommy decided to go to his apartment on the other side of town and check on his pet cat.
Another place where simultaneous action can go awry is in dialogue. Be mindful when using as, when, during and when, especially in conjunction with a dialogue tag. The biggest offender word used with dialogue tags is as. While comes in second place.
Wrong: “I’m not,” Charlene said tersely as she set down her glass, walked to the stereo, and turned on some light rock.
Keep in mind that Charlene’s small bit of dialogue is happening at the same moment that she is doing all of those actions. Is it feasible? Not unless she is drawing out her words to an extreme degree. Her dialogue in noway takes as long as her actions; therefore, you have an incongruity and it’s all because of that small little word as. This is a type of simultaneous-action error is very common.
Better: “I’m not,” Charlene said tersely. She set down her glass, walked to the stereo, and turned on some light rock.
The second area that dialogue goes wrong when it comes to simultaneous action is when dialogue is mixed with action of the mouth.
Wrong: “I love you so much,” she whispered, kissing him.
Is it possible to whisper and kiss at the same time? Well, it’s possible to whisper against someone’s lips and to whisper in between kisses, but probably not while kissing. Watch out for those pesky participial phrases!
Better: “I love you so much,” she whispered and then kissed him.
The third area that dialogue goes wrong is when speech is mixed with simultaneous sounds.
Wrong: “I just don’t know what is wrong with you,” she said while sighing.
It is impossible to speak a sentence full of words and to sigh (or to huff, groan, moan, hiss, etc.)
Better: She sighed. “I just don’t know what is wrong with you.”
I hope you have found this lesson in simultaneous action helpful. Please let me know your thoughts and leave a comment. Now back to writing. 🙂