Sunday April 20
Subscribe to RSS Feed

Multi-Tasking Characters or Impossible Actions?

on July 27th, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on July 27, 2011

Are your characters handy, so handy that they can multi-task without mussing a hair, accomplish two or three actions in the course of a few seconds?

Maybe you’re writing about a vampire or a super man who can move at the speed of light. If so, your character probably can accomplish several tasks rather quickly.

If you’re not writing about such a character, however, your characters might not actually be multi-tasking as much as finding themselves subject to an impossible combination of actions you’ve created for them.

Do you mean to imply that your detective can race down an alley at the same time he jumps into his car?

Does your thief pull a diamond free of its vault while he’s sliding down the banister to make his getaway?

Does Elsie painstakingly put on eyeliner as she’s pulling on her jeans?

I know, you wouldn’t write action combinations such as these. But if you did, your sentences might look like—

Zeke, running through the alleys after the masked man, jumped into his Mustang.

While Jones kept watch for the guard, Smith artfully pulled the Queen’s Knot from the museum’s vault, sliding down the double-wide banisters with ease.

Elsie, yanking her jeans up by the belt loops, painstakingly lined her eyes with kohl.

I find a lot of such sentences when I edit. Some, like the first example, don’t seem too bad. Most are not as blatantly impossible as the third.

Yet no matter where they fall along the range, sentences with concurrent—or seemingly concurrent—actions might need adjusting. If characters cannot perform two actions at the same time—because the characters don’t have enough limbs or the actions occur in different places or one action must always precede another—then those actions can’t be written as though they’re concurrent. Instead, write them as consecutive actions. Serial actions. Actions that follow one another rather than happen at the same time.

This may sound almost trivial, a matter too inconsequential for its own article. But if you write sentences with impossible concurrent actions, readers will notice. Agents and editors will notice as well. And such sentences not only make your characters seem unreal, they make the story seem false. Inconceivable. Not as true as what can be read in the daily newspaper.

Yet your goal is to get readers believing your tale is just as true as what they read about in news stories.

So while the topic isn’t as flashy as plot or dialogue or theme, it is important. 

____________________________________

If you have multiple actions in a sentence, simply check to see if you’ve written them in a way that the character can logically perform them.

Zeke can’t be running, on foot, through the alleys at the same time he jumps into his car. He can whistle while he runs. He can holler out to the one he’s chasing. He can make a phone call, wheeze painfully, even hold on to his heaving side.

But he can’t jump into his car and run at the same time.

He can do one after the other.

Zeke ran through the alleys after the masked man but stopped to jump into his Mustang when he reached State Street.

Zeke ran through the alleys after the masked man, stopping to jump into his Mustang when he reached State Street.

Zeke ran through the alleys after the masked man, then stopped to jump into his Mustang when he reached State Street.

Again, the original of this particular example doesn’t seem too wrong. Many readers might not even notice that Zeke was running through alleys and jumping into his car at the same time. But what about this? Zeke, running through the alleys after the masked man, backed out his Mustang. Is the impossibility more obvious?

The key is to understand what you’re asking of your characters as well as the sequence of the actions. Be sure characters can do what you’ve written for them to do.

Change impossible combinations of actions into actions that work.

From

Trudging up the stairs, Sid raced down the hall to his bedroom.

To

After trudging up the stairs, Sid raced down the hall to his bedroom.

From

While Jones kept watch for the guard, Smith artfully pulled the Queen’s Knot from the museum’s vault, sliding down the double-wide banisters with ease.

To

While Jones kept watch for the guard, Smith artfully pulled the Queen’s Knot from the museum’s vault. Then the two slid down the double-wide banisters with ease.

Or

While Jones kept watch for the guard, Smith artfully pulled the Queen’s Knot from the museum’s vault before sliding down the double-wide banisters with ease.

What to look for
Check out your use of present participles, participial phrases, and absolute phrases. Look at two or more actions written into one sentence. Make certain that either the character can perform several actions concurrently or that the actions have been written to show they happen consecutively.

These Work

Wanting to show off his new bike, Teddy pedaled hard toward his Gran’s house, blowing bubbles all the way.

Webster, lifting weights in the shadowed corner of the weight room, planned his next assassination.

These Don’t Work

Wanting to show off his new bike, Teddy pedaled hard toward his Gran’s house, dragging his feet all the way.

Webster, lifting weights in the shadowed corner of the weight room, raced around the track to plan his next assassination.

Some actions can be performed at the same time as other actions. Other actions must either follow or come before.

Thinking and planning, most anything to do with the mind, can be done while performing physical actions. Actions having to do with feeling—grieving, smiling, hurting, loving, hating and the like—can also be paired with physical actions without too many problems. It’s the combination of physical actions that you’ll want to look out for.

Let your characters multi-task when they need to. But don’t make them ridiculous by asking them to do more in the same moment than they can logically do.

Some can walk, talk, and chew gum at the same time. Others might need to concentrate on their steps and leave the gum chewing to less active moments.

Proofread your manuscripts for multi-tasking run amok. Look for impossible combinations of actions.

Make your characters real by ensuring they’re not super men and super women, capable of inhuman feats. Simply give them believable combinations of actions that they can pull off in a manner befitting the genre and their everyday abilities.

Craft your sentences with care so character actions seem natural and possible and don’t cause your readers to stutter over what you’ve written.

***

Share

Tags: ,     Posted in: Beginning Writers, Craft & Style, Grammar & Punctuation

One Response to “Multi-Tasking Characters or Impossible Actions?”

Leave a Reply

Pings and Trackbacks