When the order of characters’ movements is told with the words ‘before’ and ‘after’, there’s a risk that readers will focus on timeline rather than story. That distraction can reduce engagement and dumb down the writing.
Here’s what to look out for and how to fix the problem.
In this article, we’ll look at tacit and explicit chronologies of action, and assess which style of writing is more immersive and why.
Why writers include ‘before’ and ‘after’
The inclusion of ‘before’ and ‘after’ to tell the order of play is not an indication of poor grammar – not at all. There’s nothing grammatically wrong with these constructions.
More usually, it’s an indication of insecurity. The author hasn’t learned to trust the power of their words on the page, or the ability of their readers to perceive the meaning behind those words.
It’s also why writers sometimes use several adjectives with similar meanings rather than one strong one, or an adverbial phrase to fortify a weak verb.
Some authors also fear that their writing will come across as too ‘plain’ or ‘simple’. Chronological nudges are an attempt to ornament the prose.
Tacit chronology of action
The things that we do occur in a sequence; they have a chronology. This is as much the case in real life as it is on the screen, in an audiobook and in the pages of a novel. That chronology is tacit – we don’t need to explain it because it’s understood.
Take a look at this excerpt from The Devil’s Dice by Roz Watkins (p. 79, HQ, 2019):
Watkins doesn’t tell us explicitly that the shuddering occurred before the laptop was put down, or that the laptop was moved before the character shifted the cat onto their knee. And yet we know. The sequence of events is implied by the order in which she places each clause. It’s tacit.
And that’s the thing with strong line craft – it allows the reader to immerse themselves in the chronology of action by showing us, clause by clause, what’s transpiring, instead of tapping us on the shoulder and telling us.
Explicit chronology of action
Let’s recast the Watkins excerpt with some explicit taps on the shoulder:
I shuddered before putting the laptop down, then manoeuvred Hamlet onto my knee. After leaning in, I breathed in his subtle, nutty cat smell.
I see this use of timeline nudges frequently in the fiction writing of less experienced authors, and it’s problematic when overused. Here’s why.
1. Some readers might feel patronized
Not every reader will notice the use of chronology nudges. But some will, and since no author wants to alienate a chunk of their readership, why push the story over a cliff when we can work out the sequence of events from the order of the words?
Telling readers that X was done before doing Y, or after doing Z, is akin to saying: ‘Hey, just in case you’re not clever enough, let me spell it out for you.’
It’s a dumbing-down that readers in the know won’t appreciate.
2. The inclusion is unnecessary
If you’re still not convinced, ask yourself whether the inclusion of ‘before’ or ‘after’ as timeline nudges is necessary. It often isn’t.
If a character’s shuddering occurs at the beginning of a sentence, the reader will assume that shuddering is what’s happening right now. If a new action follows that shuddering, the reader will assume that – just like in real life – the moment has passed and something else is happening in the new now of the novel.
3. The reader is focused on the wrong thing
When writers create immersive fiction, the reader feels as if they are in the moment – this is happening, now that, now the other.
‘Before’ and ‘after’ are distractions that focus the reader on when rather than what’s happening. The former is telling; the latter is showing.
4. There are more words than are necessary
Not enough words leaves readers hungry for clarity. Too many gives them indigestion. The artistry comes in the form of balance.
As long as the sequence of events can be understood by the reader, consider whether timeline nudges such as ‘before’ and ‘after’ are cluttering your prose.
The power of tacit chronology – more examples
Take a look at these pairs of narrative text, each of which has a shown tacit chronology and an alternative told explicit sequence. Which versions are more suspenseful? Which are most immediate? Which flow better when you read them out loud?
I’ve used examples from published fiction for the tacit versions, and taken a little artistic licence – altering them in ways their authors never intended – for the explicit chronologies.
In the original version, the ‘and’ between the initial breath and the walk into the kitchen is a fine example of the power of a conjunction. It’s almost invisible, which gives us the space to take that breath with the viewpoint character. And having taken it, we’re ready to go into the kitchen with them.
In the edited version, ‘before’ pulls us away from that moment. The tension has fallen out of the sentence.
In the original version, it’s as if we’re in the room, watching the man as he smiles and leans back. There is space for that action to have its moment. Then he blows the smoke – that’s the new moment; we’ve left the other behind.
In the edited version, ‘after’ shoves us past the leaning back and smiling before we’ve had a chance to savour it. It’s already gone, even though we’re still reading about it.
In the original version, Crichton shows us the action. Perhaps, like me, you can hear the chunter of the helicopter blades in the air. Who’s in this helicopter? Men in uniform. They jump out. What will happen next? We’re shown: they fling open the door. There’s a sense of order, of clandestine and militaristic precision.
In the edited version, ‘before’ saps the suspense from the final sentence. We’re focused on the timeline rather than the action.
The table below summarizes the impact of tacit and explicit chronology on prose.
Take a look at your narrative. If ‘before’ and ‘after’ are telling rather than showing, recast gently and reread out loud. Is the order of play still clear? Is the prose more immersive? If so, there’ll be fewer words but what’s there will be all the richer.
And if you’re worried that your prose will be too plain, think again. Immersive writing allows the reader to decorate the story with their own imagination.
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with independent authors of commercial fiction, particularly crime, thriller and mystery writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, connect via Facebook and LinkedIn, and check out her books and courses.
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