Grammar for Fiction Writers: Busy Writer's Guides Book (2014)
Part IV. Special Challenges for Fiction Writers
Chapter 21. Are Your Characters Doing the Impossible?
Fixing this grammar mistake is extremely important for fiction writers. It might seem small, but if you don’t catch it and correct it, it can leave your writing feeling awkward…and any reader who catches it will stumble over the sentence. This error is a close cousin to reversing cause and effect. As soon as I give you some examples, you’ll start to see why.
It happens when we’re trying to vary our sentence structure, and so we write an abomination like…
Rising from her chair, she walked across the room.
Was she glued to the chair? This sentence has her both rising from the chair and walking across the room at the same time. She can’t do both at the same time. I’ll give you another example.
Dropping to her knees, she scooped up the broken dish.
Again, she doesn’t scoop up the dish while dropping to her knees. She drops to her knees, and then she scoops up the dish. It’s not possible for her to be scooping up the dish until she’s down where she can reach it.
When you’ve written a dependent clause and have connected it with a comma to an independent clause, check that the two actions can and do actually occur at the same time.
When you find actions that can’t happen at the same time, the fix is simple. All you need to do is make them two sentences or connect the clauses with a conjunction like and.
She rose from her chair and walked across the room.
She dropped to her knees and scooped up the broken dish.
This holds true no matter what tense you’re writing in.
She rises from her chair and walks across the room.
She drops to her knees and scoops up the broken dish.
Make sure that, when your characters act, it’s something they could actually do. Unless, of course, you’re writing a fantasy. In that case, you make your own rules about what’s possible…but then you have to abide by those as well.