Monday, June 19, 2017

Impossible simultaneity: only fun in science fiction

A long time ago in a genre far, far away, I did an all-day intensive story critique/workshop/gauntlet thingy that pruned my confidence to a nub and crammed my aspiring-writer noggin with way more information than I could process at the time. I do not recommend such thingies.

Absolutely okay for Christina Dodd's heroine in
 Castles in the Air to do three manual things at
once because she actually has three arms.
(Kidding. And Christina Dodd is amazing
 and you should read her.)
However, over the years I’ve unpacked all that info in chunks, and you know what? Those instructors really knew their sh…stuff. They taught me that a story with too many “was”es can put a reader to sleep and that eyes aren’t independent, willful organisms for most speciesjackwipe’s eyes didn’t drop to the heroine’s boobage, his gaze did, right? They taught me about the inadvisability of adverbs, the judicial use of similes, the need for a consistent point of view, and a gajillion other low-level craft bits that aren’t necessarily grammatical errors but, when handled badly, can certainly can make it hard for a reader to invest in a world or story.

One of those things was impossible simultaneity.

Now, I don’t meant to spin up a physics topic here or discuss relativity of simultaneity, so if that’s what you’re noodling with in a sci-fi sort of way, please go on about your business (and link me to your story down in the comments, please, because it’s totally up my reader-alley). Rather, what I mean to point out is when sentence structure implies two things are happening at the same time when physically they cannot (or attempting to do so would create a weird visual). For instance:

Shrugging off her coat, she tossed her purse on the table and flicked on the lights.

If nothing about that sentence seems odd, chances are you are in fact writing/reading science fiction and the character most prominently lodged in your brain is a multi-armed alien. I’m cool with that.

What I’m not cool with is a regular two-armed human earthling tugging coat sleeves off her arms whilst one arm is also purse flinging and the other is light switch flipping. No one is that coordinated and how many arms does this person have? Similarly, I can’t figure how these would work:

...he said, taking a sip of his whiskey.

Sliding off her motorcycle, she tugged her skirt down.

Rubbing the weariness from his eyes, he saw... 
The worst part is that I see these kinds of things all the time in books. Maybe they don't get tidied up because they aren’t dangling modifiers, per se. They’re just dangling logic.

Now, I’m not claiming I’ve never committed every vile sin of writing. I have and continue to do so. So, no judgment! However, if you’re writing and want to avoid impossible simultaneity, a quick trick is to search the doc for “ing ” (the extra space after the g trims the search results at little) and click through. An ing-pass on your manuscript may also reveal dangling participles and other potential embarrassments.

If you’re not a writer but read lots and never noticed impossible simultaneity before, I have bad news. You’re probably going to notice it fairly often now.


Sort of. (Except, not really. Misery loves company.)

p.s. – Check out the Turkey City Lexicon for lots and lots of things you never knew writers were doing wrong. (Scroll down to find "Not Simultaneous.") I found the document simultaneously enlightening and horrifying and humiliating and helpful.

Vivien Jackson writes stories with robots, pixies, and down-home salacious kissery. Wanted and Wired, first in her Tether cyberpunk romance series, is available now. Get news and sneak peeks on the web at or sign up for her newsletter to have tidbits delivered right to your email.

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