Eat your Cake

Take a look at this sentence:

“Billy threw the doll over the bridge after he had pried it from his sister’s fingers.”

Is there anything wrong with this sentence? Not really. There are no stray commas or misplaced modifiers. As an English sentence it makes total sense.

But think about what’s actually happening in the scene: Does Billy throw the doll over the bridge, and then pry it from his sister’s fingers? No–it’s the other way around. But when we read it the way it is above, we first picture him throwing the doll, and after that we see him prying it from his sister’s fingers. And after we finish reading the sentence, we have to go back, even only for a fraction of a second, and reorder the events in our minds.

Why is this important? Why would we want to order our sentences to follow the chronology of actual events?

Think about it this way: Billy throws the doll. If we stop there, something of the meaning of this action is lost. Whose doll is it? Where did he get it? Why does it matter that he threw it? It is only when we get to the second half of the sentence that we discover that he had taken forcefully from his sister, and only then do we understand why his throwing the doll is meaningful. We then have to take this meaning and retroactively apply it to the scene when Billy throws the doll, effectively having to picture it in our minds a second time.

But this time the impact of his throwing the doll is somewhat lost–we already knew what was going to happen. It feels deflated. It’s like eating the peanut butter first and then the jelly.

If we flip the sentence, if we say, “Billy pried the doll from his sister’s hands and threw it over the bridge,” then when we get to him throwing the doll we’re able to bite into it and taste the peanut butter and the jelly at the same time. We have the action and the meaning of the action together.

This doesn’t have to stop with sentences, though. Paragraphs, chapters, even whole books can benefit from this sort of writing in time. It makes things clearer, so that your reader can focus on what’s actually happening, without having to go back and rearrange everything in order to make sense of it.

Of course, depending on what you’re going for, you might not actually want to write this way. If your protagonist suffers from amnesia, then the scene where his wife is murdered, which happened a decade ago, might work best as the climax of your story, as he remembers it. In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner writes Benjy’s section from three different times in his life, years and years apart, all blended together, because (a lot of critics will agree) Benjy is mentally handicapped and time as a series of events following one another doesn’t make sense to him. For Benjy, memories are just as real as what’s happening in front of him.

However you decide to write your story is up to you. If clarity is what you’re going for, then structuring your writing to follow the chronology of events might be useful.

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