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Life lessons

on the craft 

Subtracting Time

In Back to the Future II, Doc Brown arrives at Marty’s doorstep with terrible news from the future. Marty’s future son will be a patsy in a bank robbery – a catalyst in a chain of events that will ruin future Marty and his future family. So Marty and Doc (along with Marty’s then-girlfriend-future-wife Jennifer) jump back in the Dolorean to fix the errors in time.

Writers too try to fix errors in time. But since we don’t have a time machine, we fix errors by writing more instead of correcting the original, faulty structures. Writing is different than speaking. When I, figuratively, put my foot in my mouth, I can’t travel back in time and remove the words I’ve said. When writing, I can remove those words.

Many writers choose to add more in an effort to explain or justify. The more effective solution is to "go back in time" (go back to earlier paragraphs or chapters) to fix the problems. More is not always better. In fact, more is usually worse. In Thinking Fourth Dimensionally, I wrote about If-Then statements’ cause and effect on time. In Grammatical Time Travel I detailed how verb tenses can create grammatical time travel. In conjunction with both of those ideas, I want to take a look at how syntax – specifically word and clause order – affects chronology.

Example: The waiters, Sam and Charles, picked up new plates carrying the deserts and brought them to their tables after they dropped off the plates that their customers were done with.

Time Jump #1: Using the word “after” creates a time jump because it allows for the first action to come second in the sentence. The reader will assume what’s written first happens first. Words like “after” stop the action from moving forward because they add past information in an effort to explain or justify current information (in this case, why dropping off the new plates was okay -- the other plates had been cleared already).

Time Jump #2: The phrase “that their customers were done with” jumps back in time because it adds a detail (and long adjective clause) that’s both implied and unneeded. It’s obvious that the customers are done with the plates if the waiters are clearing them. But also, grammatically, that phrase pushes the reader back in time to before the waiters ever cleared the plates. You should never end a sentence in a time period before the start of the sentence.

Possible Fix: After the customers finished, Charles and Sam cleared their plates and returned carrying the deserts.

Like the clauses and conjunctions scolded above, adverbs too contribute to time travel delinquency. My two most-loathed adverbs are “now” and “then” (doubly so when written in the past tense). Like I mentioned above, readers presume chronological order. Therefore, there’s rarely a reason to use the word “now” because in each sentence the reader infers that it’s always "in the now" (that “now” is called the narrative present – even if written in past tense). The same rule applies for “Then.” Starting a sentence with “then” or listing actions using “then” is needless because it’s implied that the next action happens next.

Example: Sarah now waits for the bus. Then when it arrives, she boards and then pays her fare.

What’s the benefit to the “Now” and “Then”? The sentences sound sharper as, “Sarah waits for the bus. When it arrives, she boards and pays her fare.” Then and Now are either wasted words or indicative of larger chronological issues.

If ever you use phrases/clauses like “John was now…” or “… Karley’s door that had been…” you know you’re needlessly jumping in time. Using “was now” directly tells your reader that you’ve jumped in time. Time jumping isn’t necessarily bad, but using “now” indicates a stasis (or non-action) after a skipped-over action. For example: “After finishing his test, John was now at home.” The “was now” eliminates the chance for a current action. Possible fix: “After finishing his test, John drove home.”

Using “that had been” demands the reader jump back in time for some detail (usually a needless or implied detail). Example: “Sandra knocked on Karley’s door that had been propped open.” This sentence starts with the knocking, but ends back in time with the propping open. The easiest fix is to remove the verbs and make them adjectives. Possible fix: “Sandra knocked on the propped-open door.” This possible fix shows the door was already open, but does so by making that detail part of the action instead of jumping back in time to tell someone did something earlier.

If you’re anything like me, you’d love to have a time machine to go back and fix some stupid mistakes. In writing, you can. Instead of adding more in attempts to fix, explain or motivate a past action, time travel in your writing to keep all necessary details and actions in-scene. Within each sentence and clause, don’t make the reader shift in time.

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