Exactly what do I mean by “writing in afterthoughts?” Consider this short scenario:
(1) “How dare you call me a slut!” Sheila said, grabbing a plate and throwing it at me.
“Well, what would you call having sex with my roommate after I went to work? Pity sex? So he wouldn’t feel left out?” I said, ducking, the plate hitting the floor behind me and shattering.
This short scene has two problems. The first is that the dialogue and actions are shown as happening almost simultaneously, which isn’t a reasonable expectation. In the first line, Sheila might speak first, THEN throw the plate, or throw it first then speak, as I did in (1). Either way works, depending on how you want to sequence the events. We generally don’t talk while we’re engaged in a violent action.
In the second piece of the scene, we have the same thing. If she throws the plate first, you’re going to be ducking it before responding. Putting the ducking/plate shattering after the dialogue weakens the scene and makes those events more incidental–more like afterthoughts.
Now, let’s rewrite this so it doesn’t feel as if the described actions are afterthoughts to the dialogue.
(2) Sheila grabbed a plate and threw it at me. “How dare you call me a slut!”
I ducked and the plate hit the floor and shattered. “Well, what would you call having sex with my roommate after I went to work? Pity sex? So he wouldn’t feel left out?”
By uncoupling the actions and dialogue, you can eliminate the “I said” tag, as I did in (2), resulting in a cleaner presentation. Further, you can eliminate those dreaded, weak present participles (-ing forms), which I’ve talked about previously and which will be the subject of a future blog because it’s an important topic and because I see so many writers making these mistakes.
Let’s look at another passage that shows writing in afterthoughts. I’ll follow it with a stronger rendering.
(Disclaimer: I’m not saying any of the examples are stellar writing. They’re merely to show examples of what you should and should not do if you want your writing to be strong.)
(1) “Stay where you are, Ray,” Jackson said, pointing the gun at me.
He’d called me at five in the morning, waking me from a good dream, sounding upset, telling he’d be here in thirty minutes.
“What’s this about?” I asked, having no clue why he’d come.
“You know very well,” he said, hand trembling, lips quivering.
“No, I don’t,” I replied even more worried.
He stared at me, his eyes bloodshot. “My wife is dead because of you.”
“What! I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, unbelieving.
“Her suicide note said she was pregnant with your child!” he screamed, thrusting the gun forward with his shaking hand and pulling the trigger. The shot went wild, hitting the wall three feet to my left.
I froze, my life passing before my eyes. “Jackson, I did not have sex with your wife.”
“Why should I believe you?” he said, stepping closer, the gun aimed at my head, determination on his face.
(2) Jackson pointed the gun at me. “Stay where you are, Ray.”
He’d called me at five in the morning, sounding upset. He’d said he’d be here in thirty minutes.
I had no clue why he’d come. “What’s this about?”
His hand trembled and his lips quivered. “Y-you know very well.”
I grew more worried. “No, I don’t.”
He stared at me with bloodshot eyes. “My wife is dead because of you.”
“What! I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, bewildered.
“Her suicide note said she was pregnant with your child!” He thrust the gun forward with his shaking hand and fired. The bullet hit the wall two feet to my left.
I froze. My life passed before my eyes. “Jackson, I did not have sex with your wife.”
Determination on his face, he stepped closer. “Why should I believe you?” He aimed at my head.
So, which way do you write? If your writing sounds more like the first of these scenarios most of the time and you’re using a lot of present participles, especially at the end of your sentences, then you need to reexamine your writing style. Present participles used this way weaken the prose.
It’s not wrong to use them occasionally or to put an action after the dialogue, but when you do, make sure the action really does logically follow the dialogue delivery and doesn’t sound like an afterthought. Keep your writing tight. Simple sentences, occasionally spiced up, generally work better than the reverse: a lot of fancy ones broken up with the simpler ones.
And don’t use the excuse of “That’s my style. That’s how I write.” It’s a poor excuse for weak writing.