Exactly How it Happened

By Jeanne Marie Leach

 Imagination is more important than knowledge

—Albert Einstein

 It is important that every sentence of fiction is written in the chronological order in which the events occur. Often there’s no more than a second of time difference between two phrases, but if they are written out of order, it stops the flow of the book because the reader has to suddenly picture a different order of events.

Beware of “before.” There are some applications of this word that suddenly takes the reader backward. Consider the following:

  • Before Anna ran across the street to get help from the paramedic who lived there, she tied a tourniquet around Joe’s ankle, making sure the blood flow had slowed.

While reading this you picture her running across the street for help, but then you are suddenly yanked backward in time when she is tying a tourniquet around Joe’s ankle. Do you see how this suddenly interrupted the flow of word picture? The reader is forced to backpedal a little bit. Make sure the story occurs in its natural order.

  • Anna tied a tourniquet around Joe’s ankle, making sure the bleeding had slowed. She ran across the street to get help from Andy, the paramedic who lived there.

This might sound nit-picky, but to create a fiction novel that flows smoothly and never trips up the reader, these little, nitpicky elements must be followed.

As with “was,” you don’t want to go on a witch hunt and eliminate all instances where “before” appears in the book. Take this example:

  • “Careful,” he warned before helping her slide into the soft embrace of the passenger’s seat.

In this case, the action is written in chronological order, so it’s okay to use “before.” Even so, this conjunction could be replaced with “while” or “and helped.”

Also beware of “after.” If a story is written in chronological order, there will be no need to tell us someone did something after they said or did something else. The reader will know this is the order in which the story took place. For example:

  • After John’s tense meeting with his boss, he went to lunch to give himself time to settle down.

There’s nothing wrong with this scene. But “after” is an empty word here. If this were written without it, the writing and scene will flow even better because the reader will still get a good picture in their mind of what’s happening, plus it gives the author a better chance to go deeper with the scene.

  • John left the meeting with his boss, every nerve in his body on edge. He needed to go to lunch to give himself time to settle down.

“Before” and “after” can be useless words, so be on the lookout for them. The principle here is to tighten up the writing by making every word on the page count.