Posted by: Kerry Gans | February 16, 2012

The Literary Toolbox: Writing Simultaneous Action

This past Saturday, I had the pleasure of going to a workshop run by editor Kathryn Craft. This workshop was a focused one, dealing with a single element of writing for two hours. Last week’s topic was writing simultaneous action.

Normally, when writers want to show action happening at the same time in two different locations, we write the events as two separate scenes. We may quickly cut back and forth between scenes, but each action happens as its own discrete event.

Not so with writing simultaneous action. The events are woven together within the same paragraph, the sentences jumping back and forth between events with no segues. A good example of this from the movies is the baptism montage from The Godfather. The example Kathryn gave us from literature was from Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

We practiced this mind-bending technique by writing one scene based on a prompt, then writing a second based on a different prompt (we had numerous prompts to choose from). When writing the second scene, we were supposed to try NOT to think about the first scene, to just write as if it wasn’t going to be integrated with the first. Of course, our subconscious knew it, so it did some pretty remarkable things with this exercise!

Since we were constrained to a short time period, we meshed the two scenes together rather willy-nilly. All of us were amazed at how well they meshed! Unintentional reinforcements of words or themes or metaphors or symbols layered deeper meaning into the story. We did find that confusion as to what was happening where did occur (although sometimes that added unexpected texture to the piece), but since this was a rough exercise that was expected. One trick that helped alleviate the confusion was using the present tense in one event and the past tense in the other event. That may sound contradictory, since both events are happening simultaneously, but it worked well, especially when the two events were present action and a flashback occurring during the present action.

Writing simultaneous action kind of made my head hurt, in that time-travel-paradox kind of way, but even the short exercise we did showed how powerful a tool it could be if used in the right place. In fact, I thought of a particular story I am writing where this would be perfect for a certain scene.

I’m going to share my writing exercise below so you can see what I mean by writing simultaneous action.

Scene 1: Driving in the rain is awful. Driving in the rain in the dark is horrific. Kaleidoscopic light refracts through the rain from oncoming cars, water slashes across the windshield so hard the wipers might as well be turned off, the tires just barely grab the road, the lines on the road all but invisible. Exit 47. How much farther? A flick to turn on the overhead light, a glance at the paper with the tear-stained directions. A nearly fatal glance, as the tires rumble on the strip at the road’s edge. The wheel fights me, the tires slip, but the car keeps to the road. Five more miles. Five miles takes about 15 minutes in this weather. 15 minutes could be too long. The end was near, they’d said. Only 15 minutes more to reach her bedside—and I still might be too late.

Scene 2: A crack shattered the night, the sound made visible by a blinding sulphurous light. The tree, steaming in the rain, stands for a moment as if in shock—the half of it falls away, splintering the trunk as it smashes to the ground. The tree tears down wires, pulverizes two cars, and lays across the road with the finality of death. Among the crushed limbs and shredded glass, the wires spark like disheartened fireworks, the only light left in the neighborhood.

Combined: Driving in the rain is awful. Driving in the rain in the dark is horrific. A crack shattered the night, the sound made visible by a blinding sulphurous light. Kaleidoscopic light refracts through the rain from oncoming cars, water slashes across the windshield so hard the wipers might as well be turned off, the tires just barely grab the road, the lines on the road all but invisible. The tree, steaming in the rain, stands for a moment as if in shock—then half of it falls away, splintering the trunk as it smashes to the ground. Exit 47. How much farther? A flick to turn on the overhead light, a glance at the paper with the tear-stained directions. A nearly fatal glance, as the tires rumble on the strip at the road’s edge. The wheel fights me, the tires slip, but the car keeps to the road. The tree tears down wires, pulverizes two cars, and lays across the road with the finality of death. Five more miles. Five miles takes about 15 minutes in this weather. 15 minutes could be too long. The end was near, they’d said. Among the crushed limbs and shredded glass, the wires spark like disheartened fireworks, the only light left in the neighborhood. Only 15 minutes more to reach her bedside—and I still might be too late.

So there’s a rough example of how it works (or doesn’t). Add this to your literary toolbox and use it to amp up some of the action in your story!

Advertisements

Responses

  1. Wow, that exercise is almost like improvising Jazz in music. I also wanted to comment on your earlier blog@ the lack of appreciation for writing as a profession. It all goes back to the lack of education in the arts that so many people experience. I wonder if the young people today have to read Shakespeare aloud? I am so happy that you have these workshops to help you in your craft and encourage you as you continue to pursue your fine talent.

    Like

  2. What a great workshop!

    Like

  3. It was great, wasnt it Kerry? I am so eager to use this complex technique and try to perfect it. I think its definitely one to be used sparingly! Kathryn gave us a great exercise…I wish I didnt have to miss this Saturday’s workshop! Thanks for summing it all up again.

    Like

  4. Glad the technique captured your imagination, Kerry! If anyone would like to get on the mailing list for the Doylestown Craftwriting sessions, feel free to e-mail me at kathryn@writing-partner.com. You don’t have to commit to a series but you do need to reserve a spot; I keep them to eight people, to allow for significant interaction.

    Like

  5. […] also held another great workshop I attended on writing simultaneous action. You can catch what’s that about here, by my fellow classmate, Kerry […]

    Like

  6. […] 2.   The Literary Toolbox: Writing Simultaneous Action […]

    Like


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: