I’m getting back into the grammar weeds today, based on common problems I’m seeing in beta manuscripts. In this case, I’m talking about the subject of a sentence, and making it clear to your readers which character is acting at any given time.
Sentence 1: Chris turned around.
We have a basic simple sentence here with subject (Chris), verb (turned), and adverb (around). It’s clear to us that Chris is the one doing the turning, because he’s the only person mentioned. But what if I complicated things?
Sentence 2: Chris turned around and waved at Jim.
We have two people in this sentence, but it’s clear that both verbs (turned and waved) apply to Chris. That’s because readers read words in order, and associate action with the last person mentioned. Even though “waved” is closer in the sentence to Jim than it is to Chris and they are both present in the scene, we associate all action with Chris until Jim is introduced.
Sentence 3: Chris turned around and waved at Jim, ducking a flying frisbee.
Now we’re having problems. Is Chris or Jim ducking the frisbee? Maybe it’s not important in the grander scheme of the story, but it means we don’t have a way to visualize the scene with any kind of clarity. Technically, Chris is the subject of the sentence and the verb “ducking” should be attached to him. But here’s the key takeaway:
In English, readers read words in the order they appear.
While our working memory allows us to hold on to information and re-arrange things in the correct order, that’s a process that happens after we finish the sentence. When it takes longer it takes for the brain to double-check meaning before letting us absorb the sentence, it breaks the reader’s flow. It reduces clarity. It dulls your prose.
So even if the sentence above is technically correct, at least some part of the reader’s mind tries to attach verbs to the most recent subject mentioned (Jim). Part of the confusion is the change of verb tense, which cues the reader that other changes, like subject, might have occurred as well. You reduce the confusion by keeping the verbs parallel and making it clear this is an ordered list of events:
Sentence 4: Chris turned around and waved at Jim, then ducked a flying frisbee.
Of course, you can structure and edit your voice right out of your prose. Sometimes, though, confusion can clutter up and distract from your voice. The key takeaway here is that people read words in the order they appear. This is the part you can’t change. What you can do is use sentence structure to compensate, tricking our minds into holding crucial information with less effort. When writing is clear, we’re able to immerse ourselves in the story itself, without distraction. That’s in your power as a writer.