Fiction writing: Don’t catch “-ing disease”

Many writers often construct sentences like these:

Putting down his red pen and swiveling his chair around before settling back into his seat, Max said, “Blah blah blah.”

Grabbing my arm, he dragged me into the bedroom, pinning me to the wall with his body.

Such sentences are the result of the writer’s attempt to add variety in sentence structure. That’s an admirable goal, but writing sentences with introductory verbal phrases results in shifts in temporal focus or to plain illogic by implying that more than one action occurred at the same time. In the examples above, Max did not put down his pen, swivel his chair around, and settle back into his seat and say, “Blah blah blah” all at the same time. Likewise, the man didn’t grab somebody’s arm, drag that person into the bedroom, and pin that person to the wall with his body. These actions were sequential events.

Another example:

Firing the hired man and burning down his shack, John drove into town.

Same error. The sentence implies that the action of firing the hired man and burning down his shack and the action of driving into town are simultaneous events. Ditto with this sentence:

Running up the stairs, he opened the bathroom door.

No one can open an upstairs door as they run upstairs, unless their arms are twenty feet long. Notice that these sentences use an introductory participial (verbal) phrase that begins with a gerund, a verb formed by adding –ing. Beginning many sentences with a gerund used in this way is a symptom of what I call “-ing disease.”

Sentences that defy logic and time restrictions are one of the most common narrative grammatical mistakes. If you’re suffering from -ing disease, take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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