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Wednesday, November 4

The Fault in Our Fiction. Avoiding Faulty Parallelism

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Have you ever read a sentence and things just sounded…off? You’re not really sure why, but something doesn’t line up, or worse, it creates a situation that knocks you right out of the story.

One possibly reason is faulty parallelism.

Faulty parallelism is when the sentence construction doesn’t align correctly, causing a weird disconnect for readers. Nouns don’t match up with nouns, verbs with verbs, clauses with clauses.

For example:
Bob liked to talk to Jane and killing zombies.
The key element here is “Bob liked to” which ought to match the rest of the sentence. A handy way to test this is to break it down into individual sentences:
Bob liked to talk to Jane.

Bob liked to killing zombies.
To fix, we’d use the same verb form for both segments:
Bob liked to talk to Jane and kill zombies.
Which works when we break it into two sentences:
Bob liked to talk to Jane.

Bob liked to kill zombies.
Or you can flip it around and write:
Bob liked talking to Jane and killing zombies.
Either works. Simply decide which sounds better in the text.

Simple faults like this are much easier to catch, because they tend to stand out. It’s the more complex sentences that typically sneak in and give us trouble. Let’s look at something more complicated.
In the morning, Bob found a plate of eggs on his bedside, three new timers, and a dark brown coat hung by the door.
Odds are, we’ll find this type of sentence in those gunky, not-quite-right areas of our work. On first glance, it looks fine—especially if we know what we’re trying to say. But break it down and we get:
In the morning, Bob found a plate of eggs on his bedside.
In the morning, Bob found three new timers.
In the morning, Bob found a dark brown coat hung by the door.
Listed like this, it’s easy to see where the faults lie. To fix, we’d edit the text so it matches.
In the morning, Bob found a plate of eggs and three new timers on his bedside, and a dark brown coat hanging by the door.
Which breaks down to:
In the morning, Bob found a plate of eggs and three new timers on his bedside.

In the morning, Bob found a dark brown coat hanging by the door.
Everything is now aligned and the sentence reads smoothly.

When you run into paragraphs that feel clunky or off (or one of your critique partners says something is funky but can’t say why), check your parallelism. The sentence details might be right, but the sentence construction could be out of whack.

Do you have any question about faulty parallelism?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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