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Misuse of present participial phrases (PPP) may be the most common beginner writer problem that we see in our critiques. They can make your writing seem amateur at best, or at worst, nonsensical. To become skilled writers, we must understand what PPPs are, when to use them, and how to use them.
What is a present participial phrase?
A present participial phrase is, essentially, when a phrase is tacked on to a core sentence, and that phrase contains the present participle form of a verb (usually a verb ending with “-ing”). Example:
Pablo smelled the roses, savoring the scent.
The first part before the comma is the core sentence: subject (Pablo) does verb (smelled) to an object (the roses).
The second part is the present participial phrase: verb-ing (savoring) the object (the scent).
The key thing to understand about a present participial phrase: when we use one, it means the two linked events (smelling and savoring) are happening at the exact same time.
In Pablo’s case, we have no problem. We can smell flowers and savor them at the same time. It’s a good use of the present participle.
Here’s a misused present participial phrase:
Granny Millicent heard glass break in the living room, dropping her glass of milk.
This may seem okay on the surface since these two things could happen simultaneously. The first problem is that the participle verb (dropping) is very far away from the noun it modifies (Millicent). This is called a “dangling” or “misplaced” modifier. The second problem is that it feels amateurish because the cause (window breaking) should come before the effect (dropping milk). Let’s fix it:
Granny Millicent heard glass break in the living room and dropped her milk.
Glass broke in the living room and Granny Millicent dropped her milk.
How about this one?
Millicent rummaged through the kitchen drawer for her revolver, fumbling with the ammo as she loaded it.
This has a clear cause-and-effect issue: she can’t simultaneously rummage for the gun and load it. How can she load it if she hasn’t found it yet? It’s also a bit bland because it summarizes instead of dramatizes. Let’s fix it:
Millicent rummaged through the kitchen drawer for her revolver. Her hand touched cold steel. She found the ammo box and began to load it, fumbling with the bullets as someone began to pound on her front door.
That’s better. Note that in the second sentence, we have three things happening simultaneously (loading, fumbling, pounding on the door) but we have correctly used the present participial phrases to communicate to the reader what is happening and in what chronological order.
Let’s try another one:
Running into the living room, Granny Millicent shot the intruder dead, sweating profusely as she did so.
Here we have another misused present participial phrase and some pretty amateurish writing (the two tend to go hand in hand). I have a hard time picturing a sweating granny shooting someone dead while she’s running through the house. Three things are happening at once, and it seems a bit silly. Let’s take another shot at it:
Granny Millicent lifted the revolver with both hands. Her arms shook from the weight of it as she stepped softly through the kitchen in her bunny slippers. Her hair curlers were soaked in sweat and sliding down her neck. The first shot had to kill—there was no way she’d be able to hold her grip on the pistol after it fired. The front door opened and she squeezed the trigger.
Now that’s better. We fixed the participial phrase problem, we’re showing the action instead of telling it, and we got rid of that cliche “sweating profusely” and that unnecessary filler “as she did so”. Note that the order of events is clear and logical, even though we used participial phrases.
In general, overuse of the present participles (-ing) verbs is a hallmark of amateur writing, and many editors will scrub them out of your manuscripts, sometimes to the point of removing them entirely. If you learn how to use them correctly, you can save them for when you actually need them: when two things happen at exactly the same time.
If your character changes throughout a story, it can be difficult to track their development. This is especially true in longer works, or if multiple characters undergo complex changes.
Solving this issue is deceptively simple. All you need to do is make a list of the changes each character has and link them to events in the story. At a minimum, jot down these five things about a character:
- Character’s state at the beginning (the lie they believe)
- Character’s state at the end (the truth they discover)
- Event(s) that show the beginning state (living the lie)
- Event(s) that drive the change (discovery of the truth)
- Event(s) that show the ending state (acceptance of the truth)
By linking the changes to specific events (scenes, actions, even just a bit of dialogue), you will show the why and how of the change to the reader, and you will be able to identify any incomplete or unexplored character arcs.
Spreadsheets can be helpful for laying out the information:
In many cases, you will have a single character go through multiple arcs. For example, if this was a longer piece of writing, Benjamin could also struggle with his relationship with his mother, which ultimately drove his clingy nature. Just add a new row on the spreadsheet (or another set of bullet points).
For a novel, imagine if this story was told via switching the point of view between the two characters, and each could have a dozen or more changes that they go through in this life-altering encounter. Keeping track of it all would be a hassle, but now you know how!
For more on character arcs, check out K.M. Weiland’s excellent series on the subject.
How do you become a better writer, anyway? This is a question we see frequently. It’s fairly straightforward.
- STUDY. Read books and articles on how to write.
- What to do: Read some good books on the craft of writing. There are also good audiobook courses. We have a good list of learning resources on our Resources page.
- What happens: You’ll learn how to recognize both good and bad writing when you read it. You’ll be able to study the work of others, and apply those lessons to your own work.
- If you don’t: If you only write, without learning how, you’ll waste time generating a large quantity of low quality work. This work may be fixed in editing, but it’s more efficient to write the best first draft you can, and if you don’t study, you won’t know how to fix it anyway (or you will work very slowly.)
- READ. Study the work of good writers, especially in the genre you want to write.
- What to do: Studying high-quality writing (and not just any random thing) is crucial: check out the National Book Awards, or for Sci-Fi and Fantasy, the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, or any other relevant literary awards. Pay attention to what the writer is doing, and how it affects you as a reader. Remember, you are writing for your reader—not for yourself. Take notes if you want, and review them at the end.
- What happens: Combined with a study of writing techniques, you will see how writers construct stories that entertain their readers. This will help you improve your writing by learning from others examples.
- If you don’t: You’ll end up writing a story that doesn’t hold up to the quality most readers of your genre expect, and you’ll learn the craft of writing very slowly.
- WRITE. Practice your writing skills, especially short stories.
- What to do: You can start a huge novel project, but a better choice is usually a series of short works such as journal entries, short stories, or articles. Short pieces are faster to write and edit, so there is less risk of burnout, and you will be able to see your progress as you improve. Writing prompts can be helpful if you are not sure what to write about. We have thousands of writing prompts available via a chat bot on our Discord server (link at the top) as well as monthly short story themes.
- What happens: Combined with the knowledge of how to write (from your study of the craft and the works of masters), you’ll be able to practice your new skills, and you’ll also accomplish your writing goals over time.
- If you don’t: How can you be a writer if you don’t write? Also, the stories you want to write will never be written. You’ll have a great knowledge of the craft perhaps, but no actual work of your own.
- EDIT. Most of the work of writing is actually editing.
- What to do: You may edit as you go, or edit at the end, but most first drafts need a lot of editing. Give yourself permission to write bad first drafts, then polish them into decent second drafts, better third drafts, and so on. Most successful authors revise their work dozens of times before it is published. Editing or critiquing the work of others, and having your own work edited or critiqued, can help you see your blind spots. Studying, reading, writing, and editing (as above) will build your skills so that you can give good critique, and understand the critique that people give you. We have active writing and critique discussion on our Discord Server (link at the top), and often discuss our editing work. You might also want to read this post on editing.
- What happens: You’ll massively improve the quality of your work by editing it. The more you edit, the better it will get, but only if you’ve spent the time studying and reading to learn how to create good stories.
- If you don’t: Unless you are unlike every writer in history and somehow you write perfect first drafts, your work will probably be disappointing to readers due to typos, grammar problems, point-of-view issues, and other basic mistakes that are easy to miss when crafting your first draft.
That’s it, those are the steps! The rest is up to you: be disciplined and spend the time to build your skills—or don’t, and you won’t.
You don’t have to do those steps separately; in fact, you may get better results and find it more interesting to switch between the different tasks as needed. Just make sure not to neglect any of them and you’ll be on your way. Good luck!
Sure, you can outline in a word document using bullet points, or you can keep track of characters and scenes in a spreadsheet, but what else can you do?
One of the most helpful ways to think about characters is called a character map, which shows the interactions between characters. Here’s a simple one from Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities:
Here is another one, a character map for my favorite book, Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.
You can also create diagrams for one single character, sometimes called a “mind map” of all the things that describe a character. Images can be helpful. Here’s one for Harry Potter.
Another type of helpful diagram is a plot diagram. Here are a few from around the internet that break up some popular movies into the standard three-act structure.
Your plot may not actually follow this structure, and that’s OK. As long as it’s a good read, you can do whatever you want. The point is that diagramming it can lead to insight into how to outline or edit your story.
Here’s the structure for The Matrix (above) and Thelma and Louise (below) for some examples.
Hopefully these examples will give you some ideas about how you can think about outlining and editing your story visually, as well as with the more standard spreadsheets and bullet-point outlines. Now back to writing!