Participle problems in fiction

You’ve probably heard of dangling participles, but participles can create other problems in fiction too.

Before I dive more deeply into that, let me explain what a participle is.

Present participles are forms of verbs that are formed by adding -ing.

Example:

Hoping for a happy ending, she read the last scene.

Using participle phrases isn’t bad per se, but you should use them only for actions that happen at the same time as the action in the main clause. That’s called a simultaneous action.

Example:

Correct: Holding the tray steadily, she walked toward Drew.

Since she can hold the tray and walk toward Drew at the same time, these are simultaneous actions and we can use a participle phrase.

For sequential or consecutive actions — one action happening after the other — please don’t use participle phrases.

Example:

Incorrect: Unlocking the door, she went straight to bed.

She unlocks the door first and then goes to bed. For actions that you can’t actually perform at the same time, avoid using a participle phrase.

Incorrectly used participles are common with dialogue tags.

Example:

Incorrect: “Don’t tempt me,” she said, laughing.

Since she can’t talk and laugh at the same time, you should rewrite the sentence.

Correct: “Don’t tempt me.” She laughed.

Possible rewrites

In addition to rewriting the sentence without a participle phrase, there are also two easy fixes for when you want to use a participle for sequential actions:

  • Use a preposition: After unlocking the door, she went straight to bed.
  • Use what is called the perfect participle: Having unlocked the door, she went straight to bed.

Most often, it might be better to rewrite the sentence, though. Too many participles create a monotonous rhythm. So take a look at the participle phrases in your manuscript and make sure you use them sparingly and correctly.

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