Don’t Make Your Characters Do the Impossible

by | Writing | 10 comments

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I could enjoy the book I’m reading more if the characters would stop being contortionists. Every time they do the impossible, they pull me out of the story. This happened so often that I turned to see who published the book. I was surprised. It was a small but reputable traditional publisher.

This book has shown me how important it is for me, the writer, to learn to recognize and fix writing problems. It also warned me to be careful in choosing the editors I hire. All editors are human, and I expect them to miss a problem occasionally. I appreciate editors who know the writing problems to look for and who edit thoroughly.

Here are examples of impossible simultaneous actions. (My research said examples such as these contain participial phrases that suggest the impossible.)

Impossible Simultaneous Actions



image by Victoria_Borodinova

Incorrect: Setting her suitcase on the floor, she walked away. (Is she walking bent over or duckwalking and dragging her suitcase on the floor before she let’s go?)

Correct: She set her suitcase on the floor and walked away. (And has the valid meaning and then or that the latter action is chronologically sequential to the first.)

Something that could happen: Setting her suitcase on the floor, she looked around for the man who’d pick it up after she walked away.



Incorrect: Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, he scrubbed the spaghetti stain on his shirt. (If he’s pulling up the handkerchief with his hand, what is he wiping the stain with? His elbow?)

Correct: He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and scrubbed the spaghetti stain on his shirt.

Something that could happen: Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, he smelled the basil in the spaghetti stain on his shirt.



image by katyalison

Incorrect: Reaching behind her for her scarf, she wrapped it around her neck. (How can she tie a scarf around her neck while she’s reaching behind her for said scarf?)

Correct: She reached behind her for her scarf and then (or just and) wrapped it around her neck. (My research showed that, opposed to the opinions of some, She reached behind her for her scarf, then tied it around her neck, isn’t wrong.)

Something that could happen: Reaching behind her for her scarf, she remembered she’d left her scarf on the train.



Incorrect: Reaching into her bag, she pulled out her cell. (If she’s reaching in, how can she pull something out?)

Correct: She reached into her bag and pulled out her cell.

Something that could happen: Reaching into her bag, she pressed her lips together.

Participial phrases that suggest your character is a contortionist.  Click to tweet.

Do you have a favorite use of a participial phrase that shows an action that’s impossible?

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Suddenly unemployed, Allie Masterson returns home to Cary, North Carolina where she caddies for her father on the PGA Seniors Tour. There, she encounters a man who possesses an alluring gift of reading the contours of the green. Fascinated with his uncanny ability, Allie is excited to meet the Green Whisperer—until she discovers that the easygoing caddy is actually Shoo Leonard, the boy who teased her relentlessly when they were kids. Despite Allie’s reservations, when Shoo is faced with having to overcome a hand injury, she agrees to use her sport science degree to become his trainer…and then she falls for him.

 Shoo Leonard is grateful to Allie for her singular determination to get him ready for the PGA tour, but he isn’t ready for anything more. Still raw from a broken engagement and focused on his career, he’s content to be her fist-bumping buddy…but then he falls for her.

What seems like a happily-ever-after on the horizon takes a turn when Allie decides she’s become a distraction to Shoo’s career. Is it time for her to step away or can The Putting Green Whisperer find the right words to make her stay?

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  1. H. L. Wegley

    A similar issue I’ve encountered with editors, reviewers and readers is athletic accomplishments. I’ve had my character jump across a narrow gorge, run 200 yards in a specified number of seconds, etc. — all things that I used to do, so I didn’t think about anyone questioning them. But they have questioned them. Just because things are possible, and might even seem routine to the writer, readers may tend to disbelieve them. One can argue the point with an editor, but readers will pass judgments without the author’s input. Something to keep in mind.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Interesting, Harry. I remember hearing in a workshop that just because the author had a true experience and used it in a story it often didn’t fly with readers as believable.

  2. Katheryn Maddox Haddad

    hA, HA! That’s like “Throw Mama from the train a kiss.”

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Love it, Katheryn. A friend‘s mother would say, “Hang me a picture on the wall.”

  3. Kelly

    Great post, Zoe!

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Thanks, Kelly. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Mary Felkins

    I once had an editor say, “For the hero to do that, he’d have to have three arms.” Meaning…I’d not written it clearly. So hard to be objective in the middle of writing. Thanks, Zoe!

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Hi, Mary, My editor says, awkward.

  5. Kathy Steinemann

    Excellent, Zoe. This is one of my pet peeves.

    I’m smiling while typing. Yup, that works.

    Happy New Year!

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Thanks, Kathy. When I read a case in a book, I try to picture the character. I receive some fairly weird images. What surprises me is when a traditionally published book has more than one case.

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