Improbable simultaneous action happens when we writers describe our characters doing two or more actions that no one realistically could, or would want, to do at the same time. It sounds completely illogical, right? But we see the actions happening in correct sequence in our imaginations. And we think we are communicating them accurately with the right words. But we fall into the mistake of improbable simultaneous because we use participle phrases without thinking things through.
Example: “The doorbell rang. Pulling on his pants, he rushed to open the door. His sweaty fingers fumbled on the deadbolt lock.”
I kid you not. I have written sentences like this and never stopped to wonder what is wrong with them. They flow along in a snazzy, adrenaline-fueled way, and I am varying my sentence structure, and I am also showing all this action in just a few pared-down images, and what could be better than that? Except that I am visualizing him getting dressed and then answering the door, but what I have written literally shows him pulling on his pants as he is moving (“rushing”) to answer the door. That is impossible. No one can walk while pulling on his pants simultaneously.
Example rewritten with the participle phrase: “The doorbell rang. Pulling on his pants, he swallowed hard. He rushed to open the door and his sweaty fingers fumbled on the deadbolt lock.”
There is nothing wrong with using a participle phrase like “pulling on his pants,” but it is an action phrase that is also serving as a modifier (it is describing the subject “he”). Therefore, if the subject “he” is doing any other action in the sentence (such as swallowing hard), the two actions must be things he can do simultaneously, which is the case here.
Example rewritten without the participle phrase: “The doorbell rang. He pulled on his pants and rushed to open the door. His sweaty fingers fumbled on the deadbolt lock.”
Here is a really egregious example of improbable simultaneous actions: “The doorbell rang. Pulling on his pants, he rushed to open the door, his sweaty fingers fumbling on the deadbolt lock.” How can he pull on his pants and rush to open the door and have his fingers on the lock all at the same time? You might be surprised how often I run across sentences like this when I’m reading fiction.
I think we writers fall into the trap of describing improbable simultaneous actions because we don’t want to write the same type of sentence over and over again. So we sprinkle sentences with participle phrases in among our short, declarative sentences to shake up our writing rhythm. I mean, no one is Hemingway except for Hemingway. There is a limit to how many short, simple sentences we can get away with writing. Even in rough draft-mode, we want our sentences to flow and have a varied structure.
When we write in rough-draft mode, we are just trying to plug in words until we can push the book through to its end. We know we can refine our descriptions on the rewrite. But we and our editors can get too close to the project to notice mistakes, especially in a long manuscript. Things such as improbable simultaneous actions can slip through to the final draft. To stop this from happening, add the “improbable simultaneous actions” mistake to your list of self-edits to scan for on the rewrites.