5 Reasons Why Ditching This Sentence Structure Will Massively Improve Your Fiction

I wince every time I see this structure in fiction. Do you use it?

The structure goes like this: 

Walking to the window, he watched the seagulls soar over a silvered sea.

An innocuous sentence? Actually, it’s a howling clunker of sentence, and I’ll explain why in a minute. For now, I want to draw your attention to problem part of it, “Walking to the window.”

The grammar geeks call that fragment a “preceding participle phrase”. There is also a creature called a “following participle phrase”, but in my twenty-plus years editing both fiction and non-fiction, critiquing students’ work, and a lifetime of reading, I have rarely seen a following participle phrase, and it has never been used incorrectly. It’s the preceding version that causes issues.

To save myself from the tongue twister, I call this structure “the sentence that marks a newbie” because it is in beginning writers’ work I see it most often. Seasoned pros avoid it.

Here’s why you should avoid it, too.

It Slows Down Your Pacing

If you want your fiction to compete with all the distractions and attention-grabbers the average consumer faces, these days, you can’t risk the reader getting bored. Pacing, therefore, becomes critical.

When you read my example, you can feel the pace slow down. It’s a complex sentence (because it has two or more phrases). Complex sentences always slow down the pace.

In particular, when your stories are listened to via audiobook, the reader doesn’t “see” the comma separating the phrases. Instead, your narrator will naturally insert a tiny pause in their narrative to signal the comma…in other words, they’ve physically slowed the pacing.

Here’s the original example:

Walking to the window, he watched the seagulls soar over a silvered sea.

If you wanted to pick up the pace, you could chop the sentence in two:

He walked to the window. Watched the seagulls soar over a silvered sea.

That’s not great, but it does read “faster” than the original.

If you’re writing a scene or section where you want to slow down the pace, you could use preceding participle phrases…except they have other flaws. There are better ways to control your pacing, including using longer, simple (one phrase) sentences.

He walked to the window and watched the seagulls soar over a silvered sea.

Simply, elegant and still a slower pace that lets the reader take a mental breath.

It’s Passive

Unlike pacing, there’s never a good reason to use passive writing.

You want the reader mentally walking in your character’s boots, seeing the scene from their eyes. Yet passive phrasing and passive voice put distance between you/your narrator and your reader. Preceding participle phrases are always in passive voice.

Walking to the window, he watched the seagulls soar over a silvered sea.

“Walking” is the participle. “Walked” is the past tense version, which most fiction is written in. “Walk” is present tense, in which increasingly more fiction is written, too.

“Walking” is also passive. It draws attention to itself among all the past and present tense verbs. It weakens the connection between you and your reader.

Often, The Phrase Has Nothing To Do With The Rest Of The Sentence

Walking to the window, he watched the seagulls soar over a silvered sea.

“Walking to the window” has nothing to do with staring through the window at the sea. It’s subtle, in this case, but sometimes I see authors tack unrelated pieces of action together that are even more obviously wrong.

Grabbing his arm, Halley brought the gun to his temple.

Because the two phrases are in the sentence together, separated by a mere comma, it implies that the first is causal. In this example that is not what the author meant to say. Halley grabbed his arm, then she used the gun. She didn’t have to grab his arm in order to bring the gun to his temple. They just happened to occur one after another.


Halley grabbed his arm. She brought the gun to his temple.


Halley grabbed his arm, then brought the gun to his temple.

It Frequently Jump Cuts The Action

Getting deeper into the noxious weeds; participle phrases can also cause time to jump in ways that make your reader blink:

Walking to the window, he watched the seagulls soar over a silvered sea.

The example implies that both actions happened at the same time. In fact, he had to walk to the window before he could watch the seagulls.

Here’s a participle phrase that doesn’t jump time or break the causal chain:

Feeling a great weariness, he leaned against the window and watched the seagulls.

His weariness caused him to lean against the window and leaning against the window happened at the same time he was feeling weary.

Here’s another bad example that demonstrates even more aggressively how participle phrases can jump cut your action:

Wandering to the market, she met up with Chris and Dean.

The author has the character moving to the market but doesn’t indicate that the character actually arrived. Instead, the author jumps to the character meeting her friends.


She wandered to the market. There, she met with Chris and Dean.

One word, “there”, does the work needed to indicate to the reader that she arrived at the market and avoids the jump cut.

Readers Have To Work To Understand It

This is arguably the greatest sin committed by participle phrases.

Commercial fiction works well and is beloved by readers when they don’t have to work to understand the narrative. Popular fiction does not throw up any potholes that draw the reader’s attention to the fact that they’re reading.

Nothing should jolt the reader out of the mental movie they’re building as they read your words. Yet participle phrases do exactly that. Nearly always, it’s because they’re constructed incorrectly and the misstep in the narrative makes the reader pause to re-process the sentence to understand what you mean.

But even when correctly built — feeling a great weariness, he leaned against the window and watched the seagulls — the preceding phrase must be held in the readers mind for the fraction of a second it takes to absorb the second phrase and put the two together.

And yes, this is a microscopic demerit, but small demerits add up to fiction that makes readers go “meh.”

Because pro writers rarely use them, participle phrases draw attention to themselves. They’re showy, when they’re not clunky or plain wrong.

All are reasons to avoid them in your narrative.

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