perfectly progressive: a rant about tense

A pet peeve of mine: seeing extra had’s and was’s peppering stories. Now, I’m not so arrogant as to think that throwing my opinion around on this topic will somehow change the internet, make these questions stop popping up on writer’s forums and in the stuff I volunteer to beta-read, but, well, hopefully I can entertain you while I rant a bit.

Past Perfect – Perfect for completed, finite things

If a story is written in past tense (let’s call it simple past) we simply conjugate the verb. I ran, she went, he worked, they spun around in circles howling at the moon.

If, however, a character is recalling something that happened in their past, we would use a past perfect construction to signify that hey, this is a flashback. At the “present” in the narrative (though written in past) it’s signaling one specific event, already passed, never to happen again. And even then, usually one use of had will suffice.

The stupid jingle rang in her head, reminding her of that trip to the theme park. Owen had insisted they ride the roller coaster. She tried her best to be a good sport, but she still threw up all over his shoes the moment the safety bars lifted. He never asked her to the park again.

It’s easy to think that each verb in that indirect flashback insisted needs its own had, but it doesn’t. In fact, you could even try removing that one and see if the passage still reads right. After all, we did cue the reader that a flashback was imminent (that trip to the theme park).

Let’s say we’re strolling through memory lane a bit more generally. Something that happened more than once?

The warm smell of fabric softener reminded her of Owen’s hair. He always used salon-quality products even when they couldn’t afford it. When they ran low, he would skip lunch until he saved up enough to restock.

It’s pretty clear that the character is reminiscing and that this little snippet is not happening in the narrative as it is read.

Unless Owen went through a dramatic, personality-altering change and that change is important to the story that he did, in which case, maybe that had is important.

But even if he’s dead… people tend to remember loved ones without adding hads. My Bernie, he always laughed at that. Your great aunt knew how to make a perfect pie. He never met a stranger.

And if the character in question is having a flashback as part of the healing process, the reader will already know Owen met his untimely end in front of a bus, and clearly, he didn’t pop up in the narrative to get his shoes thrown up on again.

Unless it’s that kind of story.

Now, I’m not saying everyone should purge all hads all the time. I’d just like to suggest that you think about whether some of those hads are necessary. If the reader can understand without it, that had is one more word leaching power, putting distance between the reader and the story, piling words upon words in your story.

Besides, all those hads sound awkward when you read it aloud. Try it.

Was Working in Progress

Sometimes a poor, misinformed soul will occasionally spout out the wisdom that the “was doing” construction is passive and that’s why we should avoid it. And they’re wrong. It’s not passive. It’s just wordy and when used for things that aren’t important to the story, it weakens prose.

Here’s my own personal rule for past progressive (or present progressive): I use it when it’s actually important to the story that this specific motion is still in progress. In other words, when it must be interrupted.

Owen was jaywalking across Jefferson. He got hit by a bus.

That’s pretty important to the story because if I said:

Owen jaywalked across Jefferson. He got hit by a bus.

Then suddenly you’re thinking, wow, did that bus driver go nuts and drive onto the sidewalk to run over Owen after he’d already safely crossed the street? He must have been jealous of Owen’s dastardly good looks.

But then we see it so many other places where it’s not important for the action to be in progress, in which case it’s one more word between the reader and sweet, sweet story.

Jody was leaning against the door frame while Owen blow-dried his hair.

In my mind, leaning can’t really be interrupted, nor it is important that the leaning is in progress. Why not use this?

Jody leaned against the door frame while Owen blow-dried his hair.

When a writer leaves such an action in progress, it leaves a little sticky-note in my reader-brain: this detail is important because the writer went to specific efforts to say it’s still an action in progress. We hold that, remember it, waiting for that interruption, that halt in progress. And if it doesn’t happen, if it’s not necessary, it can exhaust the reader.

The same with other in-progress kind of words. Even the jaywalking example could be better with a bit more show. Things like were swimming, was walking, were driving, was chewing, were sitting… There’s probably a better way to say it.

Other ways Had and Was Creep in and Vague it up:

The English language has a lot of ways to use was and had that work well enough in day to day usage but not so much in fiction–because they don’t paint a picture of exactly what happens:

I was at his throat. She was on her feet again. He was home. They were ready.

She had a child with her. They had signs. He had errands to run.

And again, I’m not saying “don’t ever use these.” But when I see these little gems in action, I ask myself: Can I do this better? I lunged forward and held the knife to his throat. She sprang to her feet like a cat. They leaned forward, bracing themselves to block the attack. A small child clung to her hand. They thrust signs in the air as cars drove by. He promised his wife he’d run to the store.

Make fun of me if you want; my ‘improved’ examples are still pretty terrible. But hopefully, terribleness notwithstanding, you see what I’m aiming for: each was or had replaced with a more specific verb.

Other Little Extras that Are Not Actually Extra for the Reader:

Begin/began and its cousin started to. If a character begins an action, it leaves another sticky-note in my reader-brain that says: hey, it’s important that this action is begun and not yet finished. So if I read:

I began to lock all the windows[…] A knock on the door set my pulse pounding…

Then I assume that this task being half-finished (windows in the house are still unlocked, therefore the house is vulnerable to whatever threat this character is afraid of) that this will be important to the story. And if it isn’t, I’m spending the next half the book looking for something that isn’t there, wasting brain-space and frustrating me with an unintentional red herring.

This other gem drives me nuts for other reasons entirely:

I was beginning to think that maybe [the obvious bad guy] had it out for me.

No really? The reader picked this up five chapters ago and you, main character, are now JUST STARTING TO THINK (not actually thinking yet, just starting to) that all the clues piled up in your face mean something? This is Too Stupid To Live territory. And yeah, I know it’s often meant tongue-in-cheek and to be voicey and funny… but still. One cannot begin to think. One either thinks, or one doesn’t. A person can change her mind, deciding on a different set of opinions than before, but one can not begin to think something. Begin research to form an opinion, yes. Start a long set of discussions with someone, yes. Weigh the advantages and disadvantages of a big decision, yes. Start to think one declarative, factual thought? Doesn’t do much for me. Too many words to say it. Starting to think has no power.

There are exceptions to this rule, like when we use the word thinking to denote decision-making. But even then, a verb stronger than think will get you more mileage (and a chance to write it without filtering). And it still reads better without the “started to” getting in the way.

So, there you have it. I felt like ranting.

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