Not-so-perfect tenses

Another month, another mentoring session.  This time, it was all about verb tenses – and the tension and immediacy they either deliver or dilute.

I last had to think about tenses a very long time ago, when I occupied a grainy and much carved-upon school desk. That was back in the day when, if you weren’t concentrating, the teacher could still get away with firing a blackboard rubber or a piece of chalk at your skull.  Even then, when called upon to ‘parse the following sentence’ I could rarely get beyond locating nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs. Ask me which tense the sentence was written in, and with anything beyond simple present and simple past, my otherwise capable brain would throw its metaphorical hands in the air and surrender.

My mentor cast a spotlight on three tenses which weaken my narrative.    Until she showed me what I’d been doing, I hadn’t seen it.  In case you’re hobbled by the same grammatical blind-spot as I am, here they are:

Past perfect:

  • Examples – he had studied in London; she had waited for some time

Past continuous:

  • Examples – he was browsing the internet when I rang; she was waiting for me when I got off the plane

Past perfect continuous:

  • They had been chatting for several minutes before I arrived; he had been standing at the bar for the last hour when the police arrived

I’m not going to blather on about how and why each tense is used – there are numerous resources on the internet for that.  The point my mentor was making was that for my narrative to have the most impact, the reader has to be there for the action.  They don’t need to be held at arm’s length, or told what has happened backstage, as it were; they need to see the story unfolding in front of them.


The girl’s hands were trembling becomes The girl’s hands trembled

Most of the guests had come down for dinner becomes One by one the guests came down for dinner

And what about this clunker:

Henry had hung back. Whilst everybody else had crowded the table, anxious to be in the centre of things, he had taken up a position on a stool at the far end of the bar and ordered himself a beer.

Modified only slightly, it has a more immediate feel:

Henry hung back.  Whilst everybody else crowded the table, anxious to be in the centre of things, he took up a position on a stool at the far end of the bar and ordered himself a beer. 

The impact that choice of tense has on a narrative seems obvious once it’s pointed  out; but I guess that’s what being a neophyte is about – and I love the learning.  Now the burden is on me to go back through my 45,000 or so words and make sure she doesn’t catch me out again.

5 thoughts on “Not-so-perfect tenses

  1. Interesting Jools. I have similar thoughts myself but when I go back and change verbs to make them as immediate as possible, I run into problems at times. For example if you write in a past tense in your novel, as is usually the case, and you describe something that a character did many years before that point in time, it is technically difficult to avoid some quite undesirable tenses, such as ‘he had tried to overthrow the government, but failed’, meaning he had done this at some previous point, but was no longer doing it at the point at which your story is written. If you say ‘he tried to overthrow the government’, it makes it sound as if that is happening at that point in your story; you lose the sense of the past within the story. The worst is when you end up with a construction such as ‘she had had to call five times before she could leave a message’. Assuming you can’t get round it by using a more immediate tense, you are left with the ungainly ‘she had had to call’. Is it the pluperfect? I have read that you can get round it by using this construction a couple of times, which allows the reader to get into the fact that you are relaying past events, i.e. ones that took place before the novel’s storyline, and then switch into the usual immediate past tense. This would be called the preterite in Spanish – is the same name used in English? However, while this sometimes seems to work, I’m not sure it always solves the problem. I’ve also seen the idea of using e.g. ‘she’d had to call’ to make it more snappy than ‘she had had to call’. But I agree overall that it is best to use the more immediate tense possible. I would be interested in your views on what is best to do when it is not possible.

    1. Tracy, thanks for your comment, and I absolutely agree with you – it’s a problem. I’ve also been advised that you can use ‘had’ once or twice to get the reader into the past perfect, and then use the simple past.

      The learning for me regarding the more awkward past tenses is that where I can change the tense to bring the reader ‘into the moment’, it strengthens the narrative. Once it was pointed out to me how liberally my writing was scattered with these clunkers, I could see the difference it made. In running with more than one POV in my slowly developing narrative, parts of the same scene may be viewed from more than one angle. Thus a little repetition is unavoidable and the temptation is to bring the reader up to the moment with POV2, with a quick summation in those less engaging tenses (eg, the para about Henry at the bar in my post). I think the message is, avoid wherever possible, assuming you want to unfold the story in such a way as to keep the reader in the middle of the action.

      As far as your example, ‘she had had to call five times before…’ – what about taking the reader back into the moment? ‘She dialled the number… hung up…. dialled again, and again… On the fifth attempt… blah….’

      The issue of addressing aspects of a character’s back-story in a dynamic way opens another can of literary worms, and ventures into the realms of show-not-tell. And these things all make me wonder what on earth I was thinking of, taking on the challenge of writing ‘my first novel’. What a party!

  2. This is another good reason to support ditching the past perfect tense once a flashback is established–makes the action (even though it occurred in the remote past) more immediate.

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