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.

Thus:

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.

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