Monday, February 4, 2013

Verbal Deprivation

Authors are depriving themselves. 

I don't know why, but for some reason, certain words and verb tenses have landed on someone's "hit list," and consequently have become taboo--to the detriment of clarity in our writing. I don't know who that "someone" is or why anyone should pay attention to his opinion, but editors who understand grammar wisely ignore him.

One of the words currently cloaked in shame is "was." To a certain extent, I understand this. "Was" is the primary marker of a passive sentence, something generally frowned upon in the world of fiction writing. But let's take a look at its other uses. One of these two sentences below is a sure-fire example of lazy writing. Guess which:
A. As I watched, I realized he was strong as an ox.
B. When I saw him, he was sitting by Sally.
Gold star to whoever said A.

"He was strong as an ox" is telling, and adding the simile--especially a cliche--doesn't help. That sentence is a sign of lazy writing. "As I watched, he lifted a one-ton Ford pickup with his bare hands" illustrates how strong he is and doesn't contain a single "was."

Past Continuous 

Example B, however, uses the past continuous (or past progressive) verb tense. It illustrates on-going action. To use simple past tense in this sentence changes the meaning: "When I saw him, he sat by Sally" means the main character watched him assume the seat beside Sally. "When I saw him, he was sitting by Sally" means he had already assumed the seat and was still there when the main character saw him.
Okay, granted, that seems like a fine line. The site describes it better:
The past continuous describes actions or events in a time before now, which began in the past and was still going on at the time of speaking. In other words, it expresses an unfinished or incomplete action in the past. 
It is used: 
often to describe the background in a story written in the past tense, e.g. "The sun was shining and the birds were singing as the elephant came out of the jungle. The other animals were relaxing in the shade of the trees, but the elephant moved very quickly." 
to describe an unfinished action that was interrupted by another event or action: "I was having a beautiful dream when the alarm clock rang."
Does that help clarify?

Past continuous is a valid verb tense and can't help it if "was" is part of its make-up. Be discriminating about the "was" verbs you're trying to obliterate from your work.

Past Perfect

Authors frequently write in past tense, but when they want to illustrate something that is further past in their story's history than simple "past," they should use the "past perfect" tense--which, unfortunately, is also on the hit list. This is another one I can understand to a certain extent. Reading that a character "had" done this and "had" done that through several paragraphs can be cumbersome, but leaving it out entirely can confuse the timeline in the reader's mind.

If you're doing a brief history, a brief backstory, use past perfect:
When she first got there, she had expected five-star treatment since she was a move star.  Instead, she'd been treated as if she were no one special. Now, she realized they had given her special treatment--they'd treated her as if she were family.
As short as this is, the past perfect tense isn't bothersome, and it helps to use contractions to cut down on the "hads." To stretch this into several paragraphs of backstory, however, the past perfect tense would be a pain.

The secret is to ground your reader in the backstory by using past perfect in the first several lines, then revert to past tense until the last several lines. Toward the end of the backstory, use past perfect again to cue the reader that you're ending the backstory and preparing to re-enter "story present" (which, of course, is told in past tense. Can we get any more confusing?).

But the best thing to do with long backstory passages is to determine whether the reader really needs to know what you're about to dump on her and whether there is a better way to present it--a topic best left to another post.

By the way, the paragraph I used for this example is complicated in itself, with several different verb tenses to describe an event in the character's backstory. Let's break it down:
When she first got there (simple past tense since she's still there), she had expected five star treatment (past perfect tense, the action had already occurred) since she was a movie star (and she still is--simple past tense). Instead, she'd been treated (past perfect) as if she were no one special (subjunctive tense--describing a condition that isn't true). Now, she realized (story present, which is written in past tense) they had given her special treatment (past perfect, the action had already occurred)--they'd treated her (past perfect) as if she were family (subjunctive).
Quick note on the subjunctive tense: it's used to describe a hypothetical--a condition that isn't true or event that didn't happen. It often sounds odd to the ear, so it's frequently omitted as a verb tense. For instance, "If I was president, I'd give everyone a tax break" should be "If I were president..." (but I'm not). "I don't know what I would've done if he escaped" should be "...what I would've done if he had escaped" (he didn't).

I believe this verb tense has been on everybody's hit list since we first learned it in grammar school. We rarely use it in writing, much less in speech where proper grammar is all but dead anyway. Which is why, when such sentences are found in dialogue, I don't mark them. Dialogue generally reflects the way we talk. I'm not so generous in the text, though. It doesn't hurt to use proper grammar--wait. I'd better quit here. I'll get on a soapbox, and you'll never hear the end of it . . .

(For more on the subjunctive, see "6 Forms of the Subjunctive Mood," by Mark Nichol on DailyWritingTips.)

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