Lessons in Past Perfect 3: Filling in gaps

Time is an important dimension in any story, and verb tenses are a major tool by which writers assert control over the dimension of time in their storytelling. If you’re a writer, I believe you owe it to yourself to master the verb tenses, regardless of the approach you take to telling your story. It’s part of what it means to be skilled in the craft.

When I see problems with verb tense in the work of aspiring or self-published writers, by far the most frequent issues involve the past perfect tense, specifically the failure to use it when it’s called for. People try to make the simple past do the work of both past and past perfect. The result is a noticeable loss of temporal “depth” and sometimes a loss of clarity. It’s like looking at a photograph where some things are out of focus that aren’t meant to be, making it hard to distinguish the relationships between objects.

Most stories are told in the past tense. They use the simple past for ongoing action, so the past perfect is needed to set off events that occurred prior to the current action. Many people aren’t very comfortable with the past perfect, and if you know you’re one of them, this post is for you.

This time I’d like to explain one very common use for the past perfect in a past tense narrative: filling in gaps created by jumping from one scene to another.

When you’re telling a story—anything other than a very simple one—you can’t show everything that happens because there just isn’t room. You have to decide which actions and events to put into scenes and which to skip over, but skipping creates gaps that can be informational as well as temporal. How do you fill the reader in on events that matter for continuity but are too minor, too brief, too boring, or just too isolated in time to justify fleshing-out in a scene? The past perfect tense is perfect for this, especially if you like to make “clean” jumps between scenes instead of linking them through brief passages of narration.

An example:

Let’s say the last scene involved the hero’s escape from some adversaries while crossing a plain to reach a range of mountains he has to climb. The next scene skips to him being in the mountains, where there are no trees, and its climax will involve fighting off an attacker with the aid of a stick. Since he didn’t have the stick in the previous scene, I want to explain how he acquired it. Here goes:

Aron paused halfway across a steeply sloping field of scree to catch his breath and assess his progress. He judged he was a little more than halfway to the pass. These mountains were too arid to support trees at this elevation and he had a clear view of the plain he had left, spread out below him, and of the ravine-like valley where he had picked up the trail that led to his present location. He glanced at the sun and took a swallow of precious water from his bottle, then started forward again. As he went, he used a stout stick to steady himself on the slippery slope. The stick was about five feet long, light but strong. He had cut it from one of the trees that grew sparsely along the stream in the bottom the valley. He had thought it might prove useful and he was very glad of it now. The trail he was following was sketchy at best. Even when the path wasn’t covered with loose fragments of rock, as it was here, it was steep, rock-strewn, and uneven.

Analysis: Okay, there are four past perfect verbs in the above passage. The first, “had left,” refers to the plain in the previous scene and comes midway through the third sentence after some introductory current action that is in simple past tense. This first use helps link the action to the previous scene as well as filling in an action that was skipped. “Had picked up the trail” places another detail in the gap. Finally, “had cut,” and “had thought” refer directly to the stick. (“Grew,” referring to the trees, doesn’t need to be past perfect because the trees are still growing in the valley. Past perfect is used for events that were completed in the past or conditions that no longer exist, not for ongoing conditions.) “He was very glad” is simple past tense that returns you to the current action. The passage also illustrates how switching back and forth between ongoing action and description of past action can avoid the repetitiousness of too many “hads” in close proximity.

In this particular case, substituting past tense in the first three instances feels “flat” and I know it’s ungrammatical, but I would have little difficulty deducing the meaning. He must have left the plain at some time in the past since he was there in the last scene and isn’t any longer; since he is currently following the trail, he must have picked it up in the past; and since he currently has the stick, he must have cut it in the past. In the last instance, however, “he thought it might prove useful” implies that he is anticipating a possible future use for the stick as he is crossing the slippery scree, rather than having anticipated the present kind of use at the time he cut the stick. The rest of the sentence and the subsequent details might cause one to question this interpretation, but do not clearly resolve the issue.

Another example:

The preceding scene in this case could have been one that established a need to build the “device” mentioned, and the current scene skips to the building of it, leaving a day-long “shopping” expedition undescribed. I could have made a scene out of the shopping, and might have gotten some good mileage out of it, but let’s just say that the need to move the story along more rapidly has left it on the cutting room floor. There are never-the-less some aspects of that trip that are relevant to the plot, specifically the need for secrecy…

Simon waited until the last sounds of movement in the rooms below him ceased before emptying the contents of his pack onto the table in his loft room and sitting down to attempt to assemble the device. The process was going to take some time and he couldn’t afford any interruptions. The assortment of wires, switches, chips, and circuit boards didn’t look like much, but it had taken him the better part of a day in the tech bazaar in Sol City to purchase them. The task could have been accomplished much more quickly if there hadn’t been the need for total secrecy. He had crisscrossed the bazaar repeatedly, putting plenty of both time and distance between each pair of purchases so as not to draw attention to himself, and he was quite sure that he had not been followed home. He smiled with grim satisfaction as he plugged in his soldering iron.

Analysis: I’ll let you hunt down the past perfect verbs. I count four of them. In this case, the repetition of “had” verbs is diluted by a couple of infinitives (“to purchase,” “to draw), a “could have been,” and an “ing” verb (“putting”)—in addition to a simple past tense verb. To my ear, this passage would sound really bad with past tense substituted for past perfect—except for the reference to the need for secrecy. In that one case I think I could have used simple past because the need for secrecy is, in a sense, ongoing. The situation isn’t quite analogous to that of the growing trees in the first example. I come across such ambiguous situations from time to time where something, such as a character’s reaction, could be viewed as both in the past and ongoing. In such cases the writer has latitude. You can decide which aspect of the action you want to emphasize—or which verb just sounds better.

This post has gotten plenty long enough. I would love to hear from you if it was helpful, of course, but also if you have any related suggestions to offer to aspiring writers who are working to improve their craft.

Clarity and the ambiguous pronoun

Caterpillar using a hookah. An illustration fr...
Caterpillar using a hookah. An illustration from Alice in Wonderland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I read people’s fiction manuscripts I’m often surprised at how frequently I encounter things that just aren’t clear. (I probably shouldn’t be. As a writer you always know what you meant to say, and it can be hard to tell in the heat of the moment that you haven’t said it.) This is a much rarer flaw in published works of fiction – although I have had the same experience recently with published books or ebooks. It never used to happen, or almost never.  I suspect the proliferation of self-published books and books from small indy publishers is at least partly to blame. The author may or may not have hired an editor, or may have used an inexperienced one. A small publisher may run the ms past one editor, whereas I’m told the major houses used to run them past several. More eyes are better. It’s that simple.

When I say things aren’t clear, I’m not talking about places where the writer was obviously trying to imply things, rather than explicitly state them, or deliberately trying to be ambiguous. I’m talking about ambiguity that’s obviously not intended.

One of the most frequent causes of unintended lack of clarity comes from ambiguous pronoun reference, something like this:

As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. He smiled and waved.  “Where are you going?” he called.

Who smiled and waved? Was it Jim or Bob? Is Jim asking where Bob is going on the bus, or is Bob asking where Jim is going on his bicycle?

Other things being equal, pronouns tend to attach themselves to the nearest preceding noun. “His” therefore refers to Jim. There’s really no other possibility. Both instances of “he” are most likely to refer to Bob, making Bob the one smiling and waving and also the one calling. If you as the writer meant otherwise, you had better say so, like this:

As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. Jim smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Now the remaining “he” feels like it refers to Jim because Jim is closer, so Jim is doing the calling as well as the smiling and waving. Again, if you didn’t mean that, you had better say so:

As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. Jim smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” Bob called.

But remember, I said “other things being equal.” Consider this rewriting of the original sentence:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. He smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Now Jim and Bob no longer have equal weight because “Jim” is being used grammatically as a subject whereas “Bob” is being used as an object. I’m not certain, but I feel as if all three instances of “he” more likely refer to Jim. Jim was the subject of the first sentence, so I tend to assume it’s Jim whose actions are being described as the narrative proceeds. If I intend otherwise, I must say so:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. Bob smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

And again, I’ve now got Bob doing the calling because his is the closest name and it was used as a subject.  If I meant to switch back to Jim, I should have written, “where are you going?” Jim called.

All right, now consider this variant:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. His face broke into a smile and he waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Now, I tend to feel as if the “his” in “his face” could quite possibly refer to Bob. I think this is because “Bob” was used as an object and “his” is an object pronoun. It could still be Jim, but the connection is weakened and the sentence has really become ambiguous. Also, the last “he” now feels like it ought to have the same referent as the one in “he waved.” So again, I have to check to be sure that’s what I intended.

What’s the upshot here?

When you are describing action involving multiple characters of the same gender, the pronoun is not your friend. This doesn’t mean you should avoid all pronouns. You obviously need them sometimes. Repeating names over and over can sound repetitious and clunky. It just means that you have to regard all pronouns as suspect, potentially ambiguous until their possible referents have been checked and cleared. And if there’s any chance of confusion, out they go.

It’s a good idea to have alternative identifiers for your characters to help you avoid repeating the same name over and over. Alternative identifiers are things like: “the boy,” “the old man,” “the dark-haired girl,” “the fat woman,” “the farmer,” “the merchant,” “the Italian” – or even things like “his friend,” “the other man,” or “the speaker.”

I know you’re thoroughly tired of this sentence by now, but just to illustrate:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. His friend’s face broke into a smile, and he waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Then, of course, there are the people who don’t like to use dialog tags, who want to just write, “where are you going?” Well, here’s one alternative fix for that approach:

              “Where are you going, Jim?”

It’s remarkable how easy it is to end up with ambiguous pronouns. I know I find them all the time when reviewing my own writing. How about you? Have you noticed this problem in your own writing or in other people’s? Do you have your own tricks for dealing with it?

The T-Word (No, not that t-word, the other one, and shhh! Don’t say it!)

Caution: if you’re an aspiring writer, this post contains potentially disturbing content. (This post is NOT about torture.)

Writing
Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

Have you ever seen one of those ads in a magazine that asks you to draw the bunny and send it to them so they can evaluate it (for free) to see whether you have artistic talent? And of course, if they say you you do, they’ll try to sell you art lessons to help you develop that talent.  I think we can all see what’s wrong with this picture. These folks make their money on the art lessons, right? So why would they care whether or not you actually have talent as long as they can get your money? Starry-eyed parents get sucked in by similar scammers telling them their kid has talent and could make big bucks in commercials or movies if they’ll just invest in…

We listen to these stories and shake our heads knowingly and say, “boy, how dumb can they get? They should have known better than to fall for that one.” These scams are obvious because we readily accept that artistic talent and acting talent are real things that are not uniformly distributed in the population. So it’s easy to be skeptical of people who have a vested interest in convincing gullible souls that they’re talented, when they’re not.

So why are there so many of us would-be writers shelling out dollars for courses, workshops, writing coaches, book doctors, and endless how-to tomes on every possible aspect of the writer’s craft – without seemingly ever wondering whether we are being led down the garden path? Think about it. How often, amid all the talk about hard work, persistence, dedication, and honing one’s craft, do we hear any mention of the t-word?

At least no one seems to be trying to convince us all that we have talent. Rather, there seems to be a kind of taboo against bringing up the subject. As if the question of talent is somehow irrelevant to the activity of writing. But seriously, do we really believe that hard work, persistence, dedication, and practice-practice-practice are enough? What’s our working hypothesis here? That a specific talent for writing does not exist? Or that it does, but everyone has it – in equal measure?

I don’t know about you, but when I pick up a well-written book, I know I am in the presence of talent. Hard work, dedication, and a certain amount of experience are probably in there too, but what really makes it shine is talent. Some people exhibit a kind of genius, a mastery of language, of expressiveness, of just plain old good storytelling, that falls outside of the common mold.

I’m afraid that, much as I might prefer not to, I do believe in the t-word.  In fact, I believe there is variation in people’s innate abilities with respect to pretty much every human activity – including things like walking and running. (There’s this thing called body mechanics.) And for things involving higher brain functions – like writing – well, how could anyone imagine that we are all equally endowed?

(Personally, I think it’s one of the great strengths of the human species that we are not all alike in our capabilities, combined with the fact that we are social animals who live and work in groups where we can combine our diverse strengths and shore-up each others’ weaknesses. But that’s a subject for another post.)

Okay, okay, I know I’m being unfair to imply that would-be writers are being systematically scammed by all the folks doing workshops and pushing books on writing. Most of those folks, I’m sure, are sincerely trying to help. And there are things that can be taught and learned on this subject. It’s just that some of the people trying to become writers probably just… shouldn’t… and no one wants to say it. (Actually, some people probably do say it. It’s just that someone else usually steps in and says, “Of course you can do it! Don’t listen to them.”)

And in a sense, it’s true that anyone can write a novel. Assuming that they’re literate and aren’t so physically or mentally disabled that they can’t hold a pen, or press keys – or can’t afford voice recognition software – pretty much anyone can theoretically put enough words together end-to-end to produce a novel-length story. All that takes is hard work, dedication, and persistence.

But does that story actually make sense? Is it worth reading? Is it something anyone would pay money for? That’s where the trouble starts.  Some people seem to believe that although the answers to all those questions may initially be “no,” all it will take to turn the “no” into a “yes” is more hard work, dedication, and persistence.  And while that may be true in some cases, it doesn’t follow that it’s true in all cases. Most of the time, I would say – and depending somewhat on your goal and on your audience – at least a modest amount of talent is going to be required.

By now I’m sure everybody hates me.

Topic for next time:  “How to tell whether you have at least a modest amount of talent”

(And don’t worry; I’m not selling anything.)

What do you think? Is talent over-rated? Is writing talent a myth? Is there something you think you have talent for? Why, or why not?

Donnie Dale is dying… and still writing…

Eschscholzia californica
Eschscholzia californica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What would you do if you discovered you were dying? If you received a diagnosis of terminal cancer with an estimated two years to live, give or take six months?

What would you do with the time you had left?

A man I know named Donnie Dale is in that position. He’s a man who’s been a writer all his life. He made his living at it – not with fiction, but with magazine articles, mostly. That was his day job. On the side, though, he’s also been writing fiction all his life – novels and screenplays. He’s got a trunk-full of manuscripts. He had one novel published twenty years ago. He did it, I assume, the “traditional” way – which is what I call the “hard” way – but I guess he never struck that luck again.

Faced with limited time remaining, Donnie has set himself a goal.  His goal is to self-publish all those unpublished novels. He has a website set up for the purpose – for his “platform.” It’s at www.donniedale.com

And he’s still writing. He’s started a blog on his website and is posting his thoughts on whatever comes to mind, because he’s a writer and writers don’t stop writing for trivial reasons like impending death. His posts are well worth reading. He says he’s not afraid to die, and you can tell he isn’t lying about that. There’s nothing maudlin in what he has to say. He writes with honesty and with clarity (and artistry), and with pretty darn good grammar and punctuation, too. If you’re building your mental model of what good writing looks like, you could do a lot worse than run Donnie’s postings across your synapses.

I encourage you to visit Donnie’s website and spend some time there. Leave a comment so he’ll know you’ve been. We who blog have all had that sense of, “okay, I’m putting it out there; is anybody reading it?” More than anything else, writers desire to be read, and for Donnie the question takes on an added urgency. So please go: Read some of his posts, follow his self-publication odyssey, maybe watch for his books and give them a read. I think you’ll get something from the experience, and not just the warm fuzzy feeling of having helped a life-long writer achieve one final goal.

I met Donnie Dale because, until this week, he has been leading the joint meetings of the Alameda Writer’s Group and the Altadena satellite of the Independent Writers of Southern California, which meets at the Coffee Gallery on Lake Ave in Altadena on the 2nd Friday of every month.