NOTE: All these articles are based on British grammar and the techniques I used to help myself, they are by no means definitive.
One of the problems with writing past tense is how easy it is to write things like ‘they stood’ instead of ‘they were standing’. It’s easy to assume that because something has ‘ing’ on the end it is purely present tense and therefore when we’re writing past tense and someone is standing around they were ‘stood’ around which is past tense. I’ll put my hand up and say I make this mistake myself despite knowing better, I found it several times while I was editing Victorian Mistress.
The best way I find to think about it is the difference between a constant and a singular movement. For example:
‘They were sitting and then they stood.’
In this context sitting is the constant motion, something they had been doing for an extended period of time. ‘They stood’ then refers to the singular motion of getting to their feet. We could extend this example to:
‘They were sitting then they stood and were standing.’
As ‘they’ can be both plural and singular I’ll clarify it as:
‘I was sitting then I stood and was standing.’
This might seem a very simplistic example and perhaps not one we would use in a piece of fiction but it illustrates the difference between the constant motion and the singular. For added complication it changes depending on the context, although the singular and constant doesn’t change.
‘I opened the door and they walked through it.’
These are both singular movements. The door is opened and is then open, it is not constantly being opened. Similarly they walked through the door once, they don’t keep walking through a never ending door.
With this in mind we can change the implication of what the character is doing depending on how we phrase it:
‘I looked through the open window.’
‘I was looking through the open window.’
The first example implies the character looked through the window then looked away. The second implies the character looks through the window for an extended period of time. However, with this example we can create the same effect of looking through the window for an extended period of time by describing what the character sees on the other side. When we do this the act of describing implies the act of looking so we don’t always need the word looking for this (see related article here).
Not only can we change the implication of what the character is doing but we can also change the implication of when they were doing it, depending on our phrasing:
‘I really don’t know,’ I said, tapping my chin.
‘I really don’t know,’ I said and tapped my chin.
In the first example by using ‘tapping’ we can imply that the character was tapping their chin while they were speaking. In the second example the phrasing suggests they said something then tapped their chin. Both are valid, it simply depends on whether we wish to suggest the character is moving while they’re speaking or moving after/before they speak. This variation can be a great subtle way to add motion to a scene giving the characters more life and can help avoid the appearance of characters standing around with their hands in their pockets while they speak (find more articles on dialogue and characterisation here).
It’s important to remember when we’re writing that what might seem like a small distinction in our language choice can make a big difference to how what we write is interpreted by the reader. While this doesn’t matter when we’re writing a first draft, finding moments to work these seemingly small things into our story can make a huge difference to a scene, especially if we’re worried about it appearing too static.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.