Writing with the imperfect (past progressive)

Someone at “Why is my book not selling?” wondered why the use of “was” is so often picked out as a defect in the excerpts from the books presented there. I admit to criticizing the overuse of the imperfect myself. But he seemed to think that all the commentators had concluded that it was a bad verb out of some misguided consensus on the use of verbs.

So what’s wrong with using the imperfect tense? Nothing. Using the past progressive (or imperfect) is not automatically bad form. In fact, it’s good form if you want the each action conveyed in the verb to carry on. In some action scenes, for example, several things are going on at the same time, so you need the imperfect to convey the fact that the action is on-going. Similarly, in cases where you want to convey the sense of the character being overwhelmed or disoriented, you’d also want to use the imperfect:

The phone was ringing, the baby was crying, the dog was barking and someone was knocking on the door.

All these things are going on at the same time, heaped onto one another, suggesting the character is overwhelmed. If that’s the intent, the imperfect was the right choice. So for the sake of completion, let’s look at the simple past in the same case:

The phone rang, the baby cried, the dog barked and someone knocked on the door.

Not nearly as effective. Because each event comes to an end, no feeling of being overwhelmed by several things happening at the same time is conveyed. It follows too that the simple past is the right choice when you’re just describing a series of discrete events that happen in succession:

He opened the door and walked down the hall. He removed the key from his pocket and opened the old wooden chest.

This sequence of events would be nonsensical in the past progressive:

He was opening the door and walking down the hall. He was removing the key from his pocket and opening the old wooden chest.

An extreme example, of course, but it should bring the problem into focus. So let’s consider a mixed example of the earlier example:

The phone was ringing, the baby was crying and the dog was barking. Someone knocked on the door.

That knock on the door doesn’t stop the previous actions through some syntactical imperative. But it marks a change in the character’s attention, and that change in the narration stops the previous actions by grabbing the character’s attention (and ours by extension). In other words, all these mundane things were happening; then, bang, someone knocked at the door. Again, the knock didn’t necessarily bring the ongoing actions to an end, but the change to the simple past did shift the ongoing actions from the foreground to the background.

Just to bring this all home a little, let me add some context that shows how important the simple versus the imperfect past can be. Look at these contrived examples:

It was like any other day: the phone was ringing off the hook, the baby was crying his heart out, and the damn dog was barking his head off at passersby. Then someone was knocking on the door. Just what I needed: a vacuum cleaner salesman who wouldn’t take a hint.

It was like any other day: the phone was ringing off the hook, the baby was crying his heart out, and the damn dog was barking his head off at passersby. Then someone knocked on the door. That knock would change my world forever.

You get the picture, I hope. In the first example, the imperfect doesn’t catch our attention—and our attention shouldn’t be caught—because it’s just another thing heaped on the rest of the things wearing on the character’s patience. The interruption by the simple past in the second example, however, breaks the flow of mundane things happening, alerting us to the importance of the knock.

Now consider a bad mixture of tenses, which is adapted from one of the books being criticized for using the imperfect:

Someone was banging on my door. I was moving into and out of a dream, trying to figure out what was going on. I was getting up to answer the door and noticing that my clothes were missing. Maybe I’d left them in the hall. Last night I was drinking hard and I always lose track of things.

Not much better as a realistic example, I know. But you get the idea when you observe that he’s still “moving in and out of a dream” when he’s “getting up to answer the door” because the first action never came to an end.  Then all of a sudden we skip to “was drinking,” which is also going on at the same time, even though the event introduces a second layer of past time and pulls us into that time, when we should still be in the former time. So you have a congeries of times and actions all going on at the same time. None of which suggest the discombobulated state of the protagonist; they just discombobulate the reader.

Now go forth and conjugate correctly.

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