English fiction is a game played with time.
To explain this, one must consider verbal tense, which is essentially a grammatical tool that enables the writer to locate a situation in time. Most contemporary fiction, whatever the category it falls into, tends to be written in the simple past tense.
A few examples:
- “I went to the door and opened it.”
- “She thought about what he said, but did not agree with the sentiment.”
- “The murderer fired his pistol point blank at the detective.”
Telling a story in the present tense, which used to be less common, can be an effective method of narration. Thus:
- “I go to the door and open it.”
- “She hears what he says and thinks it over, but does not agree with the sentiment.”
- “The murderer fires his pistol point blank at the detective.”
The first examples of present tense writing that I encountered seemed too calculated an effect, but that was a long time ago. Usage has made it much more palatable, and by the simple examples above, it may be seen that its immediacy contributes to the sense of developing action. On the other hand, because time is so tightly defined as it passes, there is the danger of sameness to the ongoing rush of events.
I never mean to discourage the writer from any option, including use of present tense. If the author is comfortable with the device, employ it. Just remember that all choices of technique carry both positive and negative aspects. Decide, therefore, at the outset of writing just how to maximize the former and minimize the latter.
Anyway, the stories that you plan on creating will probably be written in the simple past. It is therefore important to consider the question of immediacy.
Since English fiction is predominantly written in simple past tense, even though the verb forms have “just happened,” the reader tends to experience the story as if it is happening now.
Paradoxical, but true. Nothing to be concerned about, except . . . there is one inherent danger that I caution students to be aware and wary of, and to avoid whenever possible. It is a stylistic tip that I cannot overemphasize, namely, to minimize the use of compound past tense.
Let us recast our three examples:
- “I had gone to the door and had opened it.”
- “She had thought about what he had said, but she had not agreed with the sentiment.”
- “The murderer had fired his pistol point blank at the detective.”
Merely by inserting had, we flatten the emotional impact of the narrative by pushing its events further into the past than simple past tense’s now. The only place for had in genre fiction, I believe, is in a deliberate flashback.
One of the easiest, yet most potent ways to improve one’s style is to become aware of this three-letter horror, and eliminate them wherever possible.
As for had had . . .!