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Perfecting Prose Rhythm and Pacing

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Past perfect tense and passive voice have their places within the structures of the English language. Generally, those places are under the stairs or in the attic, in boxes, on shelves, way behind the adverbs.

Key point: The more verbs used, the higher the chance for confusion, the higher the chance your prose is too slow.

Grueling, even.

Adverbs, strings of adjectives in succession, too many verbs all have the same problem. They slow down the prose and worse, they dilute the prose. I call an addiction to modifiers “parts-of-speech abuse.” The more words and commas in your sentence, the more bumps and snags you inflict upon your reader as you drag him along.

There’s a place for complicated style. It’s usually in academic books nobody but academics read. They read them to feel smarter, the same purpose the author had when he wrote the books, both reader and author having a masochistic and self-important approach to literature.

The rest of us like our journeys smooth and painless. I didn’t say simple. I said smooth and painless. Real style isn’t how many words one can cram into a sentence. Real style is how much meaning one can cram into a few words.

So take a look at your prose and count the number of times you use a compound verb, especially compound verbs beginning with had or was. See if you can get around them.

In addition to the pace of your prose, notice also the rhythm and whether it is balanced. The word “had,” for example, is short but dramatic like a cymbal smash in your prose rhythm. It slows down the beat some, and is sometimes a very necessary element if you’re rhythm conscious. In scatting, the sound would be something like had, hadda da, hadda da, badoom badoom badoom. In some instances, the h and a are dropped and it’s more of an “ud” sound, depending on what precedes it. Trim your rhythm accordingly.

Another problem area is the lesser-used future perfect progressive (perfect tenses in general are cumbersome), which almost nobody uses in regular speech. In various forms, it usually comes out something like “will have been traveling.” That’s four verbs to consider in one short phrase. It’s worse if made into a complicated conditional: “If I had been running at the usual time, I would have been being eaten by a mountain lion right now.”

Yick. The grammar is correct, but the sentence is awkward, unpleasant, and unduly complicated, cramming all that time-conscious perfect tense conditional stuff into one long string of confusion. It also creates a weird paradox whereby the sentence is too slow and stumbling (especially for a sentence about running), but it also conveys information too fast to create a nice suspenseful presentation of the action. This denies the full tension and release present within the narrative. “I was ten minutes late, literally running late for my morning jog. Just under the rock eave, a mountain lion’s face fur grew red with the hot blood of a more punctual jogger. Good thing my mother had called.”

Okay, so I’ve embellished that a bit with style and narrative, but my point is clear right? Past perfect tense is slipped in there at the end, when it is needed to indicate the timing of the call, but does not slow down the prose until it is time to slow down and reflect. Some confuse passive voice with past progressive. In this case, “was running,” which isn’t even fully presented, is past progressive showing action while describing idiomatically what was going on. The language serves a dual purpose. This is different, obviously, from “my shoes were pulled on” in contrast with “I pulled on my shoes.”

So go forth, fellow writers, and trim back the hads and the other helping and linking and being verbs. Rearrange those passive voice sentences unless they’re absolutely necessary for some weird artistic reason you’re insisting upon. Keep your prose active, swift, and rhythmically beautiful.


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