Grammar: Verb Tenses and Sequencing of Action

English Grammar Verb Tenses

Verb tenses can be tricky when you’re trying to sequence action in your manuscript. Depending on how you phrase a sentence, the actions can be simultaneous rather than sequential. Consider the following example.

She finished cleaning the kitchen when the doorbell rang.

That reads that she finished cleaning the kitchen at the same time that the doorbell rang. And that may be true, but if it’s not, you need to have the first part of the sentence be an “older tense” (past perfect, in this case). The reason is that there’s an unspoken “then” in this construct.  She finished cleaning the kitchen and then the doorbell rang.  To communicate that without actually saying “and then,” you can make the first part of the sentence past perfect, then the last half simple past. You can play around with it a bit, but you want something more like this:

She had finished cleaning the kitchen when the doorbell rang.

Of course, you can always use and then—there’s nothing wrong with that.

She finished cleaning the kitchen, and then the doorbell rang.

Another trick is to use the adverbs before and after.

She finished cleaning the kitchen before the doorbell rang.
After she finished cleaning the kitchen, the doorbell rang.

Now, you do need to be conscious of how these small changes can change the implications of the action. For instance, take the example of She finished cleaning the kitchen before the doorbell rang. That could almost be interpreted that she knew the doorbell was going to ring and that’s why she’s cleaning the kitchen, which sounds like something I would do, but that’s another story. 😉 But on the bright side, stories generally have a lot more context than a single sentence, so that’s not quite as huge of an issue as long as you have your sequencing right.

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