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I never noticed this in my writing until one of my readers pointed it out:

We were driving down the highway in Tom's Toyota 4Runner, dim streetlights passing by, the night city scene fading behind us.

Awkward way to begin the chapter from a grammatical perspective. Is there a reason you chose to start in past progressive? I'm left unsure of where I am entirely.

I wrote in the past progressive because I wanted to show that they were already in the highway. If I'd written "We drove down the highway...", it would have looked as if they were just arriving to the highway.

Or maybe it's not the case? And I should stay away from the past progressive in situations like this as a rule?

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Past progressive is great for relating the context in which some event occurred:

We were driving down the highway in Tom's Toyota 4Runner when the earthquake hit.

There are probably other uses, too. But readers (like your reviewer) likely expect ongoing conditions expressed in past progressive to relate to something in simple past tense. (Similar for present progressive and simple present tense.)

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Boy, I hate the making of rules for fiction writing. The previous poster has given a good explanation of why you might use the past progressive; I just want to add that I don't agree with your sense that "We drove down the highway" would suggest that they were just starting to drive down the highway. Both choices give the sense that you're already on the highway.

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Starting with past progressive feels very conversational, and I expect the sentence to end with a phrase that gives some kind of context about why you are doing that or what happened when you did that. Dale mentions a 'when' statement above, which illustrates the 'what happened'. Here's an example of the 'why':

We were driving down the highway in Tom's Toyota 4Runner, radio blasting to drown out the sounds of our own fear.

Your existing sentence feels awkward because you're setting the scene rather than contextualizing the story. The additional pieces are not related to the driving part, not really, but the progressive tense makes them feel like they should be, so when I read it, I try to connect them and it doesn't immediately make sense. They are more like stand-alone sentences. This is more comfortable:

We were driving down the highway in Tom's Toyota 4Runner. Dim streetlights passed by and the night city scene faded behind us.

You could start with "We drove...". It's less conversational feeling, more subdued, and makes the whole beginning into setting the scene.

We drove down the highway in Tom's Toyota 4Runner, dim streetlights passing by, the night city scene fading behind us.

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Back in writing school, an author advised his students to write in the first-person present.

The objective is to place as few intermediaries as possible between the reader and the action of the story.

Even writing in the simple past tense adds a degree of separation between reader and action because it amplifies the presence of an intermediary, namely the storyteller or narrator that all fiction has.

The maximum degree of remove happens in epistolary fiction where someone gets a letter from someone else who describes in the letter what happened to yet another person. That unnecessarily complicated chain of storytelling makes novels like Les Liaisons Dangereuses terribly tedious to read. A young writer ambitious enough to rewrite the whole thing in first-person present, and maybe recast it into a promiscuous 21st century, could possibly make a fortune.

Tom drives his Toyota 4Runnerdown the highway. Dim streetlights strobe by, and the night city scene fades behind us.

Seems more immediate to me.

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  • That's a choice. If all novels were written in the first-person present, it would be a dull stack of books, indeed. I'm sorry you don't care for epistolary fiction -- a book like Frankenstein has frame within frame within epistolary frame and yet is still a compelling story that has stood the test of time.
    – ewormuth
    Jul 29 '15 at 4:18

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