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I'm very confused about tenses. I am not sure if I am mixing modifiers up or slipping from past to present. Can someone help me please, here are a few examples:

Stooping, he lit a fire, warming himself as he swigged from a bottle.

He flexed his fingers above the flames, glancing at her uneasy expression.

He swung himself up as she reached for the bottle, elbowing her in the chest, palming a coin and holding it out to her.

Thank you so much

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Very short answer: no. What you've written is fine.

If you'd written "he was warming himself", this would be reasonable. The usage of "was" indicates that the event is occuring in the past, so there's no need to use "warmed" (indeed, that would be considered incorrect).

All you've done is drop the "he was", since this is already established by "he lit a fire". "Stooping" works similarly. Since the sentence structure makes clear that "stooping", "he lit a fire" and "warming himself" take place at the same time, the past tense form is only needed for one of them.

You could, for example, also have said "He stooped, lighting the fire, warming himself and drinking from the bottle" or "Stooping, lighting the fire and warming himself, he drank from the bottle". (Mind you, from a stylistic point of view, I'm glad you didn't.)

Have a look here, if you're still unsure: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uses_of_English_verb_forms#Past_progressive

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  • You could also benefit from looking at the differences between finite and non-finite verbs and verb phrases. – S. Mitchell Jun 2 '17 at 14:14
  • Thank you, this makes it much clearer. Very reassuring too, I'm editing my work very closely from all angles, it's great to have a bit of concrete to pin the mass of critique under. – Llongo Jun 2 '17 at 15:13
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Stop worrying about this stuff. English tenses are enormously complicated, but they are tools of analysis, not composition. If you are a native English speaker you will have learned how tenses are used in English by osmosis. Trying to follow the explicit rules that have be developed to explain how tenses work in natural English will be both agonizing and pointless.

Natural English is a very fluid and flexible language full of particular bits of usage that are very hard to fit to rules. Thus attempting to come up with a grammatical system to fully encompases all of natural English is very difficult -- and has not yet been achieved. English, in particular, is a language that has to be learned by ear, not by rule. The rules are as apt to lead you astray as they are to lead you to clarity -- not because they are wrong necessarily, but because they are so hard to apply. You have to be already a fluent writer of English to be able to tell how grammatical "rules" actually apply to natural English.

Most of the problems in this area are not caused by failure to understand tenses as described by grammarians -- not one writer in a hundred knows all the categories and terminology. The problems come from an unwillingness to recast awkward sentences. If you have a sentence that seems awkward or unnatural to you, don't waste time trying to fix it by the application of grammar rules. Rewrite it so it is simple and more direct and all will be well.

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  • I thought you were gonna end with "Just write and have your proofreader to fix tense and other problems after your draft is finished." But I'm a big fan of rewriting too. – Ken Mohnkern Jun 2 '17 at 13:02
  • Thank you, grammer really confuses me, it seems to take the fun out of writing. Clarity, clarity, clarity though, I've got it. – Llongo Jun 2 '17 at 15:07
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The short answer, which Termite Society stated is correct. A motivation for doing so is to show some sort parallelism or simultaneous actions.

In my opinion, fiction writers should focus on cause and effect as opposed to events taking place at the same time.

Using your sample text:
She asked and scratched her head.
or
She scratched her head and asked.

Notice in the two versions of cause and effect. She asked and something happened afterwards or she scratched her head and something happened afterwards.

Another reason I choose cause and effect over progressive tense is verb strength.

Stronger: she or he asks. He or she asked
Weaker: she or he is asking. He or she was asking.

As writers, we could seek out a balance where there may be points during a story’s plot where parallelism makes sense or seems plausible, epically in scenes where less showing and more telling may be appropriate like transitioning between plot points and moving time forward.

A plausible example:
He walked, smoking a cigarette.
That’s easy to do for any tobacco user. It happens every day.

But again, I emphasize cause and effect overall.
I also emphasize the evidence of smoking in this example as opposed to progressive tense.
He walked and took in a drag, a warm, airy flavor flowed into his mouth and into his lungs. He forced three short exhales and three smoke-rings floated into the air.

Solid exceptions using the progressive tense:
Character dialog – We use progressive tense naturally when speaking and so should our characters.
Character Internalization – Same as dialog. Internalization is our thoughts and our characters think also.
Similes – Making similarities to show vs. tell.

Hopes this helps.

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    Why? People do things in parallel all the time, and think in parallel even moreso. Which things we choose to do or consider in parallel and which things we choose to deal with in series says a lot about what kind of people we are (what's second nature to us, what's not important enough to us to be worth fully focusing on, etc.). In the OP's example, it's clear that starting a fire is not a difficult task for the character, and so blends into the other actions. Why strip out that nice bit of characterisation in support of an arbitrary rule? – TheTermiteSociety Jun 3 '17 at 6:30
  • Very true. Rules can be broken. Its a balance between finding one's own creative style, mixing it with successful formulas of those who sold books, producing something that you can call your own, resulting in another successful formula and becoming a leader in the industry. What do successful author's do holistically, they emphasize cause and effect and at the same time find occasional exceptions where doing so adds strength to their prose. – James Axsom Jun 3 '17 at 10:19

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