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I have been reading a lot of different options on how to write a novel. Many people suggest that the past progressive tense is most often used in fiction to describe interrupted actions (in relation with other actions, similar to the past perfect rule).

“She was waiting for the bus when she noticed the man.”

But what about using the past progressive with simultaneous actions?

“He was reading a book while she was driving.” Or it’s better… “He read a book while she drove.”

Can anyone explain to me when it’s more appropriate to use progressive tenses in a novel?

Thank you!

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"He was reading a book while she was driving."

"He read a book while she drove."

The latter is better writing, not because of the type of grammar, but because it conveys the same idea with fewer words (and syllables). You eliminate two words and two syllables, without subtracting anything from the idea being conveyed, and without causing the reader any pause or confusion in the reading.

Don't cut to the point of making a sentence harder to parse, that will destroy reader immersion. This particular cut does not do that.

Writing is not about the technicalities, it is 100% about the user experience. Yoda, in Star Wars, uses an uncommon linguistic typology; Object-Subject-Verb. But even then, he doesn't use it perfectly. Yoda was written to entertain.

The overwhelmingly common convention in commercial writing is past progressive tense, mixed in with past tense.

The mix is, for example, "Josh was sleeping [PT] when the fire alarm went off."

The ultimate rule, like Yoda, is the user experience, and the elimination of wasted ink is part of that. Virtually no film goer is going to notice that Yoda's speech is not pure OSV. ("Help you I will" breaks the OSV grammar rule, in OSV it would be "You I will help").

Choose the more concise version, when possible. Break the rules if you must, for pacing -- It is better to break the rules than to break reader immersion.

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  • Can you recommend a book on this subject? Thank you!
    – Piermo
    Nov 30, 2023 at 0:08
  • @Piermo Sorry. I've just read a hundred novels, and written a few.
    – Amadeus
    Nov 30, 2023 at 15:00
  • Sorry! I wasn’t clear with my question. The reason I asked for a recommendation was that I liked your answer to my original question. And I was interested to know more about “braking the rules”
    – Piermo
    Dec 1, 2023 at 17:22
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    @Piermo "Breaking the rules": The general rule is to choose sentence construction that uses the fewest words or syllables. This does not mean eliminating adjectives, or choosing shorter verbs, just getting rid of "filler" words. But if that sounds awkward, especially in character dialogue, you don't have to follow that rule. You also don't want to break reader immersion, and you don't want every character to have the same voice. So some character may make a habit of using a lot of filler words. Or a scene description might sound better with a few filler words. Usually, concise is best.
    – Amadeus
    Dec 1, 2023 at 19:21
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    Thank you very much!
    – Piermo
    Dec 1, 2023 at 19:46
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It is best to use past progressive in a novel when it is important to make it clear that an action is ongoing, and it is not otherwise clear from the context. (Such as "she laughed when he fell" vs "she was laughing when he fell.") Otherwise, it's extra words for no extra meaning.

Driving and reading are both lengthy activities so I think your examples would be read as continuing activities. (With the small caveat that "he read a book" is likely to give readers the impression that he finished it.)

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