Walking across the kitchen, she turned on the light and set down the groceries.
Chances are, you’ve written a sentence like this at some time in your illustrious writing career. A present-participle clause introducing the action, followed by a simple declarative sentence; that’s not uncommon. Nor is it wrong.
But there is something about the sentence above that will make an editor squirm, and might not sit right with your reader either, even if she doesn’t know why. Can you spot the problem? I’ll give you a hint: it has to do with aspect.
As-what, you say?
Verb aspect. You probably didn’t know verbs had aspect, right? Tense, yes, but aspect?
For some reason, they like to teach us these things when we’re of an age at which we have no possible use for such arcane knowledge. Then, years later, when we’re finally ready to write that novel we’ve been kicking around, we can’t find anyone who can explain such things to us.
As an editor, I find aspect mismatch to be a common stumbling block for writers, and one that separates the amateurs from the more experienced. So, what is it?
Look at the opening sentence again. It seems to be a concise description of three consecutive activities. You probably think it tells you that the character 1) walked across the room, 2) flipped the light switch, and 3) set down the groceries. But look closer at the first clause. It’s in the imperfective aspect.
The imperfective aspect describes an ongoing, incomplete, or habitual action; whereas its counterpart, the perfective aspect, describes a one-time or complete action. The second two activities in the sentence above are in the perfective: she turned on the light—completed—and set down the groceries—completed.
But what the sentence tells you is that she did these two things “walking across the kitchen.” It does not say she did this after walking across the room, but while she was doing so. That would look a little odd, if indeed it were possible. The character would need a remote to control the light, for starters; she wouldn’t be able to reach the switch while “walking across the kitchen.” And she would need to pause during that journey to set down groceries along the way.
The fix is easy: She walked across the kitchen, turned on the light, and set down the groceries. (Notice the use of the second—Oxford, or serial—comma. Editors today prefer them.)
It is, of course, entirely appropriate to use a verb in the imperfective when a background activity coincides with the character’s other activities. Here are a few examples:
Scanning the horizon for enemy activity, he spotted movement at a hundred yards. (The spotting occurred while he was scanning.)
Not caring what the other party-goers thought of him, he pelted her with obscenities. (His lack of caring was either a chronic condition or was in effect throughout the episode in question. It did not suddenly occur.)
She declined the offer of a Cosmo, having received her ten-year chip just last week. (While she only received the chip once, and the action was completed, this sentence is describing her ongoing condition of having received it.)
So, you see, it’s not so hard to learn aspect. Paying close attention to the duration of your characters’ actions is all it takes. Trust me, getting aspect right consistently will impress editors and result in a smoother, more enjoyable experience for your readers.