Had. Or, why do we accept sub-standard prose?

So. For a series of odd reasons now forgotten I was reading the opening passage of Leviathan Wakes by James S A Corey on Amazon, which lead me to comment on the annoying use of the word ‘had’ and various contractions based upon it (she’d, who’d etc) that the author employs. I don’t often dissect published texts because I imagine it’s upsetting for authors, but as I was asked to explain my hatred of the word ‘had’, and as James S A Corey has had a big hit with Leviathan Wakes – even split between the two halves of this Frankenstein’s author – I thought I would make an exception. So, if these words have offended, think but of your bank balance and all is mended.

Firstly, my hatred of ‘had’ is on nowhere near the scale of my hatred of ‘suddenly’, which I dislike so much that I will stop reading a book instantly if it is used. In the case of ‘had’ it’s not the word itself, which unlike ‘suddenly’ has many fine uses, but a particular usage of the word that almost always creates horrible prose.

Here is the opening passage of Leviathan Wakes:

The Scopuli had been taken eight days ago, and Julie Mao was finally ready to be shot.

It had taken all eight days trapped in a storage locker for her to get to that point. For the first two she’d remained motionless, sure that the armoured men who’d put her there had been serious. For the first hours, the ship she’d been taken aboard wasn’t under thrust, so she floated in the locker, using gentle touches to keep herself from bumping into the walls or the atmosphere suit she shared the space with. When the ship began to move, thrust giving her weight, she’d stood silently until her legs cramped, then sat down slowly in to a fetal position. She’d peed in her jumpsuit, not caring about the warm itchy wetness, or the smell, worrying only that she might slip and fall in the wet spot it left on the floor. She couldn’t make noise. They’d shoot her.

There is a lot that can be said about this passage, and about Leviathan Wakes, but I don’t want to get distracted by a general critique of the book. I do want to make it clear though that the “it’s about the story” defence does not cut it in relation to what I am going to say here. The problems with this opening passage are so basic that no professionally published book should enter a bookshop with them, any more than a film or television show should reach the screen with substandard camera work or scene editing. If Leviathan Wakes is, as IO9 describes it “a Hollywood blockbuster in book form” then it’s a blockbuster shot by nervous film school dropouts on outdated camcorders and edited between two old VHS machines, to judge by this opening.

But. This is between me and the had. A word which, directly or as the basis of a contraction (she’d, who’d) appears in the region of eight times in this short passage, with an additional grievous deployment of ‘would’ that arises for the same reasons. The contractions are especially clumsy. There are few circumstances when who’d reads well on a page, especially when BOTH the who and the had are redundant.

Why is ‘had’ used so often? The answer is worth considering, not least because it’s an issue that arises often for developing writers. Here Corey blunders in to it for slightly different reasons. Intent on setting up a Dramatic Question, a standard ploy of pulp storytelling, Corey opens with the humdinger of a sentence, “The Scopuli had been taken eight days ago, and Julie Mao was finally ready to be shot.” Why is Julie Mau ready to be shot? Why did it take eight days? We the reader are lead to ask, and are thereby tempted to carry on reading. The problem however is that this opening has thrown Corey straight in to a timeline that precedes the main action of the chapter. Because the prose is written in past tense anyway, to indicate that this is even more in the past, Corey feels the need to add ‘had’ to almost every sentence. And this in turn leads to the ugly contractions.

Developing authors often make this mistake when they are too timid to just tell the story, and instead keep retreating to earlier events to give the story some usually irrelevant context. So instead of just telling the reader “George got on his magnificent steed and galloped out of the gate to face the dragon” they follow it up with “Earlier he had been talking with the old king who had lots to say about dragons.” The ‘hads’ proliferate quickly in this scenario. This relates to the larger issue of managing the information flow of a narrative, and making sure that, unless you have good cause, each sentence keeps the action moving forward not backward. This is why ‘had’ is so often a bad sign in prose, because it indicates the writer hasn’t got the basic narrative under control, which will quickly kill the story for most readers.

The real annoyance in Leviathan Wakes is that the use of ‘had’ here is entirely avoidable. The entire passage can easily be rewritten to eliminate the word all together, or to use it just once to establish the diverging narrative timeline. Once that has been established, even a relatively weak reader can follow the flow of events without using ‘had’ as a reminder in almost every sentence. It’s worth noting that for the middle section of the passage Corey does stop inserting ‘had’, avoiding a few contractions along the way. Lo and behold, the words flow much better. Which is the basic point. Why is the prose in this opening passage so mangled when it could so easily be edited to flow much more smoothly? Judged in its own terms, not as high flown literary writing, but as basic storytelling, the prose has failed. Why do we accept that as readers, when we never would as cinema goers or television watchers?


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

13 thoughts on “Had. Or, why do we accept sub-standard prose?

    1. I think now I can picture Damien having a stroke as soon as he comes across a “She had suddenly realised…”


  1. It seems unfair for you to be tearing this guy to shreds for his usage of an extremely common word while, in the very same article, saying “lead” instead of “led” twice. I appreciate that you dislike the use of this word, but avoiding such usage is not a convention of writing (nor is avoiding the use of the word “suddenly”). I don’t want to be rude, but if his prose is sub-standard, so is yours, and yours is an actual misuse of a word rather than just overuse.


    1. Which misses the point Anna. I’m not tearing strips off Corey, I’m asking why a professionally published novel is hitting the shelves with sub-standard prose. My blog like many is written for free, without the benefit of copy editing. Spelling mistakes are par for the course. Corey isn’t overusing the word had. He’s writing in an entirely inappropriate mode in the opening passage of the novel, for no apparently good reason. A very different issue.


  2. I imagine inexperienced writers would learn more from a rewrite of the passage you have analysed. It would be far more useful at least in my opinion and help show it could be done. At the moment this is not much more than rant on word usage forcing readers to dissect what you have written in order to find learning points. What do you think?


    1. Wellit is primarily a rant, not a lesson. And its one thing to critique someones writing, another to rewrite it for them. You could employ the passage as a lesson, if you wanted to go through and rewrite it yourself.


  3. Whilst the use of “she’d” and “she had” is not bad form as such, I think I agree with Damian, ultimately. The dramatic question at the outset is arresting but the ‘information flow of the narrative’ then becomes flawed. It’s the repetition of “she’d”.
    In a similar vein, a friend of mine has written the “And then …Song” – satirising lyrics that have that list and repeat mechanism: ‘And then I woke up … and then I made a cup of coffee … and then my girlfriend left me..’ – it’s very funny.


  4. Your basic point is…a basic point. But I’m going to stick up for had because it performs an important–and largely invisible–function in more complex situations, where in getting to interiority of character the past and the present merge, much as they do in our heads every day. This tiny indicator can at times be used in subtle and useful ways to *pivot*, to differentiate between present and past to create a richer and more interesting characterization–or heighten tension, or bring together elements that resonate but exist apart in time. Yes, clunky usage of anything in fiction is…clunky usage. Yes, baiting the hook can result in a tactical advantage that creates a strategic misstep, if you’re not careful. But this does not in fact indicate, necessarily, a deficiency in the word “had” so much as a deficiency in deployment of “had,” (Also, I would gently suggest that if you are going to take someone to task in this way, you should make sure you haven’t made mistakes in your blog post. At the very least, correct them when called on it. It’s much more jarring to the reader than if you were, say, writing about how to make strawberry marmalade.)


    1. I’ll concede it gives an easy avenue to beat on the blogger. But that’s ok, I seem to enjoy it. Also, I’m too English to know what being called on it means…do I have to fight these people?


  5. LOL! It just means, as you are well aware, that it has been pointed out and duly noted. You don’t have to fight anyone. You might have HAD to at some point in the past….


  6. I always picture a small posse of American SF fans arriving on my stoop, carrying burning brands and a noose. “You done spelt lead wrong Walter. And we is calling you on it!” ;)


  7. The past perfect backfill is not the problem in that opening, I’d say, so much as the fact it goes on too long without cementing the (simple past) current situation. The technique to facilitate a dramatic opening to a scene in media res has bagged up into a slow “the story so far,” over-reliant on the hook of a character being, in the current narrative moment, waiting to be shot.

    You’re not wrong about the capacity to drop some of the ‘had’s: having signalled backfill with past perfect at the opening of such a passage, you can largely transition to simple past for the substance, then just transition back to past perfect at the end, just before you segue out of what’s essentially reflection, back into the current narrative moment. Certainly there’s no reason not to have “sure that the armoured men *who* put her there *were* serious” if you’re going to have “she floated in the locker.” And off the back of the latter, since we’re now journeying through the reflective re-experience of the preceding events, you could do so more smoothly with, e.g. “It was only when the ship began to move, thrust giving her weight, that she stood…”

    But often the ‘had’ is essential to maintaining clarity. The “she’d been taken aboard” is in the past of the narrative moment being backfilled (backfill within backfill essentially); simple past there would arse things up godawfully. Actually, one reason to transition to simple past is *so* that event can be placed temporally with past perfect. I see more problems with writers using simple past as a default when past perfect is really required in a passage like this, tbh. It’s not unlike crude punctuation, using the most basic toolkit of commas and full stops, like you never got the expansion pack with em-dashes, semi-colons and suchlike. Translate that passage wholly to simple past and you’d risk a worse issue of summary, skimwriting, glossing over the action, fast-forwarding through 8 days in order to get to the point where the story actually starts.


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