Romy's Blog

Past Perfect Tense

There are all sorts of rules that are passed on to new writers. My Germanic half likes rules. Rules bring order, and they make life simpler to navigate. With rules, things are either right or wrong. But I've learned that in writing, as in all things, there are many shades of grey, and I've learned that sometimes rules have to be bent or broken. So in my next few posts I'm going to look at a few of these 'rules' and when you might want to consider breaking them.

The first 'rule' is one I was reminded of when writing this post on how to make our writing less flabby. As I wrote in that post, words like 'was, had and that' are indicative of weak writing and aspiring authors should avoid them.

It's good advice. Writing 'He walked to the bus stop' is far stronger and more direct than 'He was walking to the bus stop'.

Similarly, 'He'd had a bad day' is indicative of telling (not a good thing) so the advice to avoid 'had' is a good one. Follow the advice and re-write, and you might end up with a far more active sentence like: 'As days went, today ranked up there as one of the worst.'

So the rule to avoid 'was' and 'had' is a good one. But we all know that you can have too much of a good thing, right?

Over the years I've read quite a few manuscripts by beginner writers who take this rule literally, erasing every instance of 'had'. The result is writing filled with contorted, confusing sentences, using incorrect tenses. Why are they incorrect? Because 'had' is the necessary ingredient in the past perfect tense.

If, like me, your high school grammar classes happened so long ago they might as well have been in the dark ages, you might need to head to Google to refresh on what past perfect tense is - but I'll make it easy for you:

The vast majority of commercial fiction is written in simple past tense. However, this simple past tense is actually the reader's present, making it a continuous action. So when we write 'the heroine walked down the road', the reader feels as if (s)he is walking down the road with the heroine. The action is still continuing in the reader's present.

But what if we want to talk about something that happened in the heroine's distant past? If we use simple past tense for that too, the reader won't be able to tell the difference between the story's immediate past and the distant past.

If I write 'the heroine lived in France', the reader will assume that the heroine is still living in France. What do I do then to make it clear that the heroine used to live in France, but no longer does? I would use the past perfect tense.

Past perfect tense is the tense we use for actions that took place a long time ago in the past, actions which have already been completed in the past.

Example: The heroine had lived (past perfect) in France, but now she lived (simple past) in England.

I often see aspiring writers write everything, flashbacks included, in simple past tense in order to avoid using the word 'had'. As a result, the writing is confusing, and the reader struggles to separate what is happening in the story's present, and what happened in the distant past.

Sometimes, you can get away with it. For example, if you wrote the above example as 'The heroine lived in France, but now she lived in England' the reader would be able to figure out the meaning. But two things would result: (1) the reader would have to take a moment to figure it out, and a moment is all it takes to break their engagement with the story, and (2) the contorted sentence would mark the writer as an amateur. You don't want any sentence in your book to result in either of those scenarios!

Another example:

Incorrect usage: He went to Africa, so I asked him if it was true that lions walked in the streets. (Unless he's still in Africa, and you've phoned him to ask the question, this sentence is just plain wrong for the story.)

Correct usage: He had been to Africa, so I asked him is it was true that lions walked in the streets.

Now picture this: your heroine is sitting alone at a bar, reminiscing...

Incorrect usage: She sipped her wine and thought back to her big adventure. She bought a car and drove across Europe that summer.

(This makes it sound as if she bought the car while seated at the bar, and suddenly the whole summer has passed in one sentence.)

Correct usage: She sipped her wine and thought back to her big adventure. She had bought a car and driven across Europe that summer.

Rules provide structure, and trust me I know how scary it is to step outside that structure. Having to exercise our discretion is hard, without the safety net of rules. But if you want to write well, you're going to have to do what I do: suck it up, and step outside the comfort zone of the 'rules'.

What other 'rules' have you been told as a beginner writer that you now know need to be bent or broken on occasion? Share them in the comments below, and I'll dedicate a post or two to them.

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