Occasionally when I’m working, I see an error so often that I begin to question my own conclusions about it. Sentence structure, for instance. I know what my client is doing isn’t correct, but I can’t explain why–which makes me wonder whether she is correct and I’m the one who’s wrong.
That’s when I turn to my good friends at the professional organization, The Christian PEN, Proofreaders and Editors Network.
Last week I gave them a workout when the past perfect verb tense was making me nuts. It took quite a few responses, and quite a bit of back-and-forthing for me to finally put my finger on the problem, but I eventually did. Past perfect should be used judiciously.
Use of the past perfect doesn’t usually confuse me–it’s a fairly simple concept. Whenever you want to describe something that’s farther past than simple past tense (in which most fiction is written), you change to past perfect tense.
She looked for him, but he left — simple past tense. The sentence implies he left during the time she was looking for him.
She looked for him, but he had left — past perfect tense. This one implies that he was gone before she started looking for him.
Here’s the hard part: What happens when both actions occurred farther back in history than simple past tense?
In the sentence above, “She’d looked for him, but he had left” would be correct. That clues the reader to the idea that both actions–her looking for him, and him leaving–occurred before Story Present, when the story is written in past tense (how’s that for confusing?). And that’s the entire point of past perfect, to clue the reader in to the idea that actions occurred before the Story Present.
You can get different answers from different professionals about using past perfect in back story. When you’re presenting several paragraphs’ worth of flashback or back story–if you absolutely must do so–my favorite method is to open with past perfect for a sentence or two to clue the reader, then shift to past tense so you’re not having to write “had done this” and “had done that” in every single sentence (which personally drives me nuts), and finally shift back to past perfect to clue the reader you’re about to end the flashback or back story.
This is an accepted method for fiction writers, although Professional A will disagree with Professional B about it. Both are right. One professional is technically right, and the other is artistically right. Reading a whole mess of “hads” can be cumbersome. Give your reader credit for being able to figure out what’s going on with the clues you give her.
Remember, the entire point is to clue the reader to which time period you’re writing about. The story’s present time, which is written in past tense, or the story’s past, which is written in past perfect.
What if it’s not back story, but just a sentence in a paragraph? And what if both parts of that sentence happened before Story Present? Well, if the sentence is like the example above, then past perfect is appropriate for both parts of the sentence:
She’d looked for him, but he had left.
Now, try this:
He’d left before she had a chance to see him, and now she was sorry.
He’d left before she had had a chance to see him, and now she was sorry.
Which do you think is correct? If you say “both,” you’re right. But, let me remind you, the point of past perfect is to clue the reader in to when the action occurred. Sometimes other clues do the same job. For the sentence above, before and now are those clues. The first example works.
They hadn’t eaten since Mom had served them lunch.
They hadn’t eaten since Mom served them lunch.
“Since” is the clue here.
Seven years ago, when Mom had died, they’d made their final trip to their hometown.
Seven years ago, when Mom died, they’d made their final trip to their hometown.
I reckon you know what the clue is here.
I’ve argued before that not using past perfect can be confusing for a reader. The verb tense fell into disfavor precisely because overuse of the word “had” can be cumbersome. But, particularly when the reader can’t tell whether the event is concurrent with present events or is an action of the past, the past perfect tense is necessary.
Now I’m arguing about using past perfect judiciously. I’ll say it again: Past perfect is a clue for readers that an event occurred farther back in history than the story’s present. So, when you can supply other clues–before, after, since, ago, when, or specific time references–it’s not always necessary to use past perfect. You can’t get away from it all the time, so use it when you need it, but use it judiciously.
Verb tenses are part of a writers’ tool box. Take advantage of all your tools!