Had been there, had done that…. In search of the perfect past

Verbs Territory

Verbs Territory (Photo credit: Ecstatic Mark)

This is a post about the past perfect verb tense. Why, you may ask, would I want to write about a thing like that, and what the heck is the past perfect, anyway?

Why is because I’m noticing a disturbing number of would-be writers and self-published writers who evidently don’t know how to use the past perfect.

As for what, well, we all know what past means, so that leaves the perfect part to be explained.

That’s perfect, from the Latin perfectus, past participle of perficere meaning to carry out or perfect.

That’s courtesy of Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary. (Yes, that’s a book. Sorry, I didn’t get it off the web, but I’m pretty sure it’s true anyway.) And once you get past the meanings like “expert”, “flawless”, “pure”, and “mature”, you get to meaning number 5, which goes as follows: “of, relating to, or constituting a verb form… …that expresses an action or state completed at the time of speaking or at a time spoken of.”

I translate that as, basically, relating to action completed in the past. (Please don’t be overly impressed: I had to ask a friend who actually has a degree in English to be sure I had the right name for the tense I was talking about.  I know what I do, I just don’t always know what to call it.) The thing to remember about the past perfect tense is that it combines had with the past participle form of a verb, like…

…had been,

…had done,

…had said, thought, walked, talked, hopped, skipped, jumped, or whatever.

And of course, just to make it more confusing, the past participle in English is often – but not always – the same  in spelling and pronunciation as the simple past tense of the verb.  So in some cases you only have to stick “had” in front of the past tense form of the verb, while in other cases you have to actually know what you’re doing.

Examples of the former:

Walked; had walked

Jumped; had jumped

Cried; had cried

Said; had said

Led; had led

Examples of the latter:

Was; had been

Did; had done

Ran; had run

Saw; had seen

Rode; had ridden

Why is this important? Well, it isn’t always. The need for the past perfect rarely comes up in scientific writing, for example. But in story-telling it comes up on a regular basis. Wait a second, you say. If the regular old past tense deals with the past, why isn’t it good enough to just use the past tense in a story for past events? It isn’t, because in stories we normally use the simple past tense for ongoing action.

We do? Yes, we do.

I mean, you can use the present tense for ongoing action in a story – “He goes into the bar. He sits down. He orders a drink.” Some people do that to create a greater sense of immediacy. But it’s much more natural to use the past tense – “He went into the bar. He sat down. He ordered a drink.”

I think this goes back to the origins of human story-telling among those hunter-gatherer ancestors of ours I’m always harping about. When those folks sat around the campfire at the end of the day recounting their experiences, they would naturally be speaking of things that had happened in the past – either the day just past or on some other day in the more distant past. In the present, they were just sitting around the fire telling stories. The action was all in the past.

The problem arises when your story needs to include references to things that happened before the currently ongoing action – whether it’s a moment before, a day or a week before, or perhaps before the story began. If you’re using the simple past for ongoing action, you need some other way to differentiate the past events from the ongoing events in order to avoid a potential crisis in clarity. That’s what the past perfect is for.

Realistically writers don’t only rely on the past perfect for clarity in these cases. The past perfect only tells you the action was completed in the past, after all; it doesn’t tell you how far in the past, or exactly when or over what span of time, and those things are frequently important. So people also use time tags – things like, “yesterday,” “last week,” “the previous time,” or “in all his life up until that moment,” to provide the appropriate precision. Because the time tags do part of the work even without the past perfect tense, I can usually figure out what the writer must have meant and identify the places where he or she should have used the past perfect. In fact, my brain frequently screams “had!” before I even get out of the offending sentence. In other cases I have to back track a sentence or two, and in some cases I don’t even figure out that I misunderstood something until much further on in the story.

Given the way the time tags work, I suppose some people might wonder if the past perfect is really necessary. The problem is that people don’t always realize they should have used a time tag. Also, it’s cumbersome to have to keep repeating the tags in each sentence if the past perfect narrative goes on for two or more sentences, and the reader can’t always tell when to switch back to ongoing action.

Consider the following example (without past perfect):

“He walked into the bar, sat down, and ordered a drink. After a few minutes, his former girlfriend walked in. The same thing happened the week before. Since he didn’t want to make a scene, he gulped his drink and left. Unfortunately, he forgot to pay his bar tab. Resolving not to make the same mistake, he called for the check.”

My brain screams, “The same thing had happened the week before…” because of the time tag. But then I assume that “Since he didn’t want to make a scene…” returns to ongoing action. I don’t discover my mistake until I get to the apparent disconnect of, “Resolving not to make the same mistake…”
I then realize that forgetting to pay the bar tab must be the “mistake” referred to, and therefore must have happened the previous week.

Using the past perfect, the excerpt becomes…

“He walked into the bar, sat down, and ordered a drink. After a few minutes, his former girlfriend walked in. The same thing had happened the week before. Since he hadn’t wanted to make a scene, he had gulped his drink and left. Unfortunately, he had forgotten to pay his bar tab. Resolving not to make the same mistake, he called for the check.”

Adding another time tag, such as, “Since he didn’t want to make a scene on the previous occasion, he gulped his drink and left,” would probably have given me the clue I needed to unscramble the action a bit sooner, but my brain would still have been screaming had, had, had!

To all you would-be writers out there, please don’t make my brain scream. If my brain is screaming, I can’t enjoy your wonderful story. And I have seen some wonderful stories that were ruined for me because my brain was screaming had, had, had! I have yet to read a novel published by a traditional publishing house that made my brain scream this way, and fortunately the verb tense problem is something a good editor can fix.

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  1. What a great post–nowhere have I read about this issue, and it’s something I faced in my manuscript. My problem was, I knew when I needed to use the past perfect, but I didn’t know how long I should keep it up. For example, I have a few scenes where my character thinks back into her mind about a certain event. During that flashback, dialogue is occuring as well as narration. When I orignally wrote these scenes, I used the past present through out the entire flashback, but in reading it, it seemed like too many “had”s. So instead, I started off using the past perfect–example (and I’m making these words up): *She thought back to their encounter two weeks ago. At the time she had cried, angry he had misled her. But then he had apologized, and she had felt better.*–At this point, I veer off into dialogue between them, but instead of writing *he had said, and she had asked*, etc., I reverted to regular old past tense, because I figured the reader would realize the conversation took place two weeks ago since I set it up that way. Then to get back to the here and now in the story, I put in something like: “A noise broke her thoughts, and she returned her mind to the present.”

    So do you think I should have stuck with past perfect for the page or so that the flashback occurred, or is it okay to just start that way and then use the simple past? My editor never said otherwise, so I assumed the way I did it was okay and that it won’t confuse the reader.

    Sorry for the long comment, but I’m happy to see someone address this topic.

    • Oh, yeah. Extended descriptions of past action are really tricky because too much repetition of “had, had, had” gets to be a problem just as too much repetition of any word does. Past perfect is also just more cumbersome than simple past, so too much of it offends the artistic sensibilities on that score too. So, no, I don’t think you should have stayed in the past perfect for a whole page. The past perfect works best in storytelling when it only needs to be applied to a relatively small amount of information.

      A true flashback, in my view, doesn’t use the past perfect at all because the character is experiencing such a vivid memory of the past that it brings the past into the present. But you have to make it clear that’s what’s happening.

      “Remembering that day, he was suddenly there again, in the middle of that burning house. The flames leaped all around him, the heat seared his skin, and smoke caught in his throat…”

      Then, of course, as you pointed out, you have to say something to clearly end the flashback and return the reader to the “real” present. There are more or less skillful ways of handling all of this. It sounds as if what you did in your book at least was clear. I’d have to see the real passage to be able to say how well I thought it was handled. Then, too, clarity is often aided simply by the fact that the past events are obviously set in a different context than the ongoing action – different people present, different objects and surroundings. I chose a worst case scenario for my example in my post, where the past and present actions involved completely parallel situations. The past perfect really became essential there to avoid confusion.

  2. I enjoyed this! I do have an MA in English; however, I was not one to pay much attention to what the tenses were called nor do more than try to do them right without being able to tell you which tense I had used (see “had” used). Regardless, you stated it all well. I understood and will use this article as another thing to watch for in my stories and my book(s).

  3. This is one where I should usually trust my initial instincts. It’s when I overthink my sentences that I get into trouble. Somewhere I read that today’s publishers don’t like the past perfect tense and that writers should avoid it as much as possible. I have a real problem with that for the very reasons you described so well! When my manuscripts go out for that final edit before querying, I want my editors to catch areas where I need to be clearer in my tenses.

    • There’s a difference between trying to minimize situations where the past perfect is required and “avoiding” it by incorrectly using the simple past where the past perfect is actually needed. Hopefully publishers want you to do the first, not the second!

      (See my response to Carrie regarding flashbacks.)

  4. You explained it so perfectly! Great post. I really enjoyed it. I love past perfect and I’m with you…I will scream HAD in my head too when it isn’t there.

    • Thanks, Charissa. I’m glad I’m not alone.
      Seriously, though, as some others are pointing out, the past perfect has some drawbacks, such as all those “hads” making for unpleasant repetition. The trick is to find ways not to need it too much.

  5. I love this post, especially because my novel-in-progress plays with time and memory. Much of it is told in the past perfect, which drives my writing critique group crazy… but there was no other way! I’m also driving them crazy by using the future conditional and slipping into the present tense–intentionally!–even when describing past events, to demonstrate the emotional immediacy of a memory. It remains to be seen whether all of this will work or will turn into a big mess that needs to be edited, but I’m having fun so far.

  6. I engage in similar quibbles with my writing group. I am the only fiction writer of the bunch, so yes, I have to use past perfect often. One member always flags it however, stating that the sentence isn’t immediate enough. The extra word apparently takes her that much out of the story, out of the action. The other member of my group insists on keeping it because it is correct.

    Basically, it does come down to whether or not the reader is knowledgeable to know the difference. If the reader is like the anti-past perfect member of my group, then he/she won’t even notice the word ‘had’ is missing. It’s a sad commentary on today’s readers.

    The example you cite is a perfect way to show her and all the other would-be writers (love that, by the way) that immediacy at the expense of confusion is not the wise road to take.

    I have noticed that in some traditionally published novels that many writers will start off using the past perfect to introduce the action that occured before the ongoing action, but as the flashback or memory reads on, the ‘had’s’ drop off until they are no longer being used. Even in the same paragraph–the first sentence, perhaps first two sentences will use ‘had’ before each verb, but eventually they fall by the wayside. I wonder if it is because the writer or the editor felt that too many ‘had’s’ make it read choppily (which is the other reason my anti-had group member gave)?

    • I think you’re right that some people can’t tell when the past perfect is needed. I suppose that in acquiring their language they just weren’t “trained” to hear it because the speakers who were their models didn’t use it. Hopefully that skill can be learned at a later age, but you have to convince people it’s worth the effort.

      The past perfect is a more cumbersome construction than the simple past and the “hads” can easily get repetitious, so clarity and artistry can be at odds here. But I would never advocate just substituting the simple past for the past perfect where it’s grammatically required just to save a “had.” I would look instead for ways to be clear about relative timing of actions without need for the past perfect. Also, you can reduce the number of “hads” by things like using compound sentences where one “had” serves two past participles. In my example, I wrote…

      “…he had gulped his drink and left.”

      No need to say “had left”. Since “left” is both the past tense of leave and the past participle, it might look to some people as if I just carelessly left out a “had,” but I didn’t. It would be more obvious in a sentence like this:

      “He had been so frightened he had dropped the bag and run all the way home.”

      And you can seem to get rid of the “hads” altogether by going to contractions as in the following:

      “He’d been so frightened he’d dropped the bag and run all the way home.”

      If you wanted to insert a piece of news into your story about something that had happened, you could have a character report it in dialog rather than narrating it in past perfect tense. The character would naturally tell it in simple past because he’s essentially telling a story about something that happened in the past and it’s natural in such a situation to use the simple past tense.

  7. Great post. I’ve always had (putting the lesson to use) a problem using the past continuous tense while narrating events. Do you think past continuous weakens the narration as opposed to simple past tense?
    For eg: As she was chopping onions a weird thought popped into her head OR
    A weird thought popped into her as she chopped onions

    • So glad you gave the example – as I said, I know what I do, but not necessarily what to call it. Since I use that continuous construction myself, I could hardly say I think it weakens anything. I think I use it partly for variety, but also because I want the sense of a continuing action that some other action or event interrupts, as in your example. (Or, “He decided to take a walk. And as he was walking, he thought about all the things that had happened since…”) It also feels a little more immediately involving, so I would use it if I wanted that. “As she was creeping up the stair…” vs “As she crept up the stair…” The first one puts me there a little more and would be better, I think, for suspense. The distinction is subtle. I don’t like to say, use this tense or don’t use that one. I go with what feels right.

      “The mist was creeping over the fen as the hour of midnight drew near…” It just wouldn’t be the same the other way. “The mist crept over the fen…” in this case, I feel, weakens it – not the other way around.


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