How to use the Past Perfect, Lesson 2: avoiding the need for it

non perfect wall

non perfect wall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people advocate avoiding long passages in the past perfect because the repetition of “had” sounds clunky or becomes distracting. Well, it can. The skilled writer is always aware of how the writing “sounds,” of distracting repetitions, poor rhythm, awkward phrasing. So there is a legitimate reason to know how to avoid the need for too much use of the past perfect.

Avoiding the need for the past perfect is not, however, the same thing as just blithely substituting the past tense for it in places where the past perfect is grammatically required.

Consider this: What would you think if someone suggested that when handling a long passage referring to previous events in an otherwise present-tense narrative, the writer should switch to the present after 2-3 past-tense verbs and then switch back to the past for the last 2-3 verbs at the end of the passage? Completely ridiculous, right? Yet some people are apparently suggesting that writers switch from the past perfect to the past, and back to the past perfect, like this to avoid too much use of the past perfect.

This is not a skilled writer’s approach to the problem.

There are plenty of perfectly legitimate ways to avoid the need for the past perfect.

1. The most direct approach is to tell the events in your story in the order in which they occur. In theory this would work, but it conflicts with the principle that events should be dealt with at the point in the story where their presentation is most effective. You might consider it, but unless your story is naturally totally linear, sooner or later you will need the past perfect.

2. Shift references to past events into dialog. Your characters will naturally talk about ongoing events in present tense and about earlier events in past tense. End of problem.

3. Monolog works too. Your character can talk to himself about his past experience and this will follow the same pattern of verb tense use as normal dialog.

4. Bring the past into the present. This is the best way to handle a lengthy passage that would require past perfect if dialog is not appropriate and your character isn’t given to soliloquy. This is a true “flashback,” the vivid re-experiencing of a past event in the present. But, you have to set it up so it’s clear to your reader what is happening and use of the past tense feels natural, and you have to be just as clear about bringing your character back to reality at the flashback’s end.

Example:

She stared at the object lying at the bottom of the trunk. She had seen it before. Her mind flew back to that moment, three years ago, and she was there again. She saw her father drop the new casting into the cooling bath. The water hissed and steamed at contact with the hot metal. Her father fanned the steam away, and she could see the small crescent of silver gleaming under the water’s surface. He fished it out with the tongs and held it up, turning it this way and that so it reflected the firelight. It seemed at that moment to be made of gold rather than silver. “Tonight I will clean and polish it,” he said. “And tomorrow I will set the stone.”

She blinked, banishing memory’s vision. She felt a lump in her throat as she reached into the trunk. Her father had made the silver and opal pendant for the Lord of Eastwing’s daughter. He had finished it just two days before his death.

For this example, I start with a precipitating event: She stared at the object lying in the bottom of the trunk. This is in past tense because it’s part of the ongoing action. Then I switch to past perfect for a single short sentence – She had seen it before – to tell the reader I’m referring to an earlier event. This is followed by the set-up for the flashback: Her mind flew back to that moment, three years ago, and she was there again. The sentence brings the past into the present and is in past tense because it’s part of the ongoing action.

The flashback follows. This is her memory from the past, re-experienced as if it were present (ongoing action) and therefore told in the past tense. It goes on for several sentences and contains a line of dialog.

Finally, I end the flashback, starting a new paragraph and bringing her mind back to the present: She blinked, banishing memory’s vision. The next sentence – She felt a lump in her throat as she reached into the trunk – is in simple past tense and should be clearly understood to be part of the present ongoing action because I’ve told you the flashback is over. Since I’m not quite through referring to past events, however, the next two sentences are in the past perfect. They’re outside the flashback and describe additional events relating to her father that took place in the past.

A flashback doesn’t have to be set up exactly as I did it in this example. How you do it depends on how it fits into the story. There could be more past perfect before the flashback begins. There could be more or less after it ends. The flashback could be longer, even a lot longer, but if you do that you had better be sure your character is sitting down – or otherwise in circumstances that will support a long period of reflection. A flashback interrupts the flow of the ongoing action. Really long ones therefore should be set in action that isn’t too pressing.

Moving back and forth between ongoing action and reference to past events, and therefore between the past tense and the past perfect – as I did in several places in the example – can also legitimately dilute the frequency of “had.” If you do it for grammatically valid reasons, the result should be crystal clear. If you switch back and forth between the two tenses ungrammatically, howerver – just to get rid of the “had” – you risk losing clarity and making your reader backtrack to figure out what you meant.

This seems like rather an advanced topic for Lesson 2, but I was responding to comments on Lesson 1 from some of my highly sophisticated readers.

So how did I do this time? Useful? Not? All stuff you already knew or that you’ve heard before? Do you have any other approaches that you use in your writing to address this issue?

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8 Comments

  1. Despite my official blogging ‘break,’ you know I had to stop in for this, Carol. Very informative and a great post to bookmark for future reference. I used the 2nd and 4th methods in my last novel, though perhaps not as well as I could have. In my current WIP, I’m sticking more with dialogue and using ‘had’ throughout, but for an extended flashback, I’ll resort to #4. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Carrie! I was actually thinking of you when I pushed this out, after reading your post. (I’d started it and was just having trouble getting back to it…) It really jazzes me to have a genuine published author like you say that they got something out of one of my posts.

      Reply
      • I’ve got it on my list to share these two posts on Twitter because it’s not easy to find clear info on this subject. I remember trying to sort the past perfect issue out when I was editing my book last summer. It got the go ahead from my editor, but it still nagged at me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much other than the advice to avoid using too many ‘had’s cause it could get tedious. I would have loved to stumble upon something like this back then.

        Thanks for the kind words, though I’m not sure they’re merited!

  2. I’ve used #4 a good amount. I think you did a good job giving us workarounds for the past perfect. Thanks!

    Reply
  3. I am currently having my manuscript edited and she came back to me with this exact issue. I’m going to e-mail her this post. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
    • Well, I hope it’s helpful. I’m a little curious about what the editor is trying to get you to do, use more past perfect, or less? Or is it something else? I’ve critiqued manuscripts where I would definitely have recommended the writer use more past perfect, because he or she hardly used any. I’ve also come to realize, though, that it’s worth finding graceful and “legal” ways to avoid using a lot of it.

      Reply
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