Lessons in the Past Perfect 5: Backstory

If you write fiction, sooner or later you,re going to have to deal with backstory. Backstory is all the past history of the characters, setting, and situation that happened before the story begins. While writers may imagine more backstory details they actually use, they’re going to have to convey enough of the details to allow the reader to understand the story, the character’s motivations, etc. Since backstory is in the past, by definition, relative to the story action, it’s pretty hard to deal with—correctly, at least—without using the past perfect tense. On the other hand, long explanatory paragraphs in past perfect are just the kind of thing that gives this verb tense a bad name, because of all those had’s.

Long paragraphs of backstory are often called “info-dumps,” and widely considered to be no-no’s. The truth, however, is that long paragraphs of any kind can be a problem, and an info-dump—to my way of thinking—is any delivery of backstory that is intrusive or awkward or badly-done. “Work it into the story” is a common suggestion for avoiding info-dumps, but I’ve seen that done badly, too, with bits of backstory inserted seemingly at random with too little continuity and very little relation to the specific context in the story where they are placed. Backstory delivery should be on a need-to-know basis.

If you’re setting up a fantasy world, an alien planet, a future setting, etc, your readers need to know a lot up front. You may need some fairly concentrated chunks of backstory and you shouldn’t shrink from the use of a few had’s. Don’t overload your readers with too much information, of course, but don’t starve them either.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to keep your need for “had” to a minimum. You should just try to do it legally. And if you bend the rules, never sacrifice clarity.

Here are some things to remember:

Habitual actions don’t require the past perfect tense, as long as they are continuing habits. The same applies to statements of the status quo. They cover the past and the present.

John always took a walk in the park on Sunday afternoons. (He did then, and still does.)

The anti-blasphemy laws infiltrated every aspect of people’s lives and were rigorously enforced. (This is the current state of affairs and has presumably been going on for some time.)

In a sentence with a compound past perfect verb, you only need to use “had” once:

The effects of the potion had confused her. She had lost her way and wandered into the magician’s trap. (Only two had’s, not three.)

Also, use of phrases in the progressive tense or the infinitive can dilute the past perfect:

The effects of the potion had confused her, causing her to lose her way and wander into the magician’s trap. (Only one had.)

Past events referred to in dialog use the simple past tense:

“Remember, I went all the way to the other end of the earth to get that thing.” “Yes, and you nearly got killed half a dozen times along the way. First there were the hostile natives who ambushed you. Then a leopard pounced out of a tree…” (etc.)

But beware of the “dialog info-dump.” You’ve all seen or heard these, where a character starts spewing details that would be common knowledge to all the other characters present and that no one would actually say. This feels completely unnatural and is very distracting.

If you really want to ditch the past perfect, do make liberal use of time tags to ensure clarity:

A century ago, that just wasn’t how things were done. Divorce carried a significant stigma at that time, which explained why Joshua remained in his loveless marriage to Anna and why the daughter Suzette bore to him grew up without knowing who her father was. (I would probably go to past perfect in the next sentence, unless I could work in another time tag.)

Breaking up a stretch of backstory by intercutting it with current action can work very well—if carefully done. Typically, a character is reminiscing about the past while passively watching some event or engaging in some simple, straightforward activity. The main pitfall comes from failing to be scrupulously clear about which bits are present and which bits are past. This is not the place to scrimp on past perfect or on time tags. Place and season and other diagnostic details can also help clue the reader as to what is ongoing action and what is backstory.

Rigo watched the muster of the troops from the balcony of the Winter Palace in Orman. There were too few of them and they moved stiffly, their uniforms inadequate against the cold. Many of them were also feeling the stiffness of old wounds. As he watched, Rigo couldn’t help remembering a different muster, in a different place and time. It had been spring then in Astergard, a hopeful season, and there had been many more men marching to the drums with a spring in their step. They had thought they were going out to put down a little rebellion—they’d be back in a week. That had been two years ago, before the death of the king, the fall of the capital city, and the overrunning of half the kingdom by “rebels” who had turned out to be the magically-conjured minions of the mysterious Mage-Lord. On the balcony, Rigo shivered as snow began to fall. Below him, the young prince—far too young, too green—rode out to review his troops. (You get the idea. I could go on, making up more details of the present situation and more details of its history, and alternating them.)

One thing not to do, is to put the first couple of sentences in past perfect and then lapse back into simple past without using clarifying time tags. You may know what you mean, but readers can easily be confused, especially early in the story when they don’t know enough to make accurate guesses. Ideally, readers should never have to guess at things you intend them to understand.

But, enough.

Has this been useful? Do you have tips of your own to offer? I’d be glad to hear them.

Lessons in the Past Perfect 4: Ditching It?

I have a confession to make. There are situations where the rules seem to call for the past perfect but I actually find that I substitute the simple past and it doesn’t feel wrong to me. I know; shocking, isn’t it? I guess Miss Past Perfect (me) isn’t quite so perfect.

I got to wondering whether this was a deficiency in my usually natural ability to “feel” the need for past perfect, or whether these are places where other grammatically knowledgeable writers would make the same call. Was there a pattern? I set out to analyze some of these cases.
Some of them turned out to be examples of a situation I’ve already claimed was legitimate, though I’m not sure it is.

In these cases, I wasn’t really using the simple past tense, I was using the past participle without the helping verb “had.” The simple past and the past participle are identical for many English verbs, so it isn’t always obvious what’s going on in these cases. Basically, they occur when a sentence has two or more parallel verbs all in past perfect. It only feels necessary to me to use the helping verb once – with the first past participle. The others feel okay to me without it, like this:

She had gone to the window, looked outside, and seen no one.

Note that “looked” and “seen” are both past participles here, although “looked” is identical to the simple past tense of “look.” Would anyone really feel it necessary to write “had gone,” “had looked,” and “had seen” in this case? Is what I do legitimate, or not?

And what about this:

He had been in a terrible mood because the repairman arrived two hours late.

I used that example in an earlier post, but wrote “had arrived” in order to make a point, even though I didn’t feel the “had” was really necessary. This is a different situation. “Arrived,” here, is not a past participle.

Or, another example, also a variant on one I used in a previous post:

He had finished it just two days before he died.

I wrote, “just two days before his death,” in the post to avoid the issue, but I like the ring of the above version better – and also better than “He had finished it just two days before he had died.” And once again, I’m not using “died” as a past participle. I might say “he had finished it two days before he went,” but never “he had finished it two days before he gone.”

What’s going on with these last two cases? All I can say in my defense is that both examples involve the second verb in a sentence where the first verb has clearly placed the action in the past relative to the ongoing action by use of the past perfect. In both cases there is no reasonable ambiguity. The word “because” in the first instance makes it impossible to imagine that the repairman being late could be present action, since it was the cause of a past situation (the character’s terrible mood). The second example may not be quite so clear-cut, but for me it would take a break in the sentence to wrench that second verb into the ongoing action – like this:

He had finished it just two days before. At a little before noon, the old man died.

And finally, here’s another example from a previous post. This is how I originally wrote it:

It hadn’t always been that way. There had been a time when he had noticed the trees and the flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.

The truth is, though, I haven’t really got a problem with switching the first verb in the second sentence to simple past:

It hadn’t always been that way. There was a time when he had noticed the trees and the flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.

What can I say? There’s a past perfect verb in that second sentence that anchors the sentence in time. The past perfect verb in the preceding sentence reinforces that and leads the reader to anticipate some further explanation of the past situation. So, again, I don’t think there’s any risk of ambiguity. (I might switch the second verb in that sentence instead, but not both at once.)

Am I just being hypocritical to allow myself these reversions to the simple past while demanding that the past perfect be used to anchor both sentences? You can tell me what you think, but for me, switching that entire last passage to simple past suggests a different meaning:

It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when he noticed the trees and the flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.

Now I think it’s possible that the “time when” referred to might be every Saturday afternoon when he walks to the park, rather than some earlier period of his life.

So what do you think? Should I be hung, drawn, and quartered? What would you do in these instances? Do you have other situations where you break the rules and feel okay about it? If so, tell me why.

 

Lessons in Past Perfect 3: Filling in gaps

Time is an important dimension in any story, and verb tenses are a major tool by which writers assert control over the dimension of time in their storytelling. If you’re a writer, I believe you owe it to yourself to master the verb tenses, regardless of the approach you take to telling your story. It’s part of what it means to be skilled in the craft.

When I see problems with verb tense in the work of aspiring or self-published writers, by far the most frequent issues involve the past perfect tense, specifically the failure to use it when it’s called for. People try to make the simple past do the work of both past and past perfect. The result is a noticeable loss of temporal “depth” and sometimes a loss of clarity. It’s like looking at a photograph where some things are out of focus that aren’t meant to be, making it hard to distinguish the relationships between objects.

Most stories are told in the past tense. They use the simple past for ongoing action, so the past perfect is needed to set off events that occurred prior to the current action. Many people aren’t very comfortable with the past perfect, and if you know you’re one of them, this post is for you.

This time I’d like to explain one very common use for the past perfect in a past tense narrative: filling in gaps created by jumping from one scene to another.

When you’re telling a story—anything other than a very simple one—you can’t show everything that happens because there just isn’t room. You have to decide which actions and events to put into scenes and which to skip over, but skipping creates gaps that can be informational as well as temporal. How do you fill the reader in on events that matter for continuity but are too minor, too brief, too boring, or just too isolated in time to justify fleshing-out in a scene? The past perfect tense is perfect for this, especially if you like to make “clean” jumps between scenes instead of linking them through brief passages of narration.

An example:

Let’s say the last scene involved the hero’s escape from some adversaries while crossing a plain to reach a range of mountains he has to climb. The next scene skips to him being in the mountains, where there are no trees, and its climax will involve fighting off an attacker with the aid of a stick. Since he didn’t have the stick in the previous scene, I want to explain how he acquired it. Here goes:

Aron paused halfway across a steeply sloping field of scree to catch his breath and assess his progress. He judged he was a little more than halfway to the pass. These mountains were too arid to support trees at this elevation and he had a clear view of the plain he had left, spread out below him, and of the ravine-like valley where he had picked up the trail that led to his present location. He glanced at the sun and took a swallow of precious water from his bottle, then started forward again. As he went, he used a stout stick to steady himself on the slippery slope. The stick was about five feet long, light but strong. He had cut it from one of the trees that grew sparsely along the stream in the bottom the valley. He had thought it might prove useful and he was very glad of it now. The trail he was following was sketchy at best. Even when the path wasn’t covered with loose fragments of rock, as it was here, it was steep, rock-strewn, and uneven.

Analysis: Okay, there are four past perfect verbs in the above passage. The first, “had left,” refers to the plain in the previous scene and comes midway through the third sentence after some introductory current action that is in simple past tense. This first use helps link the action to the previous scene as well as filling in an action that was skipped. “Had picked up the trail” places another detail in the gap. Finally, “had cut,” and “had thought” refer directly to the stick. (“Grew,” referring to the trees, doesn’t need to be past perfect because the trees are still growing in the valley. Past perfect is used for events that were completed in the past or conditions that no longer exist, not for ongoing conditions.) “He was very glad” is simple past tense that returns you to the current action. The passage also illustrates how switching back and forth between ongoing action and description of past action can avoid the repetitiousness of too many “hads” in close proximity.

In this particular case, substituting past tense in the first three instances feels “flat” and I know it’s ungrammatical, but I would have little difficulty deducing the meaning. He must have left the plain at some time in the past since he was there in the last scene and isn’t any longer; since he is currently following the trail, he must have picked it up in the past; and since he currently has the stick, he must have cut it in the past. In the last instance, however, “he thought it might prove useful” implies that he is anticipating a possible future use for the stick as he is crossing the slippery scree, rather than having anticipated the present kind of use at the time he cut the stick. The rest of the sentence and the subsequent details might cause one to question this interpretation, but do not clearly resolve the issue.

Another example:

The preceding scene in this case could have been one that established a need to build the “device” mentioned, and the current scene skips to the building of it, leaving a day-long “shopping” expedition undescribed. I could have made a scene out of the shopping, and might have gotten some good mileage out of it, but let’s just say that the need to move the story along more rapidly has left it on the cutting room floor. There are never-the-less some aspects of that trip that are relevant to the plot, specifically the need for secrecy…

Simon waited until the last sounds of movement in the rooms below him ceased before emptying the contents of his pack onto the table in his loft room and sitting down to attempt to assemble the device. The process was going to take some time and he couldn’t afford any interruptions. The assortment of wires, switches, chips, and circuit boards didn’t look like much, but it had taken him the better part of a day in the tech bazaar in Sol City to purchase them. The task could have been accomplished much more quickly if there hadn’t been the need for total secrecy. He had crisscrossed the bazaar repeatedly, putting plenty of both time and distance between each pair of purchases so as not to draw attention to himself, and he was quite sure that he had not been followed home. He smiled with grim satisfaction as he plugged in his soldering iron.

Analysis: I’ll let you hunt down the past perfect verbs. I count four of them. In this case, the repetition of “had” verbs is diluted by a couple of infinitives (“to purchase,” “to draw), a “could have been,” and an “ing” verb (“putting”)—in addition to a simple past tense verb. To my ear, this passage would sound really bad with past tense substituted for past perfect—except for the reference to the need for secrecy. In that one case I think I could have used simple past because the need for secrecy is, in a sense, ongoing. The situation isn’t quite analogous to that of the growing trees in the first example. I come across such ambiguous situations from time to time where something, such as a character’s reaction, could be viewed as both in the past and ongoing. In such cases the writer has latitude. You can decide which aspect of the action you want to emphasize—or which verb just sounds better.

This post has gotten plenty long enough. I would love to hear from you if it was helpful, of course, but also if you have any related suggestions to offer to aspiring writers who are working to improve their craft.

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?

Using the Past Perfect tense: Lesson 1

 

 

Present perfect and past deformed

Present perfect and past deformed (Photo credit: _Lev_)

 

Who ever would have thought I’d become an advocate for a verb tense?

But then, who ever would have thought a verb tense would need advocacy  – especially one as basic as the past perfect? (I mean, it’s not as if we’re talking about the subjunctive.)

My earlier post titled Had been there, had done that explains the basics of how the past perfect tense is used and how it’s constructed (“had” plus past participle).

Some people don’t seem to use the past perfect. Typically, they substitute the simple past tense for it. I’ve come to the conclusion that at least some of these people really don’t have a “feel” for how and when to use the past perfect. So I thought I might try offering some guidance to these folks.

So here’s Lesson 1 on how to use the Past Perfect tense:

The past perfect really comes into its own in fiction writing, where it’s necessary whenever the narration (typically in simple past tense) refers to something that happened earlier in time. For example:

He stepped outside into a downpour and realized that he had left his umbrella eight flights up, in his office, and the elevator wasn’t working.

Most people don’t get a lot of practice with the past perfect in their everyday lives, especially if they don’t read a lot of narrative fiction. When we talk about ongoing action in our lives, we use the present tense:

“I have a meeting with my boss at 9:00.” “I like chai tea.” “I need to buy a new cell phone.”

Or possibly the present progressive:

“I am finishing the report.” “I am waiting for the repair man.”

For things we are intending to do, we use the future tense:

“I will stop at the store for some milk on the way home.”

And when we refer to something that happened earlier, we naturally use the past tense:

“I’m going to have to reschedule because I missed the meeting.”

“Don’t talk to me! I’m in a terrible mood. The repairman was two hours late.”

Basically, this is the rule of thumb for using the past perfect:

If you would transition from the present to the past tense at a particular point in everyday conversation, then you should transition from the past to the past perfect at the equivalent point in a past tense narration. Or, to put it more simply: Present is to past as past is to past perfect.

Here are three pairs of examples to illustrate this (present tense narration first, then past tense narration.)

1.

I remember last Friday.  I was in a terrible mood because the repairman arrived two hours late, and I snapped at my wife.  I’m not going to make the same mistake this time. I’m in a terrible mood, but I’m not going to take it out on her.

He remembered last Friday. He had been in a terrible mood because the repairman had arrived two hours late, and he had snapped at his wife. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake this time. He was in a terrible mood, but he wasn’t going to take it out on her.

2.

I’m standing in front of the gate, hesitating. I meant to go charging in there and give that man a piece of my mind, but now all I can do is think about how that strategy might backfire.

She was standing in front of the gate, hesitating. She had meant to go charging in there and give that man a piece of her mind, but now all she could do was think about how that strategy might backfire.

3.

When I walk down the street these days, I’m not looking at my surroundings. It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when I noticed the trees and flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.

When he walked down the street these days, he wasn’t looking at his surroundings. It hadn’t always been that way. There had been a time when he had noticed the trees and flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.

So this might be an approach you could try if you have trouble knowing when to use the past perfect when writing past tense narrative. Try recasting the piece of narrative in the present tense and see where you feel the need to use the past tense. It might not always work well. I had a little trouble with the above examples, finding ones that worked in present tense. It helps to switch to first person, and think of it as a present tense “reflection.” Also it helps to use the present progressive instead of the simple present. Sometimes that feels more natural.

What do you think? Useful or possibly useful? Heard it before? Let me know.

Clarity First – on understanding one another

What is difficult? [ about A Cognitive Substra...

What is difficult? [ about A Cognitive Substrate for Natural Language Understanding ] (Photo credit: brewbooks)

 

I think I’ve already said that clarity is the first priority in communication (especially written communication, which potentially could transcend the ages). I’ll probably say it again. What I won’t say, though, is that there’s no excuse for not being clear. There are lots of excuses.

Here are some of the things that limit clear communication:

 

  1. Language is an imperfect tool under the best of circumstances. It was invented by a bunch of rank amateurs, using a process of trial and error, and is constantly being reshaped by its users, most of whom are also amateurs. It’s a complex system of sounds/visual code associated with meaning, and while we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that our language necessarily must be able to express anything, this is in fact boloney.
  2. People (the users of language) are imperfect. They may be tired, rushed, or in the throws of some strong emotion. They also can vary widely in their natural language ability or acquired level of skill.
  3. Any language, and especially English, is not a uniform beast. Not only does it change over time, but it also contains variants at any given time (regional dialects, cultural idioms, jargon).  In order to understand each other, we have to agree on what the words mean, as well as on the basic grammatical structure – and we don’t always do either one.
  4. The interpretation of language is terribly context-dependent. Basically, we’re not all coming from the same place, and where we’re coming from varies with who we are, where we are, and what we’re doing on a moment-to-moment basis.

All things considered, it’s amazing we actually manage to understand each other fairly well most of the time.

So I’ll always forgive you for not being clear. It’s a little harder to forgive people for not at least trying to be clear, but even then I know there are times when communication isn’t really a person’s top priority. And whenever I realize that I’ve just been misunderstood, the first thing I do (well usually) is reexamine what I actually said to see if I can identify the problem. Did I just say it badly? Or is there some possible alternate context that I failed to take into account? Of course, if I’ve got the other person face-to-face, I can also explore their insights into the issue – or just try again with a slightly different approach.

One thing I learned from being on the teacher side of the education fence is that, no matter how carefully you word the question, someone will manage to misinterpret it. My reaction when this happened was always to feel bad. Not because I assumed the misunderstanding was my fault – because of course it wasn’t necessarily – but because it meant my attempt to find out what the person had learned about the subject of the question had failed. (That’s failure of the assessment tool, rather than failure of the student.) The student may or may have known the answer – and I’ll never know which it was. (I always hated to mark those questions wrong, and tended to be very generous with any partial credit I felt I could assign.)

Now, I have encountered teachers – and, of course, others – whose reaction to being misunderstood went something like, “well I know what I was trying to say, so if you didn’t understand me it must be your fault.”

That is a position I find pretty unforgivable.