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.

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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.