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.

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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.

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.

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.