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April 9, 2020

Beyond the Past: Understanding the Past Perfect Tense

Old pocket watch with text: Keeping Track of the Past

Last week, we talked about our options for which verb tense to use with our story. In the comments, regular reader Clare O’Beara brought up the past perfect tense as something that many writers struggle to use correctly.

She’s absolutely right. *smile* So let’s review when the past perfect tense applies to our story and how to use it properly.

Recap: The Default Tenses of Storytelling

As we mentioned last week, the default tense that many writers use for their storytelling is past tense. But that doesn’t mean that we use past tense for every element of our story.

Instead, the tense we use changes with the various elements of our story:

  • The narrative is written in past tense:
    She ignored the knock on the door. In these days of social distancing, she didn’t want to take any chances.
  • Dialogue (including direct internal dialogue) is written in present tense:
    “I need some chocolate to get me through this day. Stat.”
  • Backstory (events that occurred before the story present) is written in past perfect tense:
    She had eaten all the snacks in the house already.

The first two elements are pretty standard, but let’s talk about that third category, as the term backstory for that third element isn’t quite accurate.

Before Our Story’s Present

Our story’s present is the here-and-now of our story. And we mean not just the year it takes place, but each paragraph and scene while they’re the focus of being written/edited or read.

How can we indicate the order of events that happened earlier in our story? Click To TweetAs we write—or our readers read—our story, the concept of time within the story progresses, much as it does in real life. The current paragraph (whichever paragraph is currently being written, edited, or read) is considered the story’s present, which makes the previous paragraph the story’s past (and the next paragraph the story’s future). So the story adds to its past as readers read each line.

In other words, for the purpose of figuring out the right tense to use, the term “backstory” above refers to any events before the story’s here-and-now, even though that’s not what we usually mean by backstory.

Examples: Events Before Our Story’s Present

Let’s check out a few examples of the different types of events that we’re going to include in this “backstory” category for the purposes of this post.

The category of events that occurred before the story present includes:

  • Events from an earlier paragraph in the same scene, such as a character thinking about what someone else said “five minutes ago” in the story:
    Was the woman telling the truth? During her impassioned speech a few minutes ago, she had certainly seemed earnest.
  • Events from an earlier scene, such as a character reflecting on an argument they had the previous night:
    Anger swept through her again. Last night’s argument had highlighted all the ways her sister took advantage of her.
  • Flashback, such as a character reliving the last memory of a beloved relative (which might have occurred in an earlier scene or before the story started):
    The sugary smell took him back to the last time he had seen his grandmother. Her eyes had crinkled with mischievousness.
  • Events from before the story started (i.e., backstory), such as a character remembering a trauma from their childhood:
    She shuddered as memories washed over her. She wished she could forget what had happened all those years ago, but the damage was too deep.

Indicating Time in Stories

In our stories, we somehow have to let readers know what’s happening in the story’s present versus what happened in the past. We have to indicate a step back in the story’s time progression.

With present-tense stories (or for dialogue in past-tense stories), if our narrative or dialogue is describing:

  • Current Events: Use present tense:
    I jump over the fence and try not to limp.
    “I don’t know what to think.”
  • Earlier Events: Use past tense:
    Last night, I bruised my knee.
    “I told her three times already to just go home.”

For past-tense stories, the narrative for our story’s present is already in the past tense. So we have to use past perfect tense to indicate a further jump back in time for when an event happened earlier in our story’s timeline.

With past-tense stories, if our narrative is describing:

  • Current Events: Use past tense:
    I jumped over the fence and tried not to limp.
  • Earlier Events: Use past perfect tense:
    Last night, I had bruised my knee.

In other words, for whatever tense we’re using for the majority of our story (past or present tense) and its current events, to indicate earlier events, we need to shift one tense further into the past. Depending on the tense we’re using for our story’s present, we’d shift either from present>past tense or from past>past perfect tense.

The past perfect tense is the one most of us are least familiar with, so let’s take a closer look…

What Is the Past Perfect Tense?

Last week, I shared this graphic of the 12 tenses used in the English language:

The 12 Tenses - Usage

Note the usage definition of the past perfect tense:

To indicated a completed action of the past that happened before another event took place.

In other words, when our story is in past tense, we use the past perfect tense to indicate a completed action of the past (i.e., before the story’s current events take place):

She had eaten all the snacks in the house already.

  • The past perfect tense tells us the event of her eating the snacks was done and completed in the past.

Along the same lines, if we’re writing in past tense, the past perfect continuous tense indicates an action that began in the story’s past and continued to the story’s present:

She had been struggling with a constant sense of hunger ever since the pandemic increased her stress level.

  • The past perfect continuous tense tells us the event of her struggling with her constant sense of hunger started in the past and continues to the story’s present.

How Do We Use the Past Perfect Tense?

Look again at the examples of past events in this post:

  • She had eaten all the snacks in the house already.
  • During her impassioned speech a few minutes ago, she had certainly seemed earnest.
  • Last night’s argument had highlighted all the ways her sister took advantage of her.
  • The sugary smell took him back to the last time he had seen his grandmother. Her eyes had crinkled with mischievousness.
  • She wished she could forget what had happened all those years ago, but the damage was too deep.
  • Last night, I had bruised my knee.

See all those hads before the verbs? To shift from the simple form of past tense to the past perfect tense, all we need to do is use had + the past participle form of the verb.

For many verbs, the past participle form means using the normal -ed ending of the past-tense version of the verb. However, our language is graced with many other verbs that are irregular and use a different form for simple past vs. past participle (ate vs. eaten, saw vs. seen, etc.).

To use the past perfect continuous tense, such as to indicate an event that started in the past and carries through to the story’s present, we use had been + the form of the verb with an -ing ending:

  • She had been struggling with a constant sense of hunger ever since the pandemic increased her stress level.

Do We Have Too Many Hads in Our Writing?

Those instructions illustrate the major reason many authors hate using the past perfect (or past perfect continuous) tense, even if they understand all the rules: We can easily end up with too many hads all over our story.

How can we avoid overusing the word “had” in our story when talking about the past? Click To TweetThere’s no alternative word we can use to swap out for variety, so seeing the word had everywhere feels repetitive. Worse, overuse of the word feels repetitive to readers too, not to mention it makes our stories harder to read.

The word had also adds distance between the reader and our story and slows down our story’s pace. We’re now telling rather than showing events, because they’re no longer happening right in front of readers.

So we want to reduce our use of the word, yet we also need to let readers know when events are from before rather than now. How can we indicate earlier events without overwhelming readers with hads everywhere?

Tip #1: Minimize Reader’s Recognition of the Word

The first—and easiest—change is to use contractions when the word had follows a pronoun and is being used for the past perfect (or past perfect continuous) tense:

  • She’d eaten all the snacks in the house already.
  • During her impassioned speech a few minutes ago, she’d certainly seemed earnest.
  • The sugary smell took him back to the last time he’d seen his grandmother.
  • Last night, I’d bruised my knee.
  • She’d been struggling with a constant sense of hunger ever since the pandemic increased her stress level.

The word is still there, but it’s much less noticeable to readers.

Tip #2: Avoid Other Uses of the Word

Depending on our writing habits and crutches, we might also use the word had for other reasons, such as to indicate a desire or ownership. If we make a different word choice—using needed, wanted, possessed, etc.—we can reduce the number of hads on our pages:

  • She had to get to work on time. >
    She needed to get to work on time.
  • She had a car. >
    She owned a car

We especially want to avoid sentences that double the use of the word, resulting in had had. That sentence construction is just asking for readers to trip over it, and if there’s any way, we should reword the sentence.

If we default to using contractions, like with Tip #1, we also want to watch out for ‘d contractions followed by had (although using the contraction is certainly better than not):

  • She’d had too much to eat. >
    She’d eaten too much.
  • She’d had a hard time getting the page to print. >
    She’d struggled to get the page to print.

Tip #3: Use Transitions for Longer Passages

The trickiest—but most important—change applies when we have a long passage referencing the past. With a longer passage, such as with a flashback, we (and readers) are more likely to feel the repetitiveness of overusing had.

Flashbacks can take up several paragraphs or pages, all referencing the story’s past and littering the word in every sentence. Maybe even more than once.

Instead, know that it’s perfectly acceptable to lead readers into a transition from story present to story past and back again. With appropriate transitions, the bulk of the passage could be in simple past tense, eliminating the repetition for most of the sentences:

  1. Start the passage with a sentence or two that includes had,
  2. Use simple past for the bulk of the passage, and then
  3. Indicate a transition back to our story’s present, still using simple past.

For example:

The sugary smell took him back to the last time he’d seen his grandmother. Her eyes had crinkled with mischievousness as she sneaked the usual candy bar into his pocket when his mother wasn’t looking. He thought she was beautiful, blue-gray hair and all. By the time he said goodbye and left with his mother, his pockets were full with several more candies, and he promised to come back soon.

But there hadn’t been another visit before her death, and with that thought, the sweet smell now turned his stomach.

The hads in the beginning let readers know we’re talking about an event in the story’s past. Once we’ve established that time frame for readers, we can switch to simple past for the bulk of the passage.

A transition back to the story’s present at the end of the passage is also necessary. Between the paragraph break, the end of the passage’s “story,” and a now thrown in for good measure, readers understand we’re back in the story’s present even though we continue with the same simple past verb tense.

Update: In the comments below, Marty C. Lee also points out that the had in the first part of transition sentence (But there hadn’t been another visit…) helps remind readers that the previous passage was further in the past before shifting back to the simple past of the story’s present. This reminder is especially helpful—and necessary—if our flashback passage is long.

Wait… Is Tip #3 Actually Legit?

The point of all these grammar rules isn’t to make our life more difficult, but to ensure readers understand what we’re trying to say. The reason the past perfect tense exists is to establish a past timeline that occurs before the previously established past. What’s important is clarifying the progression of time and events for readers.

Are we allowed to shift tenses for flashbacks so they feel more immediate? Click To TweetAs long as we’re clearly establishing the now vs. then for readers at the beginning and end of the passage, we don’t need to use hads in every sentence. A few sentences with the word isn’t too noticeable, but longer than that, and we should probably use Tip #3’s transition method to reduce the use of had.

This is the same concept as “bookend” stories, where the bulk of the story is a flashback, and the beginning and ending passages set up and transition to and from the main story’s time period. In this case here, the flashback passage is only part of the story rather than the majority of the story, but either way, the key is establishing a clear transition to explain the order of events for readers.

Every Writer Should Understand Past Perfect Tense

Even though the past perfect tense can be a pain to work with, we probably can’t avoid ever using it. Even with present tense stories, any reference to the past might refer to even earlier events:

I’m used to being poor. I didn’t understand what it meant when I was a kid, but the only reason I received birthday presents was because my mother had spent the months before hitting up all her friends for hand-me-downs.

It would be even less likely for a past-tense story to never talk about past events. So chances are, we’ll need to use past perfect at some point in our writing. Sorry to bear that news, but I hope this helps explain the tense and how to use it. *smile*

Were you familiar with the past perfect tense before? Have you struggled with the tense before? Does this help clear up some of the rules for how to use it? Were there any tips you didn’t know? Do you have any other questions about the past perfect tense?

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Marty C. Lee

Actually, you bookend that flashback with past perfect. It transitions out with “there HADn’t been another visit…” 😉

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

I agree with you, Marty. That’s what I do, anyway.

Lois
Lois

This lesson on past perfect was… perfect for me now that I’m editing. Thank you!

Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber

Jami, you’re on a roll with these posts on verb tense. What about a flashback in a present-tense story? Using your paragraph, this is what I have: The sugary smell takes him back to the last time he saw his grandmother. Her eyes crinkled with mischievousness as she sneaked (snuck?) the usual candy bar into his pocket when his mother wasn’t looking. He thought she was beautiful, blue-gray hair and all. By the time he said goodbye and left with his mother, his pockets were full with several more candies, and he promised to come back soon. But there hadn’t been another visit before her death, and with that thought, the sweet smell now turns his stomach. And, as I had hoped *grin*, there’s a spot or two where I’m not sure if “had” should be there anyway ( had crinkled, had thought). The piece I’m working on now is in first-person, present tense. Sometimes, I’ll come across a verb which is spelled the same in present and past tense (“read” is a good example) and the sentence becomes confusing. These verbs pull me out of “the zone” with the worry that I’ve suddenly been writing in simple past all along… When I need to show a flashback during a present tense piece, I show I’m seeing the narrator’s past, then drop into the scene as if it’s just unfolding for the first time (present tense). When the flashback is done, the narrator returns to the present and “bookends” the…  — Read More »

Kassandra Lamb

Thanks, Jami. Your usual thorough and clear explanation. Perhaps in some future post, you could clarify more about the past continuous tense. It’s one of my pet peeves that editors and other authors too often assume that “I was eating” is passive voice. No, it indicates an ongoing activity.

Sieran

Wow thanks for writing this post and answering my question! That was a good example of how to use the past perfect, without overloading the reader with “had”s, lol.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks Jami, I agree with all you have written! I particularly recall reading a line like “She drove past the field where a plane crashed” – I had no idea how long ago this event had occurred, five minutes ago or five years. Sometimes authors need to provide clearer information, and thinking through the verb tenses would help with this work.

Lynne
Lynne

Excellent guide! Really in depth. Will share on Twitter

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