I HAD ENCOUNTERED PAST PERFECT TENSE FAR TOO MANY TIMES BEFORE WRITING THIS POST

The past perfect tense is used to indicate an action that has been completed (perfected) before some other action was completed. It can be spotted, most of the time, by looking for the word had:

I had lived on Mars for three years before leaving for Venus.

First, I lived on Mars for three years then I left for Venus: two actions in one sentence, in which the order of those actions matters—this happened first, the other thing happened next.

There is no law against the past perfect tense. In the above example it makes sense and gives clarity to this character’s past experiences. As such, please don’t take this post as some kind of blanket condemnation of the past perfect tense—just a mostly blanket condemnation of the past perfect tense.

Though there has been a bit of a trendy inclination toward present tense, which I still believe comes from screenplays—which everyone wants to write on the off chance that they’ll sell for a quick million bucks—the overwhelming majority of genre fiction, at least, is still written in the reader-friendly simple past tense. This means you’re describing, either through the direct experience of one point of view (POV) character (first person) or through an unspecified narrator (third person), events that transpired in the undefined past. Where writers get in trouble is in the conflation of simple past tense and past perfect tense.

Going back to that example of past perfect:

I had lived on Mars for three years before leaving for Venus.

This is the same idea rendered in simple past tense:

I lived on Mars for three years, then I moved to Venus.

The same information is conveyed, but in this specific example I still think the past perfect reads better, so then what’s the beef against past perfect?

Like anything from alcohol to gambling, anything in excess is bad.

Past perfect goes bad when it’s used too much.

For instance, as an editor I often see versions of a sustained past perfect flashback. Start with the basic idea that in this past tense narrative everything we see described has already happened in the past, but now I want to show something that happened before the past tense “now” of the A-line narrative.

The creature gnashed its poisoned fangs at him and he stepped back.

Galen had seen these things once, just before he fled the castle. They had come up from the ground, snarling and clawing. Their skin had glistened in the sunlight as though it had been covered by a thick layer of slime. The castle guards had fought bravely that day, but the creatures had killed a dozen men before having been driven back into the cold ground. That had been a day Galen had never forgotten.

The creature lunged at him and Galen swiped his sword in front of him to fend it off.

In that example, the first one-sentence paragraph is in the story’s A-line “now,” and is written in simple past tense. The first verb, gnashed, is the past tense form of “to gnash” and immediately follows the subject: “the creature,” so we know who gnashed. This continues as we see that Galen stepped back (again, past tense). The last one-sentence paragraph is there to show us going back to the A-line “now” and simple past tense. The creature (subject) lunged (past tense verb), etc.

In the second, longer paragraph I wanted to make it clear to my readers that Galen had encountered these same creatures once before, and why not show some of that action, so what follows is a brief flashback. In the first sentence of that paragraph:

Galen had seen these things once, just before he fled the castle.

we see the past perfect tense in all its glory. This is back in time from the story’s A-line “now,” indicated by the word had and we see one action (seen) happen before another (fled) in which the order matters: he saw them first then he ran away. The rest of the paragraph, as written, continues in either the past perfect tense or in some stilted version of the past perfect tense, and this is where things go wrong.

Since the first sentence in that paragraph—Galen had seen these things once, just before he fled the castle.—establishes that we’ve gone back in time from the A-line “now,” most of the rest of the paragraph can then drop back into simple past tense. We’ve entered the B-line “now.” In other words, in context, my readers understand that we’ve taken a short detour into Galen’s past and are seeing more of his first encounter with these monsters.

That being the case, look at how the past perfect tense can be used to establish a new “now” while still leaving the rest of the paragraph in a much more readable state, without all these reminders of “this is the past’s past,” or worse, each new sentence dragging us farther back in time:

Galen had seen these things once, just before he fled the castle. They came up from the ground, snarling and clawing. Their skin glistened in the sunlight as though covered by a thick layer of slime. The castle guards fought bravely that day, but the creatures killed a dozen men before they were driven back into the cold ground. That was a day Galen had never forgotten.

Note that the last sentence serves as a cue to say that we’re wrapping up our quick jaunt into the past’s past and transitioning back into the A-line “now.”

This is a small example, but I hope you’ll take it to heart. I’ve seen whole stories written in some strange hybrid version of past perfect tense, and they’re difficult to read. This is another example of the kind of writing mistake that the majority of readers won’t necessarily be able to describe in detail, but after reading a story that had happened, believe me, they will feel that something wasn’t quite right. This is another case of what I keep going back to, and that’s unnecessary emotional distance. By putting everything in the past’s past, you’re putting another layer between your readers and your story, and trust me, they will detect that even if they can’t name it. And they won’t like it.

The first easy step is to search for the word “had.” The second, much more difficult but essential step is to think about what that word is indicating. Had is not a bad word and doesn’t belong on any kind of “banned word list,” but like, let’s face it, every other word, it should be used carefully and with clear intent.

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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5 Responses to I HAD ENCOUNTERED PAST PERFECT TENSE FAR TOO MANY TIMES BEFORE WRITING THIS POST

  1. mjtedin says:

    I always have difficulty with writing extended flashbacks. How long do you keep the past perfect while the character is reminiscing about his past experiences? It’s harder to read in that tense, but it would get confusing to switch the flashback to past tense.

    • I think that single introductory sentence is almost always enough, but if you have longer flashbacks, or use that device more often, you can try other more obvious clues like datelines that make it clear that this whole chapter, say, or a large part of this chapter is happening in a certain year or “ten years ago,” etc.

  2. Shawn says:

    When I tell someone that I don’t enjoy a particular author’s work, I always get that dreaded question. Why? I don’t know. I’m a writer, but it’s only a hobby. I write for myself. I can admit that I’m not a good enough writer that I am able to put into words why exactly I don’t like a particular story. All I know is that I didn’t enjoy it.

  3. A good post, Phil. Not everyone understands what’s wrong with a story, but most folks can spot problems, even if they can’t explain them. For this reason, authors should not be quick to disregard the opinions of others.

  4. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…4/25/16 – Where Worlds Collide

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