Peeve of the Day

If you’re writing a story in the past tense — as most of us do — then events and actions that took place in the past of the story go into the past perfect tense.  You know, the one with all the “haves” and “hads” in it.

If you’re writing a story in the present tense — not so common, but it happens sometimes — then you can put past events and actions into the simple past tense.

(What about all the verbs with all the “mights” and “shoulds” and “oughts” and stuff in them?  Those are the so-called modal verbs, the ones that are principally responsible for the observation that looked at one way, English only has two verb tenses, but looked at another way, it has roughly thirty-odd.  If you feel uncertain about dealing with them, your best bet is probably to find yourself a beta reader with a really good feel for language and prose style and run everything past him or her.)

7 thoughts on “Peeve of the Day

  1. Ugh, I’ve run smack into this in my novel and it’s driving me up the wall.

    My novel’s in limited third, past tense. It’s got a handful of flashbacks (for lack of a better word–the protag is reminiscing about her dead friend, so the scenes are narrated from the perspective of her-in-the-story’s-present). Past perfect is the correct tense here, but for scenes that go on for a page or more, it’s not graceful.

    The current draft (Reviser? Party of one? Your table is ready) is me trying to get away with introducing the scenes in past perfect and moving to simple past for the remainder to keep the ‘had’s from clunking up the joint. I introduce the flashback with a sentence or two of past perfect, then dialogue between protag and friend in simple past, on the theory that readers are smart enough to figure out that if she’s talking to a now-deceased person, the conversation must have happened in the past (at least in the world of this story).

    I’m not really happy with it and want to switch it back to doing it properly, with the whole scene in past perfect. But getting past perfect to roll out smoothly is hard.

  2. Your first instinct — to ease into the extended flashback with a few verbs in the past perfect, then switch to the simple past — is a sound one. Readers don’t like to process extended stretches of past-perfect; all those “haves” and “hads” turn into stumbling blocks. It makes sense to use a few of them at the start, just to make the transition between current time and previous time obvious; but once the reader has been transported backward in time, it’s easier on everyone to continue in the simple past. Then at the end of the flashback, if it isn’t ended by a scene break or an abrupt interruption, you can bring the reader back up out of it and into the story-present with another few uses of the past perfect.

    (How many? Um, would you accept “it depends” or “let your conscience be your guide”?)

    1. Wooh, permission to do that thing I’m trying to get away with doing! I’ll take it :).

      Right now I’m using props and other dirty tricks to get back to the story’s present, rather than ending with more past perfect. One flashback involves the protag’s friend carving his initials into a door, and the ends with the protag finding the letters amidst all the newer graffiti. In another case, she realizes something Very Important To The Plot as a factor of having remembered the conversation that happens in the flashback. I’m hoping that I’ve managed my limited third narrator’s psychic distance from the protag well enough that readers can ride her train of thought to the past and back into the present without feeling derailed.

    1. That’s one of the modal verbs. I speak southern myself, so I know in my bones all the subtle shades of meaning you can get from “I may be able to come by tonight” /”I might be able to come by tonight”/”Maybe I can come by tonight”/”I might could come by tonight” — but there’s no way I can describe them.

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