Once, while I was working at my university’s writing center, a student brought in a piece of short fiction to workshop. After reading through the piece with him, I mentioned that it was difficult to distinguish his character’s thoughts about the past from her current timeline.
Him: “Yeah, that’s what my group said too.”
Me: “Part of the problem is that it’s all in the same tense. Because all of it is in regular past tense, there’s no way to distinguish what actually happened in the character’s past from what is happening now.”
Him: “…This is fiction. Past tense is normal for writing fiction.”
Me: “Yes, but if it’s all written the same, we don’t know when she’s flashing back. Could you try using past perfect tense–like “she had seen,” and “she had known”–for the parts when she’s remembering?”
Him: “…It’s already past tense. This is normal for fiction. That other stuff is too wordy.”
A few years later, when I was editing for indie authors, I saw this same struggle with understanding past perfect tense—in fact, it was the most consistent problem I saw. Often it came from the same convictions held by the young man above: The idea that past perfect is too wordy, or distracting, or that they are already writing in past tense so it should somehow just be clear what is in the past.
And, to be fair, past perfect tense can be a little extra wordy, or distracting—not many of us would want to read an entire story written in past perfect. Like all tools, its value is in the implementation—but it can bring a lot of clarity when used correctly.
Here are a couple simple guidelines to make the most of this tool without being overwhelmed by it.
- If you are already writing in past tense, past perfect is used when you need to describe an action that has already been completed in the character’s timeline. It’s useful for quick memories or reflections, like in the example below.
- Ex: “Sandra walked along the sidewalk, kicking a frozen rock. The fire had been so sudden. She’d barely had time to grab her favorite stuffed Triceratops before smashing the window and climbing out. The wind had been bitterly cold that night. She couldn’t remember another night so cold—this one was probably close, though.”
- Note that the first and last sentences are in Sandra’s present, while the others describe a past event.
- For long passages, it is okay to use past perfect for the first 3-4 and last 3-4 verbs, with the verbs in between defaulting back to regular past tense. This keeps there from being too many distracting “hads” while still guiding the reader gently into and out of the flashback.
- Ex: “Jason hadn’t known how to snorkel before they’d handed him the mask. He’d put it on and pushed his face under the water. A parrot fish sat directly below him, gnawing on a chunk of coral. Its turquoise scales shimmered into purple as it swam around the piece of coral and toward Jason’s feet. Jason watched it, tipping his head farther and farther into the blue–and suddenly he was breathing saltwater. Apparently snorkels were only made for looking forward. He’d sputtered and spit and had ripped the mask from his face. If he’d known the water would taste that vile, he probably wouldn’t have gone in at all.”
- Note that this is most useful for sections longer than this example—often multiple paragraphs. If there are fewer verbs in the middle than in your past perfect “endcaps,” it’s usually less confusing to use past perfect throughout.
If you don’t want to use past perfect tense, there are other options for flashbacks—such as setting them in italics, or using scene breaks—but these are often more distracting and/or jarring to the reader than a few “hads,” and can have drastic effects on pacing and tone.
So, if you’re writing in past tense, remember that even though it sounds “past,” it is the character’s present. If you want to talk about the CHARACTER’S past, try using past perfect.
Shannon Cooley is a dancing queen who looks seventeen (a.k.a. a babyfaced ballroom dance instructor). Her favorite type of dance is anything with lifts and drops, which might explain the adrenaline-seeking tendencies of her three children. She and her husband are both writers, resulting in children who refer to stuffed animals as “characters.” Shannon writes Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction, and is represented by Victoria Marini of the Irene Goodman Agency