Time for Tension

The concept of time is often used as a source of major tension in stories. We see this especially in suspense or action stories, where the clock on the bomb is ticking, or the first step of the heist has to be completed in time for the second step, etc.  Even in genres like romance, there’s often some kind of deadline used to raise the stakes—the vacation she’s on will end, he’s been away too long and worries she won’t remember him, and so on.

Time is also a great source of microtensions. Who hasn’t been frustrated by a long wait in a doctor’s office, or a traffic jam? When our sense of timing is thrown off, it can throw off our entire day and make any other pressures seem greater.

Not everyone views time the same way, however—our views on it are often very based in our culture—and there are endless opportunities for writers to use this to their advantage. So, let’s talk about some of the main ways people view time and how they can be played against each other for tension in our story.

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Linear/Clock Time

Most of the U.S. and many Western European cultures perceive time as linear. This means we see the past as done, the present as slipping away from us and needing to be wrung for all it’s worth, and the future as something to be planned and scheduled and worried about so we don’t miss out on its possibilities.

These cultures tend to be fast-paced, and they place a lot of emphasis on deadlines, start and end times, and see time as a valuable commodity—people worry about how much they are “worth per hour,” and use phrases like, “I’m out of time,” “I just don’t have time,” and “time is money.”

Another term for this mindset is “clock time,” because the exact time that things start and end is important, as well as how long it takes. This viewpoint is often favored by countries that value individualism and short-term productivity with very measurable results. They see punctuality as a necessary sign of respect.

Multi-active/Event Time

Many Latin, African, and southern European countries view time as multi-active, and feel most fulfilled when they are focused on many things at once, not just the one thing set on their calendar or agenda, and these multi-purposes are tied to events and people rather than times on a clock.

In places running on event time, things start when everyone who is supposed to be there arrives. Start times are given as general guidelines, but it is expected that life is unpredictable and not everyone will arrive at the same time.

Another aspect of event time is that people from these cultures are generally more concerned with relationships than events or deadlines, and more focused on what is immediately before them than something happening later that day. So, if something comes up with a family member or friend in the morning, they are likely to push back other plans and show up at work later/miss appointment times, and often not see this as a problem, because their personal priorities were met. They are extremely unlikely to cut a conversation short because they “are out of time,” and would likely consider it quite rude if someone did that to them.

Cyclical Time

In many Asian countries, they believe that events and opportunities often cycle back around, so taking time to deliberate and focusing on people and relationships is a better strategy than trying to hit arbitrary deadlines that can just be reset anyway. Where someone from the U.S. or U.K. might want to have a quick meeting and get back to work, often times their Asian counterparts will want more time to discuss, consider, and evaluate the relationship before committing to anything, and if they feel rushed, they might not want to collaborate.

People and cultures with a cyclical viewpoint on time are also often more concerned with long-term outcomes, and so the time they take to deliberate and set things up feels entirely justified, whereas in the U.S. people are focused on quick results—backers of projects want to see a quick return on their investments, etc.

Using these views of time to add tension in stories

As writers, figuring out our characters’ subconscious views on time can help us see how they either fit or don’t fit within their society’s norms and the people they interact with. If our main girl is chronically late but lives in or visits Switzerland, for example (the prime example of strict “clock time”), there will be a lot of conflict with people around her, and depending on how conscious she is of it, she may feel either that she’s always letting people down, or that people are always mad at her for no reason.

Say we have a character who is used to a society run on clock time. People come when they say they will come and plan in advance for things like extra traffic, etc. But this man gets teamed up on a group project with someone who runs on event time. This teammate is frequently late (according to the clock time-oriented man), and often on his phone taking care of family or friend matters during work hours. How would they learn to work together? How would they get the project done? What might they learn from each other in the process?

Using a personal example, I currently live in the South. My husband frequently complains that people here “live life at the speed of mosey.” Though our country is overall run by clock time, in the South, things do tend to swing toward event time. This leads to things like an A/C repairman who says he’ll be there “by 10:00 a.m.” showing up at 3:00 p.m…. the following day. Or week. If your character is counting on a repair, a delivery, or anything else that is time sensitive, this could add a lot of tension.

Not everyone who lives here in the South, though, was raised with the same perspective on time, and some give different weight to different events—for example, there are some who are always on time for church or business events, but may be very relaxed for social events, because they view their relationship with the person they’re meeting as strong enough to handle whatever came up to make them late.

Understanding our characters’ subconscious views on time can help us know how they make decisions, how they pursue goals, how they organize their days, and how they respond to various kinds of interruptions. It can help us make our characters stand out from each other, and help us understand and write about different cultures more accurately.

If you’d like to read more about the fascinating ways that people view time, including the Malagasy people in Madagascar who view time as flowing forward through the back of their head, so that the past is always before them while the future is an unseeable thing behind them, check out these articles:

http://www.businessinsider.com/how-different-cultures-understand-time-2014-5

https://hbr.org/2016/05/different-cultures-see-deadlines-differently

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profile-smaller
Shannon Cooley is a creative–writing is one of her longest-running endeavors, but she is also a ballroom dance instructor, piano teacher, and runs a handcrafted artisan jewelry business with her husband. In her free time she crochets and knits, because she can’t seem to stop this whole creating thing. She has three children (who she created), who are surrounded by jargon and so refer to their stuffed animals as “characters” and their tasks as “projects.”  Shannon writes primarily Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction, and is represented by Victoria Marini of the Irene Goodman agency.

Core Motivators: Building characters and ensembles

When building characters, a lot of people like to create dossiers or put their characters through personality tests to get to know them better. While knowing your character’s favorite food, color, and song might be helpful, there are some deeper traits that are useful to uncover while planning or before revising our characters. My favorite of these is core motivators—what drives each of our characters.

The tool I use most frequently for understanding and defining these core motivators is the Color Code by Dr. Taylor Hartman. Because this test is “motive-based” instead of “behavior-based,” it opens up insights into WHY a person (or in our case, character) might respond a certain way to situations or other people, instead of just WHAT they might do.

The Color Code uses four colors to represent the core motivators: Red, Blue, White, and Yellow. Here’s a quick breakdown, and then we’ll see how this applies to creating characters and ensembles:

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Red—Power.

A good motto for Reds is, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way. Better yet, get out of MY way.” They are motivated, natural leaders, and like to be right.

Blue—Intimacy.

Blues are all about real, quality human connection. They are the caretakers, the nurturers, and the people most concerned with fairness. An easy way to identify a blue is to ask if they remember something their second-grade teacher said or did that was unfair. Emotional memory runs deep for blues.

White—Peace.

Whites tend to be non-confrontational, steady, and logical. They are not attention seekers, and are happy to help things work smoothly from the background.

Yellow—Fun.

Yellows are spontaneous, love the spotlight, and are often very charismatic. If a yellow shows up, suddenly any gathering is a party.

Let’s look at some literary examples of each of these.

First, from the Hunger Games, we have Katniss and Peeta. Katniss is primarily a white. She is not eager to be in the limelight, and has to be pushed into action again and again. If it were her choice, she’d just be left alone. Peeta, meanwhile, is a blue. He is a caretaker, a nurturer, and is motivated by relationships and connection.

For yellow, we have characters like Gilderoy Lockhart from Harry Potter. Now, he definitely exhibits some of the more negative yellow traits, and we see that more clearly because we see him through the eyes of Harry and his friends—but he is described as very charismatic, and he loves being in the spotlight. He doesn’t always think ahead, and does spontaneous things like removing all the bones from Harry’s arm instead of fixing the broken one. Merry and Pippin from the Lord of the Rings are also good examples of yellow characters—fun-loving sidekicks are often yellow characters.

For red, just look to Thorin Oakenshield from The Hobbit. He is goal-driven and motivated, even sometimes at the expense of his people.

Each of the core motivators can lead to healthy and unhealthy character traits—for example, reds are great leaders, but might prioritize goals over people, leading to hurt feelings and personal or group losses. Blues are experts at understanding human emotions, but can also be manipulative and are known for using guilt trips to influence others and themselves. Whites can be steady and dependable, but they can also be reclusive, or conflict-avoidant to the point of being walked on. Yellows are easy to love, but can be irresponsible, abandoning a task as soon as it is no longer “fun.” Hartman’s book delves into these traits and others, and also discusses how each of the colors might interact with others who may have a different core motivation.

Now that you have a feel for the basics behind core motivators and how they might look in character form, let’s talk about why this is useful as writers.

One of the things that can quickly throw a reader out of a story is when a character acts “out of character.” Often this occurs when a character acts against their core motivator without a compelling enough reason. Knowing what most motivates our characters gives us a way to check their behaviors for consistency, or helps us see where we need to add more support if we want to show a convincing change in personality or motivation.

Another way understanding the Color Code can be helpful is in adding depth to characters. No one wants their character to be a one-note-sonata, but often our characters can fall into personality stereotypes that make them feel flat. If this is your struggle, first take a look at all the healthy and unhealthy traits listed for your character’s personality type. Make sure they have some of both—these strengths and weaknesses pair together naturally, and will feel believable together while still adding some layers and nuance.

Next look at what might be your character’s secondary motivator and how that might manifest—for example, is your character MOST driven by connection and caring and fairness (blue), but also really loves performing and being spontaneous? There’s likely a yellow secondary motivation at work, which you can highlight early on to provide believable motivation for when your normally responsible, caring character suddenly sneaks out her window past curfew to go sing at a local open mic night—which she will then feel guilty about even if she gets away with it, because she is a blue. Hooray, internal conflict!

Speaking of internal conflict, pairing up a some of these attributes in one person can be a fantastic way to get a character with a lot of conflicted feelings. Hartman’s book describes someone who is equal parts red and blue as “the most tortured personality,” because both reds and blues tend to be power characters, but for different and sometimes conflicting reasons.

A great example of this is Gansey from Maggie Steifvater’s Raven Boys cycle. Throughout the series he is pulled between his indomitable drive to find the lost Welsh King and his need to nurture and care for the people in his life. He is the indisputable leader of his group of friends, but both he and his friends sometimes have a hard time understanding if it’s because of his red side (his intense task-oriented focus) or his blue side (the emotionally conscious, caretaking side) that they want to follow him. It makes him a wonderful, complex character, and brings some great tension to his decisions.

You can probably already start to see how these traits can be used to build ensembles. In fact, if you look at a lot of ensembles, you’ll easily pick out characters who represent each of the different motivators (try it on the Ninja Turtles or the Avengers). One of the reasons this type of ensemble is common is that when you have a group of people who are all motivated differently, there are a lot of different strengths you can draw on, but also a lot of different weaknesses and sources of conflict between group members.

What happens when you have a very driven, motivated (red) character who gets paired up for a job with someone who just wants to have fun and do everything off-the-cuff (yellow)? What happens when you have a red and a blue who both feel they should be in the leadership role—one because he’s driven and motivated, and one because he needs to make sure everyone is taken care of and everything is fair? And then what happens when they’re arguing and try to get the white character’s opinion, placing them in the middle of an unwanted conflict?

Blues are a very popular viewpoint character for these types of ensembles, in part because they so naturally feel the connections to all of the other characters. It’s natural for a blue to spend a lot of time considering what the other characters might be thinking or feeling. If your viewpoint character is NOT blue, being aware of the difference can help you write their viewpoint more effectively.

Knowing your characters’ core motivators can help you understand how they see the world and the people around them. It can help them feel real and consistent. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses common to each of the core motivators can help you provide believable and targeted conflict (for example, a white might let unfair behavior roll right off her back, but a blue would be very upset), and can help make both your individual characters and your ensembles feel more nuanced and well-rounded.

Knowing WHY your characters act as they do is as important as knowing HOW they act..png

Knowing WHY your characters act as they do is as important as knowing HOW they act, so as you’re casting or revising your next novel, take a little time to uncover their core motivators.

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For more information, you can check out the book here or the website (with a free online version of the test) here.

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profile-smallerShannon 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

Not All Drama has to be Dramatic

I have a daughter who is almost seven, and thanks to an audio book collection we’ve started playing in the car, she has fallen in love with the adventures of Ramona Quimby, a timeless character written by Beverly Cleary.

My claim for the timelessness of these books comes from personal experience—when I was seven or eight, I, too, devoured the Ramona books, and I felt the same connection my daughter does now.

Listening to these books again now, from the perspective of an adult writer, I am continually amazed by Beverly Cleary’s brilliance—if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be an energetic little girl, go read them now, because she NAILS it—but one thing in particular stood out to me this week: the value and impact of “small” drama.

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In Ramona’s world, feeling her teacher might not like her is as powerful as her father losing his job. Being allowed to draw ears and whiskers on the “Q” of her name is as crucial as getting her dad to stop smoking.

But here’s the key—those “small” things are just as important to the reader as to Ramona. Somehow, Beverly Cleary makes me, a nearly-thirty-year-old-woman, feel the depth and gravity and VITAL IMPORTANCE of these “small” things.

She’s not the only author to do this to me. I cried more over the desperately awful unfairness of an adult in THE PENDERWICKS by Jeanne Birdsall than I have over most world-endangering conflicts in adult or YA novels. Millions of people hated Professor Umbridge in the 5th Harry Potter book even more than Voldemort, who was a mass murderer.

And after I started noticing this quieter drama in children’s books, I started noticing it in my more grown-up entertainment as well. A kdrama heroine who is looked down on by others and knows it. A woman working in a male-dominated field, trying to do her job but knowing she’ll never really fit in. Romance novels that allow characters to sit in the awkwardness and uncertainty of new love without rushing everything straight through to the happy ending.

As I’ve looked at some of these things, I’ve realized that the conflicts that hit me the most on an emotional level are the ones I’ve experienced in some way—and many of them can be boiled down to emotions we experienced even as small children. For example, I, personally, have never met a murderer, nor had anyone I love murdered—so while that sort of conflict hits me on an intellectual and moral level, it doesn’t in and of itself trigger a big emotional reaction for me. But I have dealt with unfairness and small-minded meanness, which is probably why I had such an emotional reaction to Umbridge.

Here are some of the emotional hot-keys I’ve seen work equally well in both children’s and adult literature:

  • Unfairness
  • Feeling left out/forgotten
  • Helplessness
  • Fear of potential conflict/causing intense reactions in another character
  • Feeling stuck
  • Being impeded by people not doing something they should/not doing things the way the main character would in their shoes
  • Feeling not “enough”–good/smart/funny/talented/you name it
  • Wanting to fit in
  • Wanting to stand out
  • Fear of/act of losing someone/something important
  • Relationship changes—romantic, familial, friendships, etc.
  • Fear of disappointing someone

Each of these affect us differently based on our core motivators and life experiences, and there is some crossover—unfairness might make a character feel helpless, for example—but each of these is a core emotional trigger that can be illustrated on small levels while still carrying great impact.

So the next time you need to add tension to a scene or ramp up a reader’s emotional connection to a character, look at ways to add smaller layers of drama. Get under your character’s skin with the types of things that would have driven him/her crazy as a kid, and you’ll have a better chance at getting into your reader’s heart.

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profile-smallerShannon 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

Up Close and Personal—Even in Third Person

One of the early choices when you’re writing a story is what point of view (POV) you’re going to tell it from. There are many factors that go into this, but as a YA writer, I’ve heard people say, “Write in first person because third person is too distant for teenage readers.”

If that’s the case, teen readers ought to avoid books like The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, or The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater—but those books are all bestsellers with a large teen fanbase.

Literary styles do change over time, and what worked well for Jane Austen or Charles Dickens may not be as gripping to modern audiences accustomed to tight camera angles and special effects. But third person POV does not have to feel old and outdated, nor slow and distant.

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Here are some keys to writing convincing 3rd person for modern audiences.

  1. Know who’s telling the story

When you start telling a story in 3rd person, first you have to decide what kind of 3rd you’re using—limited, omniscient, etc.–but that’s a whole other series of posts. For the sake of this one, just figure out if you have a narrator telling your reader about your characters, or if the narrator is invisible.

One way to look at it is, if your book were a movie, would it have a character doing voice-over like the classic cartoon THE GRINCH WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS, or would it be all tight camera angles on the main character and the story shown through the action and dialogue?

There’s not a particular right or wrong choice, but you need to know who is the voice of your story, even if the narrator is not a named character.

  1. Keep descriptions in character

Close third perspective is actually very similar to first person—it views the story through the eyes of a character. This means that when the character enters a room, the details given are details that character would have noticed; the descriptions used are the way that character would have described things. 

Example: I have a character in my book who is a painter in an 1800’s-style setting. At one point he sees someone who is very pale, and the narration lets us know that by saying she is “lead-white.” Lead white was a color of paint that this character would have been familiar with. Even though the story is in third person, the descriptor is one the main character would have used.

This is especially important because descriptions that don’t make sense to the character or scene will throw a reader out of the story—for example, in the same story as above, if I was focused in close 3rd on a teenage girl in the 1800’s who was used to sitting in a parlor doing embroidery, describing a door latch clicking like the hammer on a gun would be as inappropriate as saying she was as shaken as though she’d been using a jackhammer—while there were guns in her time period, she likely would not have any experience with them to know what they sounded like, and would never have used that description. (And if she does know, well, then, you probably ought to let us know how or why, because that sounds interesting!)

Note: Make sure, as you plan your descriptions, that you remember which character is viewing the scene. Head-hopping is a no-no (though you can follow different characters on different chapters or in different scenes—just make it clear).

  1. Use free indirect speech for thoughts

Another part of keeping things close is that you can use what is termed “free indirect speech” for the character’s thoughts. This is where you have the thoughts as part of the narration instead of set apart by italics or words like “she thought.”

More distant 3rd POV: “I can’t believe I have to eat pancakes again, Jane thought, doesn’t he know I don’t like pancakes? Jane scraped her fork in a circle.”

Using free indirect speech: “Pancakes again. Didn’t he know she didn’t like those? Jane scraped her fork in a circle.”

This also gives you a lot of room to show your character’s emotions—and sometimes those hidden emotions they don’t even recognize—through their thoughts and where their focus is.

  1. Hunt down the filter words

 This was actually what started me on the path of learning about close 3rd POV. A few years ago I put my first chapter of a book up on a forum for anonymous critique, and three different people mentioned that I “used a lot of filter words.”

I had no idea what they meant.

After some research and a lot of practice, I realized it meant I had an invisible narrator who was not staying invisible. There were a lot of phrases like, “she watched,” “he listened,” “she thought,” “he felt,” and that meant someone else was telling my readers about my main characters instead of me showing what was actually happening.

Now, as a caveat, this sort of language can work when done well—this is the language of old-timey fairy tales, and is often seen in Middle Grade novels. It can also work for things like satire and humor, as used by people like Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. Usually you’ll see it used more effectively, though, when there is purposefully a “voicey” narrator—one with a distinctive way of speaking or with a certain storytelling style or flair.

But more and more in this digital age where we’re moving toward things like virtual reality, people don’t want to be told stories, they want to be in the story, and an effective way of doing that is to cut the filter words.

With filter: “He watched as the dock workers loaded huge crates onto the ship.”

Without filter: “Dock workers loaded huge crates onto the ship.”

With filter: “She felt her stomach knot as badly as the back of her embroidery.”

Without filter: “Her stomach knotted as badly as the back of her embroidery.” 

Whether you’re writing for children, teens or adults, using these tools can deepen your 3rd person POV to make it more compelling and immediate.

“So go forth and revise,” she said. Hopefully what she had written would bring them as many breakthroughs as it had her.

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profile-smallerShannon 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

Condensing Your Cast

In my most recent manuscript, I hit the end of draft one and knew I was going to have to do some trimming. It was over 100k words and had a lot of scenes, some of which I didn’t really need.

As I worked my way through the revision, though, I realized I also had a lot of characters, some of whom I didn’t really need. I decided this was probably a good time to use the “kill your darlings” advice. Two best friends–why not just one? Chef in only one scene? Scene gone. Society figures mentioned but never seen? Names swapped with characters who got screen time.

In spite of that, when I got my revision notes from my agent, she said, “You have a LOT of characters. See if you can cut or combine some.”

Well. I had already gotten rid of all the easy characters. Now how would I decide who had to go?

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The key for me turned out to be this idea of combining characters–I had already combined two very similar characters into one during my early revisions, but now I found myself combining very different characters–people with opposite personalities even–and not only did it give me a tighter cast, it provided more depth to my main characters and their relationships, and gave more screen time to characters who mattered.

During all these rewrites, I realized my problem started during my drafting process. Any time I saw a need in a scene, I would just add a new character who could fill that role perfectly. Unfortunately, this led to more breadth than depth in my cast.

For the future, I’ve set some rules for myself for cast creation and evaluation:

  1. Audition: Before creating a new character, audition current characters to see if any could fill that role. They might not fit into it comfortably, but that in itself can create some great conflicts and relationship dynamics.
  2. Number: On the first round of revision, write a list of all the characters, major or minor, and how many times they appear. If they only appear once or twice, or even–as with a couple of my “society” figures–their name is just mentioned a couple times and they are never actually seen, chances are good they can be cut or combined with another character.
  3. Develop: If a character feels like they need to be there to fill a role (ex: a needed ensemble position) but not because they’re a memorable character, either find a way to get rid of the role or develop the character until they are an integral part of the story.

These rules can give our characters greater connections and development, and perhaps they can spare us some of those long hours writing too many characters out. Though if you’re cutting scenes and characters, hang on to them in another folder–remember that chef? He came back in the most recent draft, this time with a new reason for existing (tied to a main character who was not previously in that scene). Sometimes the story changes enough that the darlings we’ve killed have to be resurrected, and it’s easier if they’re still on hand.

What is the greatest number of characters you’ve ever cut from a single manuscript?______________________________
profile-smallerShannon 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

Past of the Past

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.

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Here are a couple simple guidelines to make the most of this tool without being overwhelmed by it.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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profile-smallerShannon 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