Whenever I devote a post to a writing topic, I worry all non-novelists will scurry away to the next item up for bid. But I’ll try to make the subject entertaining so that readers and writers alike will stay tuned and weigh in.
Oftentimes novelists write stories in the past tense as opposed to present tense. For example:
Carrie broke her nose when she opened the fridge door. (True story.)
But in doing so, flashbacks will technically require the past perfect tense so as not to confuse the reader. For example:
Carrie broke her nose when she opened the fridge door. Klutziness had also reared its head a few years earlier when she fractured her foot on a stroller.
The past perfect tense indicates something further in the past than the narrated action and involves “had” with a past participle of a verb (e.g., “had reared” in the above sentence).
Well, maybe not. In a flashback longer than a sentence or two, do a flurry of “had”s become a nuisance?
Some editors will tell you to stick with the past perfect. It’s grammatically correct and less confusing for the reader. Other editors will tell you to lead into the flashback with the past perfect then switch to the simple past for ease of reading. Just make sure it’s clear to the reader that the passage is a flashback.
Let’s look at a longer example using my husband as the subject. The first part stays with the past perfect. The second part ditches it.
Mr. Rubin Visits the Dentist, another True Story:
Method 1: Flashback Maintaining Use of The Past Perfect
Last weekend I went out to eat with my husband. We dined at Aladdin’s Eatery. The hubs ordered what looked like a turd on a stick, and I ordered the turkey rolled. While we nibbled at our entrées, he told me about his recent trip to the dentist. He had arrived to the clinic on time, and the hygienist had ushered him back quickly. She had found no cavities and had said everything looked great. He had figured he’d survived another trip to the dentist.
But he had been wrong.
Method 2: Flashback Ditching Past Perfect and Reverting to Simple Past
Riveted, I dropped my turkey pita to my plate and leaned in closer. “Tell me more,” I said, my voice a breathless whisper.
Mr. Rubin then recounted how he had been sitting* in the dentist chair, getting his teeth coated with a fresh minty paste, when suddenly, the hygienist sprayed her water pick in the depths of his throat. Cold water and tooth polish shot down his gullet, creating the perfect trachea cocktail. He sputtered. He coughed. He turned purple as a vineyard grape. For what seemed like hours, his trachea cinched up, while the hygienist politely asked, “Oops, did I shoot a little water back there?”
Finally, Mr. Rubin’s vocal cords reopened, and he was once again able to breathe. But as he recounted the tale to me, he remembered how traumatic it had been.
What Thinks You?
The first example keeps the past perfect tense throughout. The second ditches it to ease up on the number of “had”s.
In my first novel, I followed method two. In my few short flashbacks, I ditched the past perfect once I made it clear the character was thinking back. My publisher’s editor okayed that. But I’ve encountered others who say no way, José. Stay in the past perfect.
So, ever the good girl, in my second novel, I maintained the past perfect in my flashbacks (method one) . . . only to have it red-lined by my current editor (who’s awesome, by the way) and switched to the simple past.
An Internet search finds support for both sides, though most articles suggest ditching it, especially for extended flashbacks. So what’s a writer to do?
Writers: Should we stay grammatically correct and use the past perfect throughout a flashback?
Readers: Which version do you prefer?
Anyone: Have you ever broken a bone doing something stupid?
* “Had been sitting” is actually the past perfect progressive (or past perfect continuous).
Using the Past Perfect Tense: Lesson 1 — Carol is a blogging buddy and has several great articles on this topic.
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