I’m Perfect, You’re Perfect, But Should We Use The Past Perfect?

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.

group cheering

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).

Simple, right?

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:

is it safe

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.

Blond Boy Crying

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). 

Related Articles:

Flashbacks in Books

Past Perfect 

Using the Past Perfect Tense: Lesson 1 — Carol is a blogging buddy and has several great articles on this topic.

Editor’s Temper Tantrum: Past Perfect

Verb Tense, Flashbacks, and Fiction: The Past of the Past in Creative Writing

Let’s Hear A Little Respect for the Pluperfect

*     *     *

Rubin4Carrie Rubin is the author of The Seneca Scourgea medical thriller. For full bio, click here.

 

 

256 Responses to “I’m Perfect, You’re Perfect, But Should We Use The Past Perfect?”

  1. cricketmuse

    One of my critique group members highlights our pet words–those weasel words that scamper abundantly through the manuscript. “Was” and “had” tend to frolic unfettered depending on tense. I try to separate my flashbacks physically through drop down segments otherwise I fret over becoming a “had been” before my time.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Ha, yes, no author wants to be a ‘had been.’ 🙂

      You’re right–‘was’ is another one of those overused words. An action verb is always much stronger as long as it doesn’t sound forced. ‘That’ is another one that creeps up a lot. Oy, so much to watch out for!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Roxie

    I was riveted! In both camps, depending on the audience. Most people do find simple past easier to follow. But, it requires a fantastic lead in, as you said.
    Continuous klutz, that’s me…broken bones, stitches, etc. Recovering from such accident now, lol.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Ditching the past perfect does indeed require a good lead in. I took out a lot of hads as recommended by my editor, but I had to put some back in to make things clear. It’s all about readability.

      Thanks for weighing in!

      Like

  3. Sue Archer

    Method 2, hands down. It’s good to keep things simple when people are reading your work. Grammatical purity is not as important as readability. As long as your audience can follow you, you’ve succeeded. (Love your writing examples, by the way. A painless lesson here – although maybe not for your husband!)

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. After this post and its comments along with my editor’s changes, I’m now convinced method two is the way to go. A few hads are needed for clarity, but the rest can go. As for the hubs, I’m glad I didn’t get dentally water boarded. My broken nose from the fridge door was bad enough. 😉

      Like

  4. earthriderjudyberman

    One author, whose style I imitated once about a year or so ago, aggressively used the present tense in his writing. Forgive me for forgetting which author it was. My feeling is whatever style works for your story and feels best is the one to use. Switch it out if you want. Notice, how wishy-washy I am. 😉

    An interesting post, Carrie.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thanks. Writing in the present tense certainly eliminates the problem. Then everything that occurs in a flashback can be written in the simple past tense. At first I didn’t like present-tense books, but some of them are all right. Can help ramp up the tension. Not sure if I’ll ever tackle writing a book in that tense or not.

      Like

  5. Celine Jeanjean

    I definitely prefer simple past, all those ‘hads’ get a bit clunky after a while.

    And I broke a tooth as a teenager swimming with my mouth open underwater. I swam straight into the swimming pool wall. Not a bone, but pretty stupid nonetheless

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Ouch! I guess it’s lucky you didn’t do worse damage like a concussion that knocked you unconscious. That would not be good while swimming…

      Like

  6. roughwighting

    So wonderful to meet you here (via a number of shared followers). Wonderful post. I dislike the past perfect and avoid it like the plague, or Ebola, or, you get the picture. I prefer using the simple past, and I think our readers prefer that also. And, as others say here, I’m trying to use the present tense more often and am still debating whether to change from third to first in the book I’m writing now.
    As far as fractures, my best one (actually, only one) occurred when chasing my almost 2-year-old while 9 months pregnant. Broken foot, couldn’t be casted (because of swelling during labor). I should write a humor piece about a 9-month-pregnant woman on crutches…

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I haven’t written any fiction in the present tense yet, but it would certainly solve the “had” problem. It was nice to get the push from my editor to eliminate the past perfect wherever I could.

      Sorry about the foot. Ouch! I know the feeling. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by and for the follow. Much appreciated!

      Like

  7. philosophermouseofthehedge

    You’re and JM are on the top of my blogs-to-read list, so just checking while I have a minute. I think Carol’s right – Your writing might get people to actually read the textbooks.
    (Carrie – you can edit and delete the following if it’s annoying – but just trying to help about the only way I can. Bloggers stick together?)
    Also, Roxie’s in the final stretch of the grant contest, it you have a minute drop by her blog and her plea for voting support. Supporting small independent publishers is good for all of us. Thanks for the space (and tolerance)

    http://roxieh.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/competing-for-chases-mission-main-street-grant/

    Like

      • philosophermouseofthehedge

        Whew! Thanks. Hope it’s going well there. Concerns about Dallas here. Research already shown if inhaled, it gets into system through lungs…despite what media saying. Take care
        And write…I keep thinking I should get motivated to restart some serious writing…look! pretty outside…I know, excuses excuses…
        (and there’s laundry that’s been shoved off for long enough….)

        Like

        • Carrie Rubin

          Yes, I’m certainly thinking of the folks in Dallas. Scary for everyone. I don’t like to point fingers, especially when I don’t have all the facts, but it seems that hospital’s infectious disease control office needs some revamping.

          Liked by 1 person

          • philosophermouseofthehedge

            We are getting more info here than national media. THis is an excellent hospital – they treated multiple ancient and not so ancient family members. Kid did some residency there. BUT no one was really prepared. Like one nurse union said, reading procedures isn’t enough – has to be practiced and practiced until habit – because when patient comes in it will be frantic time. State/hospital had expected CDC was going to move in and take charge – be command central – and that didn’t happen. It was Keystone Cops. Personally I had thought all medical staff involved would have been put up in hotel somewhere just in case – and told not to leave town under any circumstances. Fingers crossed – Nina is now in “good” condition. Maybe the trick is very early identification – and very healthy people do better?
            At least the dog is safe and cared for humanely – not in tiny cage and avoided – it’s the only thing that little nurse asked for.

            Like

            • Carrie Rubin

              Yes, it’s always easy to judge, and as you say, it’s practice that prepares us, not reading. And I agree–I thought the CDC would come in after the first one. But I know all too well that hindsight is 20/20. That’s a phrase that often comes up in health care.

              Like

            • philosophermouseofthehedge

              It’s a whole new deal. CDC has been apologizing like crazy around here today – but I don’t think anyone expected a case – and things weren’t as organized/prepared as thought. (and few around remember the procedures and precautions of the polio epidemic which was just a fearful and unclear at that time. Ordinary life was suddenly suspended back then. Guess we relaxed too much.
              You have to wonder if the big trauma center down the road would have been better since they deal with chaos routinely.
              Medicine is never an exact science – lots of trial and error and luck and learning to do better next time…not like on TV where it’s always smiles at the end of the hour. Not sure the public gets that. Life is supposed to be Disneyland – all safe and wonderful….
              Take care

              Liked by 1 person

            • Carrie Rubin

              Yikes, just heard the newest patient flew in from Cleveland and also visited in Akron. I’m sandwiched between the two. Talk about too close for comfort… (As you well know!)

              Like

            • philosophermouseofthehedge

              You know her mom wanted to see her. The CDC did NOT tell her not to travel. (more apologies today). What a mess.
              That’s a courageous bunch that took care of Duncan and now volunteered to care for Nina as they figured they were already exposed. They only had light “raincoat” style wraps and OR “windshield” type masks with paper masks. What worried me is there are only 4-5 established/designed isolation hospital units with 10 beds each in the US.
              Keep that immune system up, wash hands – fresh air, sunshine, and avoid crowds…what they did ages ago.
              It is concerning

              Liked by 1 person

  8. Kate Johnston

    I ditch it when I’m into the flashback long enough so there is no confusion. I think the extra hads make for awkward reading. It’s really no different than repeating any other word multiple times throughout a scene, and editors redline those.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Excellent point. And since I’ve been hacking them out at my editor’s urging, I think the readability is better. A few are still needed for clarification, but I had too many. Thanks, Kate!

      Like

  9. Bruce Thiesen

    If you will, I’d like to hear about that strict Write Transition word count. How did that come about? And why that precise target. Over at Ram On, economy is always present, but I haven’t thought much about totals. Pray tell, Ms. R.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I just decided to keep my posts between 300 and 700 words. Apparently that’s good for SEO (but I don’t understand any of that stuff), but it’s also good for readers. I follow a lot of blogs and it’s tricky to keep up, especially with long posts. So I figure I should pass that onto my readers, too. I failed with this one. 750 words. Oy vey…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Kourtney Heintz

    I rely on “flow trumps everything”. If the past perfect is messing up the flow, I find another way to convey it’s further into the past. Sometimes I lead with a few past perfects and then switch to simple past. Other times, I make it clear it’s a flash back and then stay in past tense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carrie Rubin

      I agree–readability should guide our choice. I’m almost finished working through my editor’s changes. Wow, I used a lot of hads. My word count is now lower. 🙂

      Like

      • Kourtney Heintz

        I struggled with this in Six Train because I had so many flashbacks. Congrats–that’s awesome. LOL. That’s a good cutting. 🙂

        Like

        • Carrie Rubin

          Yeah, my editor’s wonderful. It’s worth the money to hire a professional. Luckily it’s all copy edits really. No developmental issues. Phew. (I think I have my outline to thank for that.)

          Like

  11. Dave

    I almost always ditch it if it’s more than a few sentences. I just like the way it flows. Funny, I hadn’t really thought of it until your blog post. Nice to know I’ve got a 50/50 shot of an editor approving 🙂

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I’d say better than 50/50. 🙂

      I’m hacking away at my ‘had’s. It’s putting quite a dent in my wordcount…

      Thanks for stopping by. Hope you’re doing well!

      Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Hahaha, yes, it can get a bit muddy. In working through my editor’s changes, I’ve already deleted so many hads I think I’ve made my book 50% shorter. 😉

      Like

  12. Zen A.

    Thank you for this! I always use the second method, but I sometimes doubt myself and wonder if it’s wrong to do so. This cleared things up pretty nicely. 🙂

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I’m halfway through my editor’s changes, and I’m amazed by how many hads I used. I’m saying good bye to many of them. Makes my word count shorter, too. 🙂

      Like

  13. Andrea Stephenson

    When you draw attention to it, there are an awful lot of ‘hads’ – I wonder if I would have noticed it if that wasn’t what you were writing about. I definitely preferred the second version. I quite often write in the present tense so I can avoid thinking about it! I was very entertained by your examples – breaking your nose on the fridge door, hmmm 🙂

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Yes, I’m quite graceful. Not.

      I probably shouldn’t have bolded the hads because it does draw attention to them. But as I work through my editor’s changes right now, I see how many hads I used in my manuscript without realizing it. Definitely makes for smoother reading getting rid of them.

      Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

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