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A Real Had Been

From my study of past tense manuscripts, it’s become clear to me that there’s a serious grammatical issue snaking into some otherwise very readable work. (Of course, you want more than just “readable” work, but, hey, fix the small stuff and then move on to the big stuff, right?)

It’s the “had” problem.

In my experience, this is an instance where your Old Schoolmarm Grammar-Stickler is incorrect. Sure, it may make your sixth grade English textbook happy if you pepper your manuscript with the past perfect: “had been,” “had thought,” “had said.” But it’s not necessary. In fact, it grates on a reader.

When writing in the past tense, an author can choose to include a flashback or a memory or even a moment where they need to delve even further into the past. This is what the past perfect is for.

To a modern ear though, especially when you’re writing for children and young adults, the past perfect sounds stilted. And yes, I’m going to argue that too much past perfect — even when you’re writing historical — will clutter your manuscript.

Here’s an example:

She remembered him well. Eric had just gone to the pool, so his hair had gotten wet and even cuter. After toweling off, he had settled down under the oak tree with a sandwich…

I’m exaggerating, for sure. But some things I read really do sound like this. Here’s a word of advice in the “had” department: trust your reader to follow you.

When I see a writer relying too much on the past perfect, it seems like they’re shouting: “Hey! Hey reader! I’m using past tense but I’m even more in the past, so stay with me while I keep reminding you!”

The solution? Really ground your reader. Make sure they’re really clear that you’re disappearing into a different time. Then, use the past perfect once or twice, to satisfy Old Schoolmarm Grammar-Stickler, and off you go. Stick with good old paste tense. You’ll be fine. I promise.

Take a look at a revision:

Amy thought back to last summer, to the lifeguard. Eric had just come out of the water and his hair was still wet. Fat, slick drops dribbled down his back as he toweled off. Before she could open her mouth and say one word to him, he slumped against the oak tree and tore into his sandwich. He never did find out how she felt.

She chased the memory away now…

Start in the narrative present, locate your reader, dip into the past, return us to where we left off and we’re good to go. There’s no need to keep using the past perfect if you frame the memory/flashback in a way that’s easy to follow.

Go back through your WIP and weed out some past perfect. I’m going to bet that, unless you’ve worked on this consciously before, there will be some stuff to revise.

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  1. Steve’s avatar

    This is great advice. It took me years to finally accept that certain “rules” of grammar needn’t always be followed like law (such as the split infinitive in this comment) when they create jarring prose.

    And congrats on picking up this URL!

  2. marykole’s avatar

    Thanks Steve! And congratulations to you, you’re my first official commenter! Woot woot! Party time, excellent!

  3. Sarah Quigley’s avatar

    As a former grammar teacher and all-around past perfectionist, I appreciate this kind of advice. I’m so hung up on the rules that sometimes I follow them even when my gut tells me not to. Love your site (especially that review of TMI!) and would love to see more posts like this one.

  4. Mary’s avatar

    Woohoo! Way to comment, woman. I’ll send you interview questions soon. I’ve been livin’ the high life in New York the last few days. I keep forgetting that you used to be ye olde Schoolmarm Grammar-Stickler. How well you’ve healed. =)

    I’m working on more reviews, interviews (like yours!) and craft articles, so stay tuned.

  5. Brodi Ashton’s avatar

    Excellent advice. My last project had so many flashbacks, I ran into this problem constantly, and faced the dilemma of wanting to make it readable vs. feeling like it has to be grammatically correct.

    I love how you say to provide the setting and then trust your reader. Love your blog, btw.

  6. Tracy Edward Wymer’s avatar

    Great post, and as an English teacher and writer, I totally agree.

  7. Corinne O'Flynn’s avatar

    Excellent advice. I am going to take a look at this in my work.

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