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: overuse of past perfect tense. (Of course, you want more than just “readable” work, but, hey, fix the small stuff and then move on to the big stuff, right?)
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 tense: “had been,” “had thought,” “had said.” But it’s not necessary. In fact, it grates on a reader.
What is Past Perfect Tense?
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 tense is for. (Read here for more on writing flashbacks.)
To a modern ear though, especially when you’re writing for children and young adults, the past perfect tense sounds stilted. And yes, I’m going to argue that too much of it — even when you’re writing historical — will clutter your manuscript.
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 tense, 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!”
Minimizing Past Perfect Tense
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 tense once or twice, to satisfy Old Schoolmarm Grammar-Stickler, and off you go. Stick with good old past tense. You’ll be fine. I promise.
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 tense 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 tense. I’m going to bet that, unless you’ve worked on this consciously before, there will be some stuff to revise. (Want even more tense talk? Check out: present tense writing.)
Are you struggling with tense or other grammatical issues? Hire me as your manuscript editor and we’ll work through it together.