Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Misused Writing Advice: Past Perfect is Perfectly Fine

Is “had” a bad word?

B. C. Marine, CAO Authors 4 Authors Publishing

Welcome back to Misused Writing Advice, an ongoing series where we tackle well-meaning writing guidance that has either lost something in translation when made into a brief tip or been twisted entirely. Today’s topic, past perfect tense, is a little of both.

What is past perfect tense?

The rest of you who aren’t grammar nerds like me are probably slowly slinking away from your screen right now. Past perfect tense? That sounds really complicated…

I promise it’s not. Past perfect tense is what you use when you talk about something that had happened before something else in the past (including in this sentence). It’s essentially past-past tense (if it makes it easier for you, you can use that substitute term in your head as you read this article). For example:

  • Present tense: I write to him.

  • Past tense: I wrote to him.

  • Past perfect tense: I had written to him.

Past perfect tense is always formed with “had” and a past participle. For the purposes of this article, that second part isn’t important. It’s the “had” that people do a search for when they want to rid a document of past perfect tense.

Wait. So, what’s the problem?

All right, gang, it’s time to unmask the real villain here. It’s...excessive flashbacks! Yes, it all started eons ago. I can remember it like it was yester—

Just kidding. You would hate me for doing that to you here. Why? Because flashbacks are literary detours. Of course, sometimes there are moments that are too important to miss, and it’s worth leaving the main storyline for a brief time to catch them. But if you take too many detours, readers are going to get the sense that you don’t actually know where you’re going.

What does that have to do with “had”?

Since most fiction is written in past tense, the flashbacks for it are written in past perfect tense. The “had” makes it very easy to search for in comparison to looking for simple past tense flashbacks in a present tense story.

The other thing working against this tense is that it invokes a need for context. If we go back to my example, “I had written to him” is technically a complete sentence, but it doesn’t feel like a complete statement. If I said it aloud to you, you would likely expect me to continue and elaborate with something like “before the event” or “until he moved.” When whole pages are written in past perfect tense, a reader’s mind is constantly having to fill in that context with what they’ve read so far, which gets tiring after a while.

Cool. I’ll just delete those “had”s!

That’s not really how it works. Past perfect tense exists for a reason. Without it, it can be hard to establish a proper order of events. So what should you do?

Tell it to me straight.

Ideally, the best thing to do is tell your story in order as much as you can. Granted, sometimes there are important reasons for telling a story out of order. (I won’t get into those now as that could be an entire article itself.)

Fine, but make it quick.

The second thing is to make those little detours into the past as brief as possible. One paragraph of backstory here or there won’t distract too much from the main story, and most people won’t even notice a single sentence in past perfect tense to explain a transition between scenes.

Put the past in its place.

Okay, so you absolutely must have a flashback, and it’s a long foray. This is where you finally excise the past perfect tense (somewhat).

A great example of this can be found in Renee Frey’s One Thousand and One Days. Storytelling itself is a major theme of the book as characters bond over it. When long accounts of the past are revealed, Frey will begin with either dialogue of the character beginning the tale or the character beginning to remember it in past perfect tense. Then she uses a scene break and continues the tale in simple past tense so that it reads like the narrative in the rest of the book.

If you’re having a character telling a story within your story, which is often the reason for longer backstories, this technique also avoids having several pages of quoted dialogue within dialogue as they relay what other characters have said. Depending on the length of your storytelling detour, you can even make it its own chapter instead of bracketing with scene breaks.

However, as you probably noticed, this technique doesn’t entirely eliminate past perfect tense. The idea is to remove the bulk of it from the middle of the flashback so you don’t fatigue the reader, but this tense is still useful for moving you into and out of the flashback so that the reader has cues to the change in setting.


Past perfect tense is a tool every writer uses for explaining the past before the past. But, just like in real life, we have to be careful not to dwell in the past for too long.

Next week, we’ll be taking a break for Thanksgiving, and in two weeks, we’ll conclude our series on plot archetypes with our rebirth post. 

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Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Author Interview: Renee Frey

Thanks for chatting with me today, Renee! Let’s jump right in, shall we?

Congratulations on your debut novel! What inspired you to write One Thousand and One Days?

I was first starting as a writer, and I looked at #mswl (short for Manuscript Wishlist) where agents post about the kind of submissions they want to see. One stood out to me, which was a fairy tale with a twist. I wanted to write about people and culture we don't see often in Western literature, and I decided (at that time) to change the story into a love I chose the story of Scheherazade and the Sultan. Of course, after multiple rounds of edits and revisions, my original concept has changed a lot. There's more romance in this version, and no love triangle.

Personally, I think it’s much better without the love triangle, so I’m glad that it got to where it is. There are plenty of themes and symbolism in your book—is there one that you enjoyed including most? 

My favorite part was researching Islam and learning about the religion's marriage traditions and teachings. I included parables such as the story of the fish who wanted to leave her lake and the description of marriage as being like clothing. They were really beautiful and actually helped my own spirituality and understanding of marriage.

It was really lovely being able to immerse myself in another culture and religion while reading this book, and I’m sure the readers will feel the same. Switching gears a little, who is your favorite character?

This will be wildly unpopular, but my favorite character is the Sultan's first wife. I don't want to give spoilers, but I love her courage and nerve (and a little bit of her evilness).

I think readers will be surprised about that, but I don’t think writers will be—my favorite to write are also the villains because they’re so different. How did you research for the retelling to keep the time period and religion as accurate as possible? 

As I researched the origins of the fairy tale, I found some people attributing the story to Shahryar's father (name of character from my story). Harun al Rashid was probably the strongest and most influential ruler of the Abbasid Caliphate. But he had two sons...and what happened with them was, to me at least, more interesting. So I decided to loosely (very loosely) base the main events off their lives. I also loosely based Sutaita on an actual Muslim scholar, Sutayta. 

As far as culture and religion references, I had some outstanding sensitivity readers, Gabriel and Noreen, whom I found on my writing critique site, Scribophile. They gave me great feedback mostly about the religion, but since the culture was one that strongly emphasized religious beliefs, it helped with that as well.

The blessing of sensitivity readers—what would we do without them? Are there any authors who really inspired you to write? 

With this book, I was definitely inspired by Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series. I loved the rich, sumptuous prose and presentation of the main character, and I think it definitely influenced my writing style with this work. It helps that her work is also what I'll call historical fantasy...a fictional fantasy that draws heavily on real world historic events and situations.

I think so too. We don’t want to keep you too long, so here’s our last question: What can we expect next from you?

I'm currently working on an epic fantasy that will have a mixture of traditional fantasy elements and a steampunk setting. It's going to take a long time, though, since I just started writing the first book.

Thanks again for chatting with me today! Readers, don’t forget to join us on Saturday, November 14th to support Renee at the launch party and your chance to win a free paperback copy of her debut novel! One Thousand and One Days is currently open for preorder!

One Thousand and One Days

by Renee Frey

Once upon a time, a grieving sultan made an edict: he would marry a new bride every night and kill her the next morning, before she could betray him. 

Sutaita, daughter of the Sultan’s vizier, planned on a life of quiet study. But when she learns she and her sister must be the next two brides for the bloodthirsty Sultan Shahryar al’Mamun, Sutaita decides to change their fortune. Staying alive by telling stories every night, she must buy enough time to solve the mysteries surrounding the Sultan’s edict.

Shahryar has hidden a dark secret from all the history records. If discovered, it could cost him his empire and his life. But meeting Sutaita changes everything. Intrigued by the magic of her stories, he cannot find it in his heart to kill her, a heart he had hardened long ago against any sort of love. 

In this retelling of the Arabian Nights frame story, can Sutaita slip past the walls around the Sultan’s heart and soul? Or will she end up like so many brides before—with her head on a chopping block?

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Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Plot Archetypes: Tragedy

The books you cry over

Rebecca Mikkelson, CBD Authors 4 Authors Publishing

Welcome to our fifth post in our plot archetype series! Today we’re going to be talking about a story that’s familiar to everyone who’s ever taken a high school English class: tragedy. So what exactly is involved in this plot archetype?  

What is it?

Unlike a comedy, a tragedy is a series of bad decisions that don’t end up having a funny, happy ending. It ends, well, in tragedy. There are no happy endings for this type of plot, especially for the protagonist. This might sound a little sad, and it is, but our protagonists in tragedy stories usually aren’t truly heroes like we would see in our other plot archetypes. They’re tragic heroes who do not have to be entirely good or evil, but they tend to fall further into the evil side than they do good. We can also see heroes turned into villains based on discontentment of how they’re treated who now do everything that they can to ruin things for their former allies or heroes. (Think Benedict Arnold after being passed over for promotion several times turning his coat to the British.) 

How to write a tragedy plot

Much like the other plot archetypes that we’ve been looking at, there are five stages an author must hit in order to write a successful tragedy plot. So what goes into it? 
Anticipation Stage: This is where our tragic hero discovers something that they want and set their sights on getting it. This could range anywhere from money to power to the girl they want to marry. No matter what they set their sights on, by trying to attain it they start their own downfall.

Dream Stage: This is where the protagonist starts their journey toward their goal, and by ignoring any warning signs that what they’re doing is wrong, they will do something that means they can’t change their mind and turn back to their old life. Things are going to go right for them, at least for now, and they’re going to see this as a sign that they’re doing what’s right. 

Frustration Stage: Some things are going to start going wrong for the protagonist, but they are able to overcome them and continue on toward their goal, and what they do will truly alert the reader that there won’t be redemption for the tragic hero by the end of the book. 

Nightmare Stage: Now nothing is going right and the protagonist’s plans start failing. They keep making bad decision after bad decision that has them living in fear of the eventual failure.

Destruction Stage: This is where everything comes to a head and the protagonist ultimately fails in their goal, or at the very least loses everything that they’ve gained. Sadly, or not so sadly, this is where the protagonist will perish and the other cast of characters will be rid of the evil put forward by the tragic hero.


So, where can you find plots that involve tragedy? Well, there are several different examples that we can give, so we’ll break them down into their own sections, but this time we’re going to focus on books and plays. 


King Lear is just a cluster of bad decisions. First, Lear splits his kingdom into three between his daughters equally and he asks his daughters how much they love him. When the youngest doesn’t give him the kind of answer he wants, he disowns her and she goes to France to the French king. After that, Lear realizes the mistake he’s made but there’s no getting out of it now. He flees to the heather after his remaining (remaining as in still in the same country) daughters undermine him out of what little power he still has. After that is a series of bad decisions on the daughter’s part that result in their deaths and King Lear dies from grief. In this play, not every bad decision is made by our tragic hero, but the decision he made put everything into motion to have the result that it does.  


Madame Bovary is perhaps even more tragic than King Lear. In this, Charles Bovary first loses his wife, and then marries another who is discontented with life as a village wife. She wants the finery that she sees wealthier people have and falls in and out of love with wealthier men, making her husband a cuckold, and also falls into extreme debt with a money lender. Eventually she ends her affairs and when the moneylender repossesses the items that she can’t pay for. Afraid that her husband will find out, she tries to pay back her debts by asking local businessmen and even trying to prostitute herself to one of her ex-lovers. When that doesn’t work, she kills herself by eating arsenic to avoid the shame of her own greed. To make the story even more tragic, her husband was so loyal he never suspected she had been unfaithful until he found her letters to her ex-lovers after her death, and he dies from his own grief. 

Join us next week for an author interview with A4A author and co-founder Renee Frey for her debut novel, One Thousand and One Days, a retelling of One Thousand and One Nights, and in four weeks we’ll see the conclusion of this series when we talk about the rebirth plot archetype. 

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