Is “had” a bad word?
Brandi Spencer (formerly 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.)
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.
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.