Yesterday, I started reading three different novels. I’ve already thrown away (yes, literally pitched off the kindle) two of them. Why? Bad editing, bad writing, or a combination of the two. The third one at least has an interesting story, so I’m trying to continue reading that one, but it’s difficult, and this is why:
The one problem all these books had in common (and it’s one I’ve run into over and over again, even in books that have gone through publishers): the authors and editors didn’t use past perfect tense. Is this no longer being taught in school? I’d really like to know, because if you, the writer or editor, don’t understand and use past perfect tense, the reader soon doesn’t know what the hell is going on. You make them work too damn hard to understand the story.
Most books are written in standard past tense: I sat on the couch and contemplated my toenails.
The reader instantly recognizes this as typical storytelling form and sighs happily, settling in for a long happy read.
But then this happens: I sat on the couch and contemplated my toenails. Jon did the same thing yesterday. He pondered for hours, until I wanted to hit him. We talked about the various methods of pondering things. He insisted there was only one way to ponder toenails. Staring at my feet, I decided he was right.
Um, wait. When did Jon ponder? Okay, you said he pondered yesterday. Got it, but I had to stop reading and jerk myself out of the story to think it through because he pondered for hours and we talked. Did this happen yesterday but now I’m back on the couch alone or WHAT? (And please notice I typed I had to stop reading… to indicate something I’d already done.)
I don’t know, and the reason I don’t know is because the author (and editor) didn’t use past perfect tense, which lets the reader know I am telling them something that already happened: I sat on the couch and contemplated my toenails. Jon had done the same thing yesterday. He’d pondered for hours, until I wanted to hit him. We’d talked about the various methods of pondering things. He’d insisted there was only one way to ponder toenails. Staring at my feet, I decided he’d been right. There was only one way to ponder toenails, and that was with a drink in one hand. I fetched a bottle of wine and prepared to ponder the hell out of my toenails.
This is what happened in that paragraph: I pondered toenails, then I remembered Jon doing the same thing yesterday. We’d talked about it and reached a conclusion. Returning to present time with me on the couch, I fetched wine. Using past perfect makes this perfectly clear. Not using it makes me crazy because I’m not quite sure who did what when.
An occasional lapse of not using past perfect when describing something that has already happened is annoying, but usually the reader can figure it out (although you risk yanking them out of the story to work it through). However, if you never use past perfect tense, the reader gets confused and pissed off enough to throw your book off the kindle.
If you are an author: learn what past perfect tense is and use it! If you are an editor, get into another line of work, because you have no right editing anyone if you don’t understand this crucial part of storytelling.
As long as we’re talking about past perfect tense, here’s how to write a perfect backflash: establish the flashback by using past perfect tense for a couple sentences, then switch to past tense for the duration (because all those extra hads is awkward and a pain in the ass). In the last sentence or two, signal to the reader you’re returning to the present, then proceed normally. If the flashback is short, like my paragraph, stay in past perfect throughout. Oh, and don’t italicize the flashback. If it’s written correctly, that isn’t necessary.
Have a great weekend, everyone! See you Monday.