Reader rant: past perfect tense

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.

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About Fenraven

Fenraven happily lives in south Florida, where it is really hot most of the year. Find him on Twitter, Google +, and Facebook by searching on 'fenraven'.
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13 Responses to Reader rant: past perfect tense

  1. Yvonne says:

    I do love your rants as I often find myself equally frustrated when reading a book. It’s been ages since I’ve lived in an English speaking country and I’m by no means fluent in the language anymore, but I do still notice mistakes (though not always when I’m the one doing the writing lol).

    • I excuse the occasional error, but when past perfect is completely ignored, it really pisses me off. It’s as if writers (and some editors) don’t want to learn their craft. They’re breaking everything down to its most basic level, and a lot of richness is lost. Not to mention how confusing it can all be. When I read, I want to immerse myself in the story. I can’t do that if I’m constantly stopping to ask what’s going on. It’s the writer’s job to make reading easy for me. Period.

  2. Allison says:

    This stops me all the time. I hate having to re-read a passage, then I re-work it in my head until it is what I think it’s supposed to be, and then I can move on to the next part. It’s crazy frustrating.

    • It is! And so many authors are guilty of this one lately. It really bugs me. Learn your craft! Don’t make me mentally correct as I read because if I do it more than once or twice, your book is deleted, and I will never buy another one of your novels.

  3. J. Scott Coatsworth says:

    Yes Yes Yes!!! Mark and I study Italian, and we often discuss why we have to use the stupid trapassato tense (past perfect in Italian) and this encapsulates it perfectly. Just shared your column with my Italian group – think they will get a kick out of it.

  4. I learn so much from you. This is a pet peeve of mine when reading. Having to stop and figure out who did/said what/when is SO annoying. It sucks you right out of the fictional world. It’s like someone opening a cellphone in the middle of a dark theatre. (Another peeve)

  5. My problem is that the first time I half-way worked with and editor, I was told to ignore ‘had’. After questioning why several times, she ‘fired’ me. Therefore, I try not to use it and have deleted a couple of ‘had’s this woman I’m working with now put in.

    Something I have trouble reading is present tense. To me, if you’re telling a story, it already happened and should be in past tense.

    One book I tried to read was written in second person – ‘you’ did this. I gave up after a few pages.

  6. A.M.B. says:

    Very interesting. I have no idea if I’m guilty of this transgression–I write the way I think/talk–but I’ll pay closer attention to it in the future. According to my editor, my biggest problem is dangling participles.

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