Lessons in Past Perfect 3: Filling in gaps

Time is an important dimension in any story, and verb tenses are a major tool by which writers assert control over the dimension of time in their storytelling. If you’re a writer, I believe you owe it to yourself to master the verb tenses, regardless of the approach you take to telling your story. It’s part of what it means to be skilled in the craft.

When I see problems with verb tense in the work of aspiring or self-published writers, by far the most frequent issues involve the past perfect tense, specifically the failure to use it when it’s called for. People try to make the simple past do the work of both past and past perfect. The result is a noticeable loss of temporal “depth” and sometimes a loss of clarity. It’s like looking at a photograph where some things are out of focus that aren’t meant to be, making it hard to distinguish the relationships between objects.

Most stories are told in the past tense. They use the simple past for ongoing action, so the past perfect is needed to set off events that occurred prior to the current action. Many people aren’t very comfortable with the past perfect, and if you know you’re one of them, this post is for you.

This time I’d like to explain one very common use for the past perfect in a past tense narrative: filling in gaps created by jumping from one scene to another.

When you’re telling a story—anything other than a very simple one—you can’t show everything that happens because there just isn’t room. You have to decide which actions and events to put into scenes and which to skip over, but skipping creates gaps that can be informational as well as temporal. How do you fill the reader in on events that matter for continuity but are too minor, too brief, too boring, or just too isolated in time to justify fleshing-out in a scene? The past perfect tense is perfect for this, especially if you like to make “clean” jumps between scenes instead of linking them through brief passages of narration.

An example:

Let’s say the last scene involved the hero’s escape from some adversaries while crossing a plain to reach a range of mountains he has to climb. The next scene skips to him being in the mountains, where there are no trees, and its climax will involve fighting off an attacker with the aid of a stick. Since he didn’t have the stick in the previous scene, I want to explain how he acquired it. Here goes:

Aron paused halfway across a steeply sloping field of scree to catch his breath and assess his progress. He judged he was a little more than halfway to the pass. These mountains were too arid to support trees at this elevation and he had a clear view of the plain he had left, spread out below him, and of the ravine-like valley where he had picked up the trail that led to his present location. He glanced at the sun and took a swallow of precious water from his bottle, then started forward again. As he went, he used a stout stick to steady himself on the slippery slope. The stick was about five feet long, light but strong. He had cut it from one of the trees that grew sparsely along the stream in the bottom the valley. He had thought it might prove useful and he was very glad of it now. The trail he was following was sketchy at best. Even when the path wasn’t covered with loose fragments of rock, as it was here, it was steep, rock-strewn, and uneven.

Analysis: Okay, there are four past perfect verbs in the above passage. The first, “had left,” refers to the plain in the previous scene and comes midway through the third sentence after some introductory current action that is in simple past tense. This first use helps link the action to the previous scene as well as filling in an action that was skipped. “Had picked up the trail” places another detail in the gap. Finally, “had cut,” and “had thought” refer directly to the stick. (“Grew,” referring to the trees, doesn’t need to be past perfect because the trees are still growing in the valley. Past perfect is used for events that were completed in the past or conditions that no longer exist, not for ongoing conditions.) “He was very glad” is simple past tense that returns you to the current action. The passage also illustrates how switching back and forth between ongoing action and description of past action can avoid the repetitiousness of too many “hads” in close proximity.

In this particular case, substituting past tense in the first three instances feels “flat” and I know it’s ungrammatical, but I would have little difficulty deducing the meaning. He must have left the plain at some time in the past since he was there in the last scene and isn’t any longer; since he is currently following the trail, he must have picked it up in the past; and since he currently has the stick, he must have cut it in the past. In the last instance, however, “he thought it might prove useful” implies that he is anticipating a possible future use for the stick as he is crossing the slippery scree, rather than having anticipated the present kind of use at the time he cut the stick. The rest of the sentence and the subsequent details might cause one to question this interpretation, but do not clearly resolve the issue.

Another example:

The preceding scene in this case could have been one that established a need to build the “device” mentioned, and the current scene skips to the building of it, leaving a day-long “shopping” expedition undescribed. I could have made a scene out of the shopping, and might have gotten some good mileage out of it, but let’s just say that the need to move the story along more rapidly has left it on the cutting room floor. There are never-the-less some aspects of that trip that are relevant to the plot, specifically the need for secrecy…

Simon waited until the last sounds of movement in the rooms below him ceased before emptying the contents of his pack onto the table in his loft room and sitting down to attempt to assemble the device. The process was going to take some time and he couldn’t afford any interruptions. The assortment of wires, switches, chips, and circuit boards didn’t look like much, but it had taken him the better part of a day in the tech bazaar in Sol City to purchase them. The task could have been accomplished much more quickly if there hadn’t been the need for total secrecy. He had crisscrossed the bazaar repeatedly, putting plenty of both time and distance between each pair of purchases so as not to draw attention to himself, and he was quite sure that he had not been followed home. He smiled with grim satisfaction as he plugged in his soldering iron.

Analysis: I’ll let you hunt down the past perfect verbs. I count four of them. In this case, the repetition of “had” verbs is diluted by a couple of infinitives (“to purchase,” “to draw), a “could have been,” and an “ing” verb (“putting”)—in addition to a simple past tense verb. To my ear, this passage would sound really bad with past tense substituted for past perfect—except for the reference to the need for secrecy. In that one case I think I could have used simple past because the need for secrecy is, in a sense, ongoing. The situation isn’t quite analogous to that of the growing trees in the first example. I come across such ambiguous situations from time to time where something, such as a character’s reaction, could be viewed as both in the past and ongoing. In such cases the writer has latitude. You can decide which aspect of the action you want to emphasize—or which verb just sounds better.

This post has gotten plenty long enough. I would love to hear from you if it was helpful, of course, but also if you have any related suggestions to offer to aspiring writers who are working to improve their craft.

8 Comments

  • Audrey Kalman

    January 31, 2014 at 11:49 pm Reply

    I, too, am annoyed by prose that cuts out the past perfect in a misguided attempt at simplification. Sometimes language needs to be a bit complex to get across complex ideas. Every writer should read this post–especially ones who haven’t a clue about what the past perfect is, and even those of us who think we know. Thanks for a clear explanation.

    And here’s a wonky grammar question for you: What do you think about introducing a long sequence (maybe a page or two) that takes place before the main action with a few past-perfect sentences and then slipping into simple past until the very end? I’m curious because it’s a technique I’ve tried with varying success. My reasoning is that a page or two of past perfect starts to sound very dense and can be a bit difficult to read.

    • Carol Wuenschell

      February 1, 2014 at 2:16 am Reply

      Thanks for your praise, Audrey. I’m not quite sure about your question, though. I think I’d have to see an example of what you’re talking about.

      Long passages of past perfect are problematic because the “hads” become repetitious and because two-word verbs are just “wordier” than one-word verbs. Both features can interfere with producing graceful prose and writers who are striving for grace will want to avoid them. My beef is that whatever means you use to avoid them should not resort to being ungrammatical. This means that switching from past perfect to simple past is generally going to require switching from the description of past events to description of current action. The exception, which I talked about in an earlier post, is the flashback, where you “bring the past into the present” by having your character remember past events so vividly that it is as if he were there in the past. But you should make sure you set it up so it’s clear that this is what’s happening.

      • Audrey Kalman

        February 2, 2014 at 1:19 am Reply

        Sorry if my description was confusing. I had forgotten about your discussion of flashback, which I think is really the solution to the problem of those drawn-out sections in past-perfect. It takes skill to do them well, though!

  • The Writing Waters Blog

    February 4, 2014 at 10:12 pm Reply

    I printed this out so I could read it when I haven’t had a glass of wine. But thanks.

    • Carol Wuenschell

      February 5, 2014 at 3:04 pm Reply

      My pleasure, and I hope it makes sense. Sometimes I’m not so sure.

  • jmmcdowell

    February 6, 2014 at 5:44 pm Reply

    I’m afraid the ever-quickening pace of our technological world has taken a toll on good writing. I see so much advice from agents and editors about cutting every “extraneous” word, and I suspect that attitude has played a huge role in the sacrificing of the past perfect tense. As you say, its use helps keep ambiguity at bay, and that should be a major concern of agents and editors, too.

  • Mariella

    March 31, 2014 at 8:24 pm Reply

    Hooray! Thank you. First, I googled, “do you have to stick with past perfect” and I got pages of conjugations for the verb “to stick.” But then I found your post and it was exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis!

    • Carol Wuenschell

      March 31, 2014 at 11:20 pm Reply

      This is actually not one of my clearer posts when I re-read it. I hope I understand correctly the implication of the question you googled. You don’t have to “stick with the past perfect” if you can manage gracefully to switch back and forth to ongoing action to break up what might be kind of a long stretch of past action that requires the past perfect. The verb still needs to match the time of the action being described. If you switch the time, you can switch the verb. I didn’t mean to give the impression that the verb-switching could be arbitrary.

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