Lessons in the Past Perfect 6: Flexibility and Control

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPeople experience life as events in time – present, past, and hypothetical future. To me, being able to clearly define the temporal relationships of events in a story is essential for effective storytelling. And verb tenses are part of what we use to do that. That’s why you need to be skillful with verb tenses if you want to be a skilled writer. You want to master the full arsenal of verb tenses so you can use the best one for every situation. And you want to be able to shift tenses at will to reveal information in the most effective order. This is how to achieve control over your readers’ experience of the temporal aspects of your story.

English has a lot of verb tenses. Not all of the variants are time-related, either. Some indicate conditional or hypothetical situations, like the ones that use “would,” “could,” or “should.” Consider the following, which my linguistics prof in college said was about as complicated as it can get:

Well, he should have been being paid.

That’s five words that are part of the verb, everything after “he.” It’s complicated, but we understand it. We also understand that it’s different from all of the following:

He should be being paid.
He should have been paid.
He is being paid.
He was being paid.
He was paid.
He has been paid.
He had been paid.
He had been being paid.
He would have been paid.
He will be paid.
He will have been being paid.

That’s not even all the possibilities. The point is that a writer should be able to use whichever tense best serves his or her purpose. I think people are pretty clear that the addition of “being” makes the action “progressive” – that is, in this case more than one payment is involved, ongoing over some period of time. That period could be in the past, present, or future. Without “being,” the reader is justified in assuming that only one payment is involved. People understand that “is” means present, “was” means past, and “will be” means future. “Should” and “would” or “could” tell us that the payment didn’t actually happen, or hasn’t happened yet – that it is in some way hypothetical. The “perfect” tenses represent completed (perfected) action. “Has been paid” is present perfect: the action is completed, but recently enough to be viewed as part of present events. “Had been paid” is past perfect, the action having been completed in a time period preceding whatever might be considered present events. Past perfect is used specifically when that distinction is needed: an action was completed prior to whatever is happening now. “Will have been paid” is future perfect. There is some future time from the perspective of which the payment will be in the past. Example? “By the time we next meet, you will have been paid for your services.” Which is distinctly different from: “When next we meet, you will be paid for your services.” The temporal relationships between the meeting and the payment are different in those two cases, and you wouldn’t use one if you meant the other.

I know I harp a lot on the past perfect. It’s because it’s frequently given the cold shoulder these days and I’m always disappointed when I stumble over a spot where a writer should have used it but didn’t. Past perfect is important in fiction because past-tense narration is the most common approach to storytelling. If your current storyline is told in past tense, you need the past perfect to distinguish events that occurred prior to the current storyline. Apparently it throws some aspiring writers for a loop, though: they’re used to using the simple past tense for past events, or they hear some editors say the past perfect should be avoided because too many had’s are cumbersome and repetitious. So they think they can do without it. The result sometimes is temporal mush.

Consider this simple thought:

Jake was paid in local currency. He preferred Galactic Credits.

In a past-tense narrated story, we can assume that Jake’s preference for Galactic Credits is an ongoing state of affairs – at least in the absence of any more specific information. He does prefer, has preferred, and probably always will prefer to be paid in Galactic Credits. (Preferences tend to be like that.) But the first sentence could mean at least four different things depending on the context:

1) In the course of the unfolding story, a point has been reached where Jake gets paid once for something and the payment is in local currency.
2) Jake gets paid in local currency on a regular basis during the time period of the story. (He’s on a salary.)
3) There was a single instance in the past when Jake was paid for something in local currency.
4) There was some period of time in the past when Jake was regularly paid in local currency.

Of course there would normally be context, and context can go a long way:

Three weeks crawled by and Jake finally got paid for the job. He was paid in local currency. Jake preferred Galactic Credits, but here on Chalcion you took what you could get. (case 1)

Back on Regulus, Jake worked in the shipyards. He was paid in local currency then. Jake preferred Galactic Credits. Life here on Chalcion was good. (case 4)

In these two examples I deliberately didn’t use verb tense for clarification. I stuck to the simple past tense. The result is a bit “flat,” temporally speaking, but you can figure out the meaning from the time tags and other clues that I’ve added. (Note that it’s only “here on Chalcion” that pins the first example down as being current ongoing action. Otherwise it’s just an assumption that this is the case, since simple past is the default for current action in past-tense narration.) In the second example, “back” and “then” tell you that the local currency payments were in the past relative to the current action. “Here on Chalcion” implies that he is now being paid in Galactic Credits.

If you’re not afraid to use other verb tenses, you can get away without time tags altogether:

When he’d been working in the shipyards on Regulus Jake had been paid in local currency. He preferred Galactic Credits. Life on Chalcion was good.

The point isn’t that using time tags is bad. In fact, you can use a mixture of time tags and verb tenses in a paragraph for clarity and variety. And that’s my point. With the other verb tenses at your disposal, you have more alternatives for achieving clarity – or grace, or emotional impact, or whatever. That’s flexibility. After all, having to constantly repeat your time tags can get just as cumbersome and repetitious as too many had’s.

The past perfect tense also gives you more flexibility in how you reveal things. You can slip back and forth between present and past effortlessly without confusing your reader. You’re not tied to telling events in the order they occur:

She walked from room to room, treading evenly and taking inventory of the spaces and furnishings until she came to the last bedroom at end of the hall, at the top of the stairs. She stepped over the threshold and instantly she knew. She had not realized what she’d been missing until that moment. The room was alive; she could feel it. The living room and parlor, kitchen and dining room, below, the other bedrooms along the upstairs hall; all were perfect, tidy, pristine. But they had felt dust-dry, hollow, as she passed through them. Empty as husks. Only here in this room, with its worn oak furniture and faded curtains and ancient writing desk, was there a fullness, something still green, a sense of her husband’s spirit.

Try doing that passage justice without the past perfect tense. The past perfect lets me wait until after she’s entered the last room to tell you what was different about her experience of the other rooms, then shift back, and back again, in a blink. And I can do this with perfect clarity (I hope) within a paragraph where my focus is on emotional impact.

And that is enough about the past perfect. (Collective sigh of relief, I’m sure.)


  • G M Barlean

    July 7, 2015 at 12:46 am Reply

    This is a lot to digest. I’ll have to keep it and study this! I often struggle with past perfect. Tense is something we think we know, but it’s these fine points you discuss, that I fall short with.

    • cwuenschell@gmail.com

      July 8, 2015 at 6:31 pm Reply

      Sorry. I can really get too wordy sometimes. I hope it helps in spite of that.

  • Carrie Rubin

    July 7, 2015 at 1:46 am Reply

    My editor took out a lot of my past perfect use. I ended up putting about half back in. I just thought it made things clearer to use it more. I think between the two of us we found a happy medium. So I’m with you–sometimes it is definitely needed.

    • cwuenschell@gmail.com

      July 8, 2015 at 6:29 pm Reply

      If you were going for clarity, you probably did hit a happy medium.

      You just can’t approach this issue wholesale. You have to look at each paragraph, each sentence, in the light of what you’re trying to accomplish with the writing. It’s about clarity, but also about impact, and also gracefulness of the prose.

  • jmmcdowell

    July 7, 2015 at 5:39 pm Reply

    Even though my current manuscript is written in the present tense, I still find the past perfect useful in some scenes. I so agree that having the flexibility to use a variety of tenses and tags to tell the story makes for a more interesting read!

    • cwuenschell@gmail.com

      July 8, 2015 at 6:25 pm Reply

      Oh, yeah! The tools you have, the better the product you can make.

  • Anne Louise Bannon

    July 8, 2015 at 4:51 pm Reply

    A “perfect” explanation of something I’ve been doing most of my writing life without realizing it. Thanks, Carol!

    • cwuenschell@gmail.com

      July 8, 2015 at 6:23 pm Reply

      I didn’t think about it either before I started reading manuscripts that tried to do without the past perfect and thought, what the heck is going on here?

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