Tuesday, April 29, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Past Less Than Perfect

PAST PERFECT, WHICH your grandmother may have called "pluperfect," is an English verb form writers use when they are already writing in past tense, but need to refer to something that happened prior to where they are in the story.
   Here's an example:
   Jerry entered his father's study. He had been there only once before, but things were little changed.
   See the "had been?" That's past perfect. And, both grammatically and stylistically, moderate use such as this is fine.
   Now ... what do you do if you are writing in the past tense already and have to jump further back in time for, say, a chapter or so?
   In a case such as that, it is still grammatically acceptable to use past perfect. But stylistically, there are two groups of people who are going to have problems with that.
   Unfortunately, those groups are your editors and your readers. 
   With many people, flocks of "had" in a piece of fiction are the literary equivalent of nails on chalkboards. So what do you do when you have are in past tense and you need to flash back even further in time?
   One alternative is to restructure the story so it doesn't require the flashback.
   Or, if doing that introduces a spoiler or is otherwise unacceptable, you can look for a way to tell the story in plain old past tense, but make sure the reader knows you've moved back in time.
   In my 2008 novel, Wind River, I had just such a situation. It was written in past tense, and one of the characters needed to reveal something that had taken place several years earlier. So I had him begin to tell the story to another character, inserted a chapter break, and then let him continue through that chapter, less the quotation marks.
   It worked; readers got what was going on, and I received not a single word of complaint about the technique.
   There are probably other ways of getting around long streams of past perfect. Think for a while and you'll come up with them.
   After all, that's why we call the process "creative writing."


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