Oh, the past tense. How easy it is to write. Ironically, most of this article is going to be written in the present tense. Except for that last sentence—it was future tense. And the last one was past tense. Ha hA!! Isn’t writing fun?
I’ve observed that there tend to be two kinds of writers, at least when it comes to the tenses.
1) tends to easily stick to one tense
2) switches tenses all the time
If you’re in the lucky first category, then you might know some of what’s coming, but I’m here to offer a lesson in the different types of past tense. Knowledge is power, and perhaps knowing the difference between the two past tenses will help keep your prose sharp and in the tense you want. Don’t worry, this isn’t a grammar lesson (mostly).
There are generally four past tenses in English, but we really only use two when writing: Simple Past and Past Perfect. Most books in the past tense are in the simple past, so let’s talk about that first.
Simple past probably comes easiest to you. I went for a run. I wrote this article. I made a PB&J. All the verbs in those sentences are in the simple past. It’s the basic way we write in the past tense, and using this tense makes it easy for readers. You would use this tense if you wanted to write something in the past. Got it? Good, because it’s about to get complicated.
What the heck is Past Perfect tense, and why is it called that? Well, I can’t answer that question(ask Google), but I can answer what it is. This form of past tense uses a helping verb—had or was—to describe an action that was completed in the past. The phrase ‘was completed’ is in the past perfect tense. But these names are confusing for me, so I like to call the past perfect tense the Extra Past so I can keep it straight from the simple past. Extra past means extra in the past.
I hardly ever use the extra past tense because I find it hard to read. A story in the extra past feels distant, and I have to spend extra brain energy to understand it. Basically, more words in the way of the action means more thinking for me. The writing isn’t engaging and, after a while, it gets boring. Short fiction may be better suited to this tense because of its shorter length.
A side note about memoir: For some writers, using the extra past tense may be their first instinct when writing about their own lives. This makes sense; in the memoir style you’d want to make it clear that everything happened in the past. But this situation does not require using the past perfect tense. Past tense will work just fine as long as the writer establishes a timeline through context.
I would warn you against writing your entire book in the past perfect, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its uses. An author often uses the past perfect when the story is already in the past tense and they need to write a flashback. This way, the flashback sounds further in the past.
The advice when purposefully slipping into the past perfect tense is to get rid of it immediately, and I absolutely agree. In the example, try to spot where the tense switches from past perfect to simple past:
Lila picked up her fork. She had hated lasagna as a kid. It had too many layers, too many soggy things. She brought the bite to her mouth and ate it.
Did you see it? The first sentence sets up the scene, the second starts a flashback memory, and the third switches back into the simple past while still being in the flashback! Grammar is exciting!
You don’t even need the wind-up to go into a flashback. One sentence is all it takes:
Alex saw the melting cake in the bakery window and was plunged six months into the past. He sat at the long plastic table, and stared at the air in front of his birthday cake. Pop radio played from someone’s speaker. Make a wish.
Try changing a paragraph of your own writing from simple past to past perfect. Notice the changes in tone, rhythm, and distance. Maybe the scene is better in the past perfect tense. That’s for you to decide.
I hope this article taught you something you didn’t know you knew about the past tense. Now you can write the past perfect with intention! But with great power comes great risk at disengaging your readers, so use it sparingly.
From all of us at JUVEN Press, happy writing.
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.
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