Most novels are written in simple past tense. This may seem obvious and straightforward enough, but it can really confuse writers when they start referring to events that happened before the current action of the story. Most flashbacks and quick references to an earlier time–whether it’s ten years ago or earlier that same morning–need to be written in past perfect tense. Here’s a quick rundown of how to do that.
Simple past tense is “did.” It’s essentially used for the present tense of your story.
- We did some jumping jacks.
- I went to the store.
- “Let’s go,” she said.
- He woke up.
- We tasted the ice cream.
- They climbed into the truck.
Simple past tense is used for most of the story, but since it’s really the present tense for your current action—what’s happening in the “now” of your story, if it happened before the “now,” it needs to be in past perfect.
Past perfect is “had done.” You can think of it as past past tense.
- She had already made her bed.
- We’d gone on a trip the week before.
- I hadn’t fixed the car yet.
- He’d told me his cat was sick.
- They’d had a huge party.
As you can see, this tense gives you the feeling of “before then.” When you read “He’d told me his cat was sick,” you know it means he’d already told me, or he’d told me before.
So for example, if it’s the morning after an earthquake, things that are currently happening are past simple, while any references to the earthquake the night before will be in past perfect.
- As I cleaned up the debris, I couldn’t help but remember how loud everything had been and how panicked I’d felt. I wanted to wipe it from my memory, but the fear had been so intense that I’d just frozen, taking in everything around me and etching it indelibly in my memory.
If you left out the past perfect, it would be confusing: “I wanted to wipe it from my memory, but the fear was so intense that I just froze” would mean that the fear and the freezing were happening at the current moment, during the cleaning up of the debris.
This is not to say that anything happening that day will be in past simple, because if it starts talking about something that happened before the cleaning up moment, that will also be in past perfect.
- Earlier that morning, my mom had told me that there probably wouldn’t be any more aftershocks, but I still startled and braced myself against any sudden noise or movement. I didn’t even care that Trent had called me a baby. It was a perfectly logical reaction.
Short flashbacks should be put in past perfect as well. If it’s a longer flashback, you can sometimes transition into simple past as long as you make it clear when you’re coming back out of the flashback.
- Stacy hadn’t always been this way. She remembered that in elementary school she had been quick to make friends. One day in fourth grade, she’d seen the smallest kid in class being picked on and hadn’t even thought twice about it: she’d marched right up and told off the bigger boys. Then she’d introduced herself to Timmy, and from then on they’d been inseparable.
Note that in “she’d marched right up and told off the bigger boys,” the “had” can refer to “marched up” and “told,” so it doesn’t need to be repeated to make it the correct tense.
If this flashback had gone on any longer, I probably would have switched to simple past to make it easier to read (past perfect can feel cumbersome if it continues more than a couple paragraphs) and to free up the past perfect for going even farther into the past if necessary.
One trick to remember is that if the character would say it in past tense, the narration should say it in past perfect. In the example above, Stacy might say, “I wasn’t always this way, you know.” But because it’s in her past and the book is already written in past tense, it translates in the narration to “Stacy hadn’t always been this way.” (Of course, it’s a whole different situation if you’re writing in present tense, but I’m not going into that now.)
Hopefully this is helpful, because this tends to be one of the biggest problems I see with new writers. Sometimes it’s not a big deal, but forgetting to use past perfect tense for previous action has the potential to really confuse readers.
So leave the past in the past perfect, and the present in the past.
Because THAT’S not confusing at all.