Editor’s Temper Tantrum: Past Perfect

I edit Romance Novels as a contractor.  I love the work.  I like the books.  I used to sneak read romances when I was a kid. My mom read them constantly, and I felt so naughty reading these grownup sex scenes at twelve, getting aroused.  It was awesome.

Now that I’m a grownup, their effect is less, um, severe? but I still kind of enjoy the strange cliches and the way every book kind of feels like the same story, but with different characters.  I’m reasonably well compensated, so it’s kind of like a delicious treat on somebody else.

Occasionally I get to feeling martyrish about it.  Especially when authors seem to be missing craft stuff that I honed in college to such a degree that I honed nothing else.  I continually remind myself that a lot of these women (and some men) are women whose writing careers began as escapism.  They wrote after their kids were asleep or because they made all the money they needed as attorneys or interior designers. That it was a hobby that grew into something else. That they have educations in things like psychology and law or from the school of hard knocks.  They are, without exception, smart, driven, ambitious women (and men).

So I have recently felt it necessary to begin a crusade to banish the unnecessary use of the past perfect tense, the pluperfect as it was once called.  In fiction, the past perfect tense is almost never necessary.  So it, like so many other things that one should avoid as a matter of style, has its place, its use, it importance to the craft.  But tossing it around all willy nilly is wholly unnecessary, and makes the reader work too hard.  Readers don’t need to be bashed over the head.  They are just as smart as the authors they read.  They have read books before, I’d warrant.  Allow them to suspend their disbelief.  Trust them to read between the lines.

Here’s what Chicago Manual of Style says about the past perfect tense:

5.127: The past perfect (or pluperfect) tense is formed by using had with the principal verb’s past participle {had walked} {had drunk}. It refers to an act, state, or condition that was completed before another specified or implicit past time or past action {the engineer had driven the train to the roundhouse before we arrived}{by the time we stopped to check the map, the rain had begun falling} {the movie had ended already}.

I think the impulse to mis- and overuse the past perfect tense in romance fiction specifically comes from the fact that most romances–all of them that I’ve edited–are written in third person, past tense.  So when a writer is imagining something as if it is happening right now, but telling the story as if it happened in the past, a lot of strange, tense-shifty things are bound to happen.

Tense shifting happens when writers use tense inconsistently.  Less-obvious examples of this happening are when a piece is in past tense, but has the characters thinking things like “Now we were in trouble.”  Or “Here was where she slept.”

Explanation:  In the first example, the preposition now, though not a verb ending that affects the representation of tense (-s, -ed), is a word that indicates present tense.  And that disagrees with the verb “were.”  Fixes: “We were in trouble at that moment,” or “Then we were in trouble.”  And “She slept there.”

Here’s an example of how past perfect is routinely used, but is also unnecessary.

Past Perfect:  “She had brushed the mare’s mane and had given her a bucket of oats before returning to the ranch house.”

Simple Past Fix:  “She brushed the mare’s mane and gave her a bucket of oats before returning to the ranch house”

The fix compresses the language, giving the sentence a feeling of immediacy. This immediacy can fight with the way past tense works to tell stories that feel like they’re happening as we read.  The past perfect is also unnecessary in this instance because of the preposition “before.”  Before does the past perfect’s work, but without the need to be cognizant of parallel constructions, and without the extra words.

So even though it’s true that she returned to the ranch house in the past, but before that in the past she brushed the mare and fed her oats, thus rendering the past perfect technically correct, from a craft perspective, the simple past tense works better.  The reader does not lose any information specific to the action, and doesn’t have to read a bunch of hads to get the meaning.

Furthermore, always using the past perfect tense when it’s technically correct has the same effect of the imitative fallacy: the reader gets bored because the story is too much like real life.  Generally we see this fallacy in dialogue, where young writers recount a conversation as it would actually happen, with all the repetition and ums that we regular, talking, alive, non-fictional humans use.

A good rule of thumb for when to go to past perfect is if there is a chronology of events that is paramount to understanding the story.  I.e., if it is important on a plot level that something happened before something else did.

Otherwise, take a scan through some of your work.  Convert it all to simple past tense.  Re-read it.  Note the new clarity and motion.

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Author: April Line Writing

Writing about whatever the f*ck I want.

4 thoughts on “Editor’s Temper Tantrum: Past Perfect”

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