Hacking the Pluperfect

I’ve noticed an increasing allergy to the pluperfect among some writers lately. One writing advice columnist even suggested doing away with the verb “had.” This is a serious condition, folks, and it can lead to some seriously confusing writing. We need to stomp it out before it’s too late.

Had plus party what? (from GrammarMonster.com)

Had plus party what? (from Grammar-Monster.com)

What’s the pluperfect, you ask? Good question, because pluperfect is one of those grammar terms that are unnecessarily daunting. Some people call it the past perfect, but that hardly helps. What’s perfect about it? Throw around a lot of terms like that, and you sound like a stuffy old guy in a coat with elbow patches. (Okay, guilty as charged, except for those elbow patches.)

Forgetting its opaque name, pluperfect or past perfect simply means using “had” as a helping verb to distinguish between the past and the “farther past.” Writers use it when they’re writing in regular past tense, but want to include an action that took place before the time of the current scene — maybe even just a few seconds before.

Does that still sound a bit complicated? It’s really a verb tense we use all the time, often in a contraction: “I’d just reached the head of the line when the only teller put up her closed sign, giving me an apologetic shrug.” Or how about this: “I arrived in New York on a Monday morning, emerging from Penn Station into the rush-hour crowd. I had just spent a solitary week in the Grand Canyon, climbing back up to the South Rim only the day before, and this sudden press of humanity made me want to catch the next plane out.”

(Watch out for irregular verbs when using the past perfect. “I drank two sodas yesterday” is simple past tense, but in the past perfect it’s “drunk,” so it can sound strange: “I had already drunk four beers when my girlfriend asked me to drive over and pick her up.)

Some website says this quote is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I don't think so.

Some website says this quote is from Emerson, but I don’t think so. (boardofwisdom.com)

Two common writing situations call for the pluperfect. Probably the most frequent in fiction occurs when narrating an action scene in the past tense, with lots of stuff happening at once. You can’t get everything in simultaneously, so sometimes you need to go back and narrate what happened while other events were taking place.

This is the situation in which I first noticed the pluperfect allergy, in an otherwise excellent zombie story. It went something like this: “I aimed the gun at the monster, but before I could fire he smashed into me, knocking the gun from my hand and pushing me into the kitchen counter. We struggled for a moment as I desperately sought to keep his teeth off me. Finally I kicked him in the groin. As he doubled over in pain, I looked for the gun. It slid under the stove.”

Wait, what? Time has passed since the narrator dropped the gun, but it’s only sliding under the stove just now? Serious time distortion! If she could rewind time like that, why not go back to before the zombie attacked?

Obviously, that sentence should read, “It had slid under the stove,” (or “had slidden,” God help us). The phrase “had slid” must have sounded strange in the writer’s ear. Or maybe the writer just wanted a strong, active verb, and ‘had slid’ sounded passive and weak. “It had fallen” would have been less awkward, but still weak. This is a case where going for strong verbs at the price of clarity isn’t worth it.

Notice that the past perfect indicates an action that has been completed. The gun has come to rest. If for some reason it took the gun an incredibly long time to fall to the floor, you’d use the past continuous: “It was sliding under the stove,” maybe adding, “and I dove for it while I could still reach it.”

Are there other ways to narrate this action without using the pluperfect? Sure. Maybe something like this: “I turned to look for the gun. There, under the stove.” (Or, if you’re a stickler about sentence fragments: “I finally saw it, lying under the stove.”)

This kind of shifting back and forth in a scene happens all the time. Here’s how Rachel Cusk handles it in her novel, Outline. “I jumped in, swimming out in the opposite direction all the way to the perimeter of the island so that I could see the open sea beyond it. The other way, the distant shore was a bobbing line full of tiny shapes and figures. In the meantime, another boat had arrived and was anchored not far from ours.”

And here’s how George R.R. Martin uses it in a more active battle scene (or right after the battle, actually):

Tyrion in the Vale (from wikia.com)

Tyrion in the Vale (from wikia.com)

As [Tyrion] limped back to the others, he glanced again at the slain. The dead clansmen were thin, ragged men, their horses scrawny and undersized, with every rib showing. What weapons Bronn and Chiggen had left them were none too impressive. … He remembered the big man in the shadowskin cloak who had dueled Ser Rodrik with a two-handed greatsword, but when he found his corpse sprawled on the stony ground, the man was not so big after all… Small wonder the clansmen had left nine bodies on the ground.

Martin masterfully shifts back and forth between tenses, keeping the immediate past of the battle separate from the “now” of the present moment, which is also told in past tense.

But what about when you jump back in time not just for a phrase or a sentence, but for a long section of narrative? These longer “stories within a story” require a more subtle use of the pluperfect.

Let’s say you’ve started your story in media res, with your heroine engaged in a phaser shootout with three Zogdilian soldiers. In the middle of that fight, you want to flash back to how she found herself in such a predicament. “It had begun as a routine patrol,” you write. “Stepping out of the lander that morning, Molly had seen just what she expected on the planet Zog: rocks and strange vegetal shapes and not much else.” But wait, you think, do I have to keep going with all these “hads,” all the way up to the current moment in the middle of the battle?

Logic would dictate that yes, you should. No matter how many events lead up to that battle, it should all be, “Molly had done this, Molly had done that, the Zogdilians had done this other thing,” no matter how stilted the language becomes. But logic and usage go together less often than one might think. Most writers get around this predicament by using the past perfect only to shift the frame back to the time of those previous events. Use one or two or three hads to settle the reader in the new (older) time frame, then use simple past tense.

No Zogdilians here, but you get the idea. (from many random geek sites)

No Zogdilians here, but you get the idea. (from many random geek sites)

So, continuing from above, it might be: “But her complacency was quickly shattered when Jenkins, the ensign, spotted the first dead Crimethean. She called the mother ship for reinforcements, then began following the three-toed footprints leading away from the victim’s body, Jenkins following behind with his phaser set to kill.” (Pretty obvious I don’t write SF, eh?)

When you get back to the point where you started the story, you’ll need a little time cue to shift the action back to where you left off. The most obvious cue might be: “Now, as she crouched over Jenkins’ inert form, Molly considered her options.”

Here’s how John Irving manages stories from the past in his novel, In One Person, which has numerous jumps back and forth as the narrator recalls his life:

“How did Dr. Grau really die?” I asked Mrs. Hadley.

The story they’d told us boys — Dr. Harlow had told us, in morning meeting — was that Grau had slipped and fallen in the quadrangle one winter night. The paths were icy; the old Austrian must have hit his head. Dr. Harlow did not say that Herr Doktor Grau actually froze to death — I believe that “hypothermia” was the term Dr. Harlow used.

The story of what actually happened continues in simple past tense for another paragraph, before returning to the present moment with, “‘Grau was a drunk,’ Martha Hadley told me.” The “present” of the scene is the narrator asking Mrs. Hadley the question and her response. There are actually two pasts before this: the night when Dr. Grau died, and the next morning when Dr. Harlow explains it to the students.

But putting two whole paragraphs into past perfect would have been too awkward. So Irving uses the first sentence, all in past perfect, to reset the time frame back to those earlier events. Then in the second sentence he just switches to simple past (“were icy”) and carries on in that tense for the remainder of the story of Dr. Grau’s death. He doesn’t even need an overt time cue to return to the “present,” because Martha Hadley’s response to the narrator’s question serves that purpose.

See how easy it is to use the pluperfect? Now you can go boldly forth, switching between past and “farther past” like there’s no tomorrow — only yesterday, and the day before that.

Need help with your manuscript? I provide beta reading, manuscript editing, help with voice, and that mysterious quality, “flow.” I don’t do copy-editing or proofreading, but I can help you improve the readability of your prose. Since I’m just getting started as an editor-for-hire, my rates are low, low, low! Shoot me an email at Lahogue AT gmail DOT com to learn more.

My background and qualifications: MFA from the highly regarded University of Montana graduate program in creative writing (nonfiction emphasis). Seven years teaching at National University, UCSD Extension, and the University of San Diego, covering creative writing (fiction and nonfiction) and basic and advanced composition classes. My favorite teaching has been in university writing labs, where I enjoyed working with students one-on-one.

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