January 28, 2015
A new year, and more notes! I had a very good conversation with one of the authors I edit for, so I thought I'd talk about it here. A lot of authors have questions about the correct time to use tenses in writing as a general rule. I was lucky growing up. I had a grandmother who was chief of the grammar police, so things like tenses and correct word choice were ingrained into me at a young age. It now comes naturally to me for the most part, but for a lot of people, it doesn't. There are a lot of great web sites out there that can help you as an author, but when doing research or when trying to learn, keep in mind that all websites are like television; you can't always believe what you see. Remember that all websites are written by people like you or I, and every article is written with some bias. Some of us are specialized in our areas (I have an honors English degree, and I've been an editor for over two decades,) but these things we write are still our take on things. Having said that, I hope that some of what I talk about can guide you and shed some light on things that might be to date, as clear as mud.
So take a journey with me through the wonderful world of tenses. If you are writing from the first person's POV (point of view), then you will likely be writing predominantly in the present tense, with a possible smattering of past and past perfect. If you are writing from the third person's or narrator's POV, you'll be writing in a mixture of past and past perfect.
Present: walk, run, fumble, explode, sympathize.
Past: walked, ran, fumbled, exploded, sympathized.
Past Perfect: had walked, had run, had fumbled, had exploded, had sympathized.
The easiest way to explain it is if you're writing in the third person, or narrator's voice, using the past tense denotes what is happening as you read the book. Past Perfect is used to tell a story within the story, or to tell about something that happened before the "present" in the book. I'm not talking about present as in using present tense verbs, but rather, what is happening as you read. Past can describe something habitual or repeated, whereas past perfect can also describe an action that has ended and will not likely be repeated.
"Listened" is in the past, but when writing in third person, that talks about what the person is doing in the story as you are reading it. "She listened at the door, and the sound came again." When you read this, you understand that it's happening. The sound could come again as you are watching the scene unfold. Her listening didn't end.
However, if it was something that happened in the current story's past (like at breakfast earlier in the morning), or only happened once, and then stopped happening, the perfect is used. "She had placed the coat in the closet and had forgotten about it." She did this a long time ago, and it was done with. The action was not going to repeat itself, it was complete.
Part of it is using context of the rest of the paragraph or chapter to explain which to use. If a chapter mentions something about time context, like Sabrina was washing dishes after supper, (and then she has a flashback or the story talks about what she did earlier that day), the washing dishes part (the story's current present as it is happening now), would be washed, but the verbs in the flashback or description of earlier would be perfect: she had made breakfast for everyone that morning.
In any histories of your characters, it should all be past perfect. had been, had lived, had moved, etc. It was long ago in the past, and it's no longer happening, nor is it likely to repeat itself, it's complete.
All of the present things happening currently in the book should be washed, slept, changed etc. because that is still happening as the story is unfolding.
I find the best way to really explain what might be confusing concepts, is through examples. It's easier to understand something if we can experience it and see it working. I was doing some editing of my own work, and I came across a passage that I thought might explain better the past and past perfect.
Master Zalice held in his hands a little wooden box with decorated metal bands across the top. It was the same box he had procured from Cal’s trunk just after the boy had left. He hadn’t stolen it, well not exactly. It happened to have been his box in the first place. He had just retrieved it from Cal’s room when the boy had gone. Thankfully, he had interrupted the child before he had had a chance to examine the contents that lay within.
As you can see, the first line is what is happening in the book's present tense, it's what's happening in the story now. (it's written as past tense held, because it is written in the third person. But as you read it, you know that this part of the story is unfolding as you are reading it.) Then, the tense changes to past perfect, had procured, had left, hadn't, have been, had retrieved, had interrupted, had had... because the story tells about something that happened prior to this "present" time in the story. (It happened a day or two earlier).
So to sum up, if your book is written in third person, the tense to use when describing what is happening as you read, or of what is going on is past tense:
Sabrina walked to the table and sat down.
When you are telling about something that had already happened before the "right now" of your storytelling, i.e. about a character's past, or about something that had happened earlier in the day or earlier in the week, that is when had and had been are used:
She had been a wreck that morning, with great knots in her hair and mascara trails that had run down her face. She had brushed her hair for almost an hour, and had scrubbed her face with a warm wash cloth. That had felt good, but it was only with a force of will that she had been able to make herself presentable before breakfast.