1. ChaseTheSun

    ChaseTheSun Senior Member

    Joined:
    Jan 7, 2017
    Messages:
    261
    Likes Received:
    244

    Past Tense (Perfect v. Simple)

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by ChaseTheSun, Mar 15, 2017.

    Coming off the back of years of writing in present tense form, I'm having a little bit of trouble adjusting to the necessity of the past tense for my first novel.

    Could some of you lovely souls please help me understand the rules about different kinds of past tense:

    "[character name] took a deep breath and lifted her hands slightly. Then she let them fall back into her lap"


    and this kind:

    "[character name] had taken a deep breath and lifted her hands slightly. Then she had let them fall back into her lap."


    As far as I'm aware, the first example is 'past simple' and the second example is 'past perfect.'

    Is it incorrect to shift back and forth between the two forms? If I begin in one, must I continue in that form for the rest of the book? It just seems that some paragraphs/phrases look and read better in one form, and other paragraphs are better in the second form.

    Is there a technical SPAG rule to help me with this or is it a simple case of artistic license/personal preference?

    For example, an excerpt from my WIP:

    In this example, the blue is in 'past perfect' tense and the pink is in 'past simple.' Is it grammatically wrong to combine them like this? Would readers notice the switches? Is it technically wrong but creatively allowed? Should the "this wasn't" be changed to "this hadn't been", "It was" to "It had been," etc? That just seems dreadfully clumsy.

    (The excerpt is an older woman speaking about a conversation she had with her sister decades earlier.)
     
  2. Shadowfax

    Shadowfax Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 27, 2014
    Messages:
    3,428
    Likes Received:
    1,989
    No, it's not wrong to combine them, it's usually mandatory - if the story demands it.

    The way I see it, past simple is me telling a story. It all happens in the "now" that I'm recounting it.

    I ran down to the shops, and when I got there it was to see a robbery taking place.

    Past perfect is something that happens BEFORE the "now".

    Three gunmen had burst into the bank and pointed guns at the cashiers.

    These two sentences form part of a coherent whole. I could continue with past perfect, telling the reader what had gone on before I arrived (The cashiers had opened their tills and handed over the money), or I could revert to past simple, telling the reader what I did - or saw - once I got there (The cashier lay down on the floor, obviously hoping that nobody - and in particular himself - was going to get shot today).

    The first sentence in your example is perfect. The MC's expectations of what she would hear pre-date the scene when she hears it.

    For some reason, this wasn’t what I had expected to hear her say. “Why?”
     
  3. ChaseTheSun

    ChaseTheSun Senior Member

    Joined:
    Jan 7, 2017
    Messages:
    261
    Likes Received:
    244
    Thanks, it seemed right to me as well but I wasn't sure if I was losing perspective. :)

    I probably shouldn't have included the first two sentences - I did so for context but I was more concerned about the switch between perfect and simple in the larger paragraph: "I had played"/"It was cool"/"I had mused"...
     

Share This Page

  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.
    Dismiss Notice