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Kim Tomsic

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How to Frame Past Perfect Tense: a guest post by Will Limón

A brief word from Kim: I describe past perfect tense as the past of the past. Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, says to write past perfect you use had + past participle. That's excellent information for a line or two, but a bunch of "had's" on a page gets cumbersome. I had to check in with my friends, Will Limón and David Deen, to learn how to introduce past perfect tense in the framework of a story.

Q: Will Limón, friend, critiquing partner, and go-to guy for the rules (other than David )...how the heck do you frame a situation in past perfect tense?

Will:  Here's my understanding of how past perfect works.

You're cooking along in a piece, using past tense consistently.

A character remembers an action that happened in that character's past, and you (the author) want to recount it within the story.

As you begin the character's memories, you use "had" two or three times to begin the past perfect frame. Then, you simply continue in regular past tense, dropping "had."

As you approach the end of the recounting, you pick up "had" again and use it two or three times in the last few sentences. That completes your past perfect frame.

 You continue on with your story, using past tense as before.

Here's a rather overwrought example off the top of my head. Let me know if it's clear for you.

A short excerpt by Will Limón for your past perfect entertainment privilege:

She sat down at her desk and opened the drawer. The ivory invitation stared her right in the face, its fancy letters mocking her like the echo of his voice.

“After all this time you're finally invited,” he had said. “I bet you won't go.” He had slumped onto the sofa, smirking, and daring her to fight.

She hadn’t looked at him. Instead she gazed out the window at the roses. They were just about to bloom. She stared hard as if the bursting buds were the only thing that mattered in the world.

“Well?” he said.

“Well, what?”

“Are you going?”

She turned away from the window and back to the room, avoiding his eyes. But she felt them. They pricked at her more sharply than the thorns on those rose stems. Something had to give. 
“I don’t know.”
He had laughed. Before he had the chance to say anything else, she’d had him thrown out.

She picked up the invitation and dropped it into the wastebasket. There, that's better. Much better.
David Deen, the Research King, recommends the following websites (just click on the link):

Writing Genre Fiction: A guide to Craft

Past Perfection at Writer's Relief Blog

Fantasy Fiction Cliche's to Avoid

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