Friday, 2 March 2018

Using the Right Verb Tense

I’ve written before about choosing the right verb tense when writing characters’ thoughts. Today I’m going to talk about how to convey different times in your story’s past. Or in other words, when to use had.

Illustration of two butterflies with human heads drinking out of a champagne glass

Past and More Past


  • The butterflies drank all the champagne last night.
  • The butterflies had drunk all the champagne by the time we got there.

The verbs drank and got are both in the past (or simple past) tense, since they happened last night. Had drunk is in the past perfect tense to show it happened before the moment we got there last night.

  • I ran into Perseus in Starbucks. I had had my hair done that morning, so it was looking extra snaky.

  ran = past simple
  had had = past perfect (had + past participle)
  was looking = past progressive (was + present participle)

In this example, the first action (running into Perseus) took place at the time of the scene in Starbucks. The second action (having my hair done) took place earlier—that morning. The third action (looking snaky) happened at the same time as the first, but it’s a continuing action, something the snakes are in the midst of.

This is how the example would look if it took place in the present:

  • I run into Perseus in Starbucks. I had my hair done this morning, so it is looking extra snaky.

You can see the first action is happening now, the second happened earlier (before now), and the third is still happening (continuing now). For past narratives, we’ll call these times “then,” “before then,” and “continuing then.”

Verb tense table: present

Verb tense chart: past

  • I felt confident of victory because I bribed the judges. X
  • I felt confident of victory because I’d bribed the judges.  

  • I feel confident of victory because I’d bribed the judges. X
  • I feel confident of victory because I bribed the judges.
  • I feel confident of victory because I’ve bribed the judges.

In the last example, have bribed is called the present perfect tense. It’s formed with have or has plus a past participle and is used in present-tense narratives for two kinds of actions: those that started in the past and have continued till now (You’re late—I’ve waited all morning) or those that happened at an indefinite time in the past (You’ve cut your hair vs. You cut your hair yesterday).

Although there are exceptions (which I’ll discuss in a minute), the general rules in the charts above should help you keep your tenses straight.

  • Zorg had beamed up by the time we arrived.
  • By the time we arrive, Zorg has beamed up.

  • I was cycling through the Alps when I met Franz. 
  • I’m cycling my way through the Alps when I meet Franz.

  • I’ve been working at the gas station for six months and I haven’t seen a single UFO.
  • I’d been working at the gas station for six months and I hadn’t seen a single UFO. 

Illustration of 19th c. travellers from the Nordic Museum

When Not to Use the Past Perfect


Though the past perfect is useful to show you’ve taken a step back in your narrative’s timeline, it’s not always necessary, provided the sequence of events is clear to the reader.

Say your story starts Ruth was a sailor who owned a big boat—obviously, a past-tense narrative. Next you write She was born in Fogo. You could write She had been born in Fogo instead, but it sounds a bit awkward unless it’s followed by a more recent event (e.g., She had been born in Fogo before they paved the roads). And even then it’s not necessary; it’s obvious to readers Ruth’s birth happened before the narrative starts.

Next you write Her parents were bootleggers. Should it be Her parents had been bootleggers? Depends on the story. Had been implies her parents are either dead or retired—no longer legging boots, in any case. Were could be interpreted to mean the same thing, or that they’re still bootlegging when the story starts. If the context doesn’t make your meaning clear, you need to use the past perfect.

  • Ruth was a sailor who owned a big boat. She was born in Fogo. Her parents were bootleggers. (unclear)
  • Ruth was a sailor who owned a big boat. She was born in Fogo. Her parents were bootleggers until they retired. (clear)
  • Ruth was a sailor who owned a big boat. She was born in Fogo. Her parents had been bootleggers. (clear)

Sticklers may insist the second example should read Her parents had been bootleggers until they retired, but for most editors, where the sequence of events is clear, the choice of simple past or past perfect is a question of authorial style.

Roman mosaic of Medusa from the Archeological Museum of Sousse

Let’s leave Ruth and revisit Medusa’s scene, expanding it a little. First we’ll use a present-tense narrative.

  • I run into Perseus in Starbucks. I had my hair done this morning, so it’s looking extra snaky. The stylist fed each snake a live cricket. She said they seemed happy today. Perseus doesn’t look happy to see them.

Our two times are “now,” in the coffee shop (run, is looking, does), and “before now,” in the salon (had, fed, said, seemed). If we wanted to change this to a past-tense narrative, we could change every “before now” verb to past perfect, but that would give us a lot of hads.

  • I ran into Perseus in Starbucks. I’d had my hair done that morning, so it was looking extra snaky. The stylist had fed each snake a live cricket. She’d said they’d seemed happy today. Perseus didn’t look happy to see them.

This is not technically incorrect, but it reads awkwardly. There are several places where we could use the simple past instead without obscuring the sequence of events.

  • I ran into Perseus in Starbucks. I’d had my hair done that morning, so it was looking extra snaky. The stylist fed each snake a live cricket. She said they seemed happy today. Perseus didn’t look happy to see them.

Obviously the stylist is part of the “before then” we established with I’d had my hair done that morning, so using fed instead of had fed isn’t confusing (though you could use had fed if you wanted). The next sentence, She said they seemed happy today, sounds downright clumsy in the past perfect (She’d said they’d seemed happy today), so you’re much better off using the simple past. Some writers would even change I’d had my hair done to I had my hair done, on the grounds that that morning makes the action’s timing clear, but I feel the past perfect is useful there to signal a shift to the reader.

Authors often start a long flashback using the past perfect for the first couple of actions then change to simple past once the time has been established. This is necessary if they intend to jump back again within the flashback, taking the reader to “before before then” with the past perfect. Grammar Girl has an excellent post dissecting this method.

Narrative Effects


You have a lot of authorial wiggle room when it comes to choosing whether to use the past perfect, but be aware that your choice can subtly change your narrative.

  • The whole night was a disaster.
  • The whole night had been a disaster. 

These two examples each locate the reader in a different narrative space. The first is slightly more distant. It’s simply relating an event.

  • The whole night was a disaster. The champagne never arrived, the caterer quit, the yacht capsized, and Aziz had to swim to shore. 

The second example implies the protagonist is looking back from his current situation. It fixes the reader within the present scene.

  • The whole night had been a disaster. The champagne never arrived, the caterer quit, the yacht capsized, and Aziz had had to swim to shore. Now he was sitting on the beach, sopping wet and missing a sock.

The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault, 1818-19

Choosing which verb tense to use is a matter of balancing grammatical correctness with narrative flow—always, of course, prioritizing clarity for your readers.

Even after you’ve mastered the past perfect, the subjunctive mood (if I had a million dollars) can throw off your past-tense narrative. I’ll be covering the subjunctive in my next post. If I were you, I would stay tuned.


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