Past perfect in a present-predominated description of a plot

OED Loves Me Not

Senior Member
Japanese - Osaka
Hello, friends.

I don't know if the title of my post is appropriately worded.
Suppose I'm describing the plot of a story. When doing so,
people tend to base themselves predominantly in
the present tense. Typically, they write this way:

   In this story, a handsome prince meets a beautiful
   young girl. The girl is from a poverty-stricken family.
   She has been working all her life. She has never
   been
to school.
     (This is my own writing)

Now, at the end of this text, I'd like to add that her father
died when she was five. In that case, which of the following
sentences should I write?

  (1) Her father died when she was five.
  (2) Her father had died when she was five.

I've read many plot descriptions of this kind and, if I
remember correctly, the correct sentence is (2) with
the past perfect
. Am I right?

If I am wrong, do plot summaries never use the past
perfect? If they do, in what situations do they use it?
I'd like very much to know in what situations
the past perfect is used not only in these plot summaries
but also in other situations (including conversations)
where the predominant tense is in the present (that is,
simple present, present perfect, and present progressive).

By the way, I know the basic grammar on how to use
the past and the past perfect. I know pretty well how to
use the past perfect when a story is predominated by
descriptions written in the past tense, for example:

   I had finished my homework before I went out.

What I want to know now is how to use the past perfect
in a story or conversation predominated by present-tense
sentences, just like in the plot summary I showed at the
beginning of my post.

Thank you very much for being patient enough to read
my lengthy writing.
 
Last edited:
  • PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    I'm describing the plot of a story - predominantly in the present tense.

    In this story, a handsome prince meets a beautiful young girl. The girl is from a poverty-stricken family. She has been working all her life. She has never been to school.

    Now, at the end of this text, I'd like to add that her father died when she was five.
    (1) Her father died when she was five.  
    (2) Her father had died when she was five.

    I've read many plot descriptions of this kind and, if I remember correctly, the correct sentence is (2) with the past perfect. Am I right?
    I would be happy with that.

    What I want to know now is how to use the past perfect in a story or conversation predominated by present-tense sentences, just like in the plot summary I showed at the beginning of my post.
    To me the past perfect is suitable for relating events or a series of events (as short facts immediately after they happen) so as to inform the reader of the background to the story or event. “He had washed, he had put on his hat, he had opened the door and had walked down the street. It was at this moment that he heard the cry!”

    The simple past is more immediate – although things are happening in the past, they are described as (not immediately after) they happen: “He washed, he put on his hat, he opened the door and walked down the street.”

    In this respect, the simple past is similar to the present historic that you used in “…a handsome prince meets a beautiful young girl. The girl is from a poverty-stricken family.”
     

    OED Loves Me Not

    Senior Member
    Japanese - Osaka
    I would be happy with that.
    Thank you, Paul, for your prompt and exhaustive answer.
    But I don't get your English expression "I would be happy with that"
    in that context. Do you mean that it's correct to use
    (2) with the past participle in my plot summary predominated
    by present-tense descriptions?

    More specifically, is my plot summary written below correct?

       In this story, a handsome prince meets a beautiful
       young girl. The girl is from a poverty-stricken family.
       She has been working all her life. She has never
       been
    to school. Her father had died when she was five.
     

    kalamazoo

    Senior Member
    US, English
    Here's my opinion. Either the simple past or the past perfect is okay. However in my general observation, English tends to slightly avoid the past perfect unless it is needed to show a sequence of events (so that we know that "a" happened before "b"). In this case, there is no need for the past perfect because the sequence of events is obvious. So I don't think you really need it here, although it doesn't hurt.
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    USA English
    I don't think I would abruptly shift from a series of present tenses to past perfect, but I do not understand why you mention her father's death out of order with the rest of the story.
     

    OED Loves Me Not

    Senior Member
    Japanese - Osaka
    Forero, you're right. I should have added some information before
    that abrupt statement. Would it make sense if I rewrote it this way?
    (The underlined part is my addition.)

       In this story, a handsome prince meets a beautiful
       young girl. The girl is from a poverty-stricken family.
       She has been working all her life. She has never
       been to
    school. Her main misfortune is that
       her father had died when she was five.

    Rewritten this way, I can see that I didn't need to use
    this past perfect in the first place.
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    USA English
    Forero, you're right. I should have added some information before
    that abrupt statement. Would it make sense if I rewrote it this way?
    (The underlined part is my addition.)

       In this story, a handsome prince meets a beautiful
       young girl. The girl is from a poverty-stricken family.
       She has been working all her life. She has never
       been to
    school. Her main misfortune is that
       her father had died when she was five.

    Rewritten this way, I can see that I didn't need to use
    this past perfect in the first place.
    I assume "when she was five" modifies "died" here, so the past perfect has nothing to anchor on, no event in the past before which her father died.
     
    < Previous | Next >
    Top