Sequence of tenses: past perfect/simple past in flashbacks

Discussion in 'English Only' started by jcat, Mar 28, 2007.

  1. jcat New Member

    USA, English
    I'm a freelance editor of fiction, and I often struggle with sequence of tenses in stories written in past tense that contain flashbacks or refer to earlier events. Frequently writers either use past perfect for every single verb in a flashback (resulting in multiple "hads" in every sentence - very annoying to read) or start the flashback with a few lines of past perfect and then shift into simple past, even though they're still in the flashback. In order to be able to fix this, though, I need to make sure I understand the rules, particularly for complex sentences with lots of subordinate clauses, and I'm not sure I do.

    Here are a few examples of the types of situations I'm wondering about:

    - "Jim was happy. His ex-wife had been decent enough to him and Sara when they had told him they were involved."

    - "Steve closed his eyes and remembered what had happened earlier that day. When the ambulances and police had arrived, he had found himself caught up in the action and able to push aside his aches and pains. Now he was feeling them."

    - "He remembered how, after the last police car had pulled away, Bob had arrived at his shoulder, grabbed his arm, and hustled him to his car. Despite his moody silence as Bob had slid behind the wheel, Steve had been grateful. He was even more grateful now."

    Would simple past be correct for any of the highlighted verbs, instead of past perfect? I hope so - part of me thinks so - but I'm not quite sure, and I'd like to understand better. (These are all cases in which the "present," so to speak - right now, the time when the action in the story is actually happening - is simple past.) Can anyone help?


  2. vachecow Senior Member

    USA English
    I think that all of your examples would work fine if you turned them into simple perfect except for "Steve had been grateful." That one should stay past perfect.
  3. edval89 Senior Member

    Boston, MA
    United States/English
    I think the simple past would technically be correct, but using the "had" tense clarifies that one event happened before the other. For example: "He remembered how after the last police car had pulled away". The "had" makes it clear that the police car incident happened before he remembered it. If that makes sense. Hope I helped!
  4. jcat New Member

    USA, English
    But why? All these events are happening before the "present" - i.e., before the action in the story. So, for example, Steve is remembering - that's "now." The ambulances arriving, Steve finding himself caught up in the action, the police cars pulling away, Bob arriving, etc. - all those things happened before "now." So it seems to me that technically one could argue that those things - everything before "now" - should all be past perfect. Or in the first sentence, Jim is happy "now," and his ex-wife being decent, and him and Sara telling her, both happened before - why would it be correct for either of those events to be simple past?

    In other words, what is the explanation for why it would be "technically correct" for some or all of them to be simple past (the part of me that has spoken and read and written English my whole life feels like it might be, but I don't understand why)? What are the rules for when you have only two past tenses - simple past and past perfect - but three or four different times in the past involved?

    And even ignoring the fact that all the events happen before "now," why would it be correct, in the first sentence for example, to use simple past for the highlighted verb - "when they told him" ("when" clauses especially confuse me)? It seems to me that you could look at "when" almost as a substitute for "after" here - so the ex-wife being decent happens after the telling; if anything, wouldn't it be "His ex-wife was decent enough to him and Sara when they had told him they were involved"?

    I'm looking for the rules or principles that underlie this, that might help me be able to make these determinations - or is it that there really are none in English, and in complicated cases like this maybe it's okay to just do what "reads" best?
  5. edval89 Senior Member

    Boston, MA
    United States/English
    I'm not sure. I'm definitely no grammar expert. You may be right about the "reads" best thing...if a sentence is swamped by too many "had"s it might be better to leave it out. On the other hand, in some of your examples the had seems more necessary than others. I'm not sure why, but "Jim was happy. His ex-wife had been decent enough to him " wouldn't seem correct to me without the 'had.' I think I've failed in answering your question, but I'll keep on thinking about it!
  6. Greyb New Member

    English - American
    Apparently as a new member I'm not allowed to post a direct link. The following is from a June 18 2008 on writersrelief dot com titled "Past Perfection: Verbs In Past Tense And Past Perfect Tense In Creative Writing Flashbacks." I've been wondering about this for a long time and this link/example is all I've found online explaining the rules in this scenario.

    "The past perfect tense can also be annoying if overdone. Once you’ve established that you’re going back in time, you can revert back to the simple past tense."
    She had worried about her sister’s drug problem when their mother died and had taken steps to find a suitable rehab program. But her sister continued to push her away over the years, and eventually, Joann decided to step back from the problem and stay available should her sister need her. She knew how stubborn and independent Julie could be."
  7. Annakrutitskaya Senior Member

    dear Jcat, past perfect is indicating that some action had happened before another action occurred in the past (or for non-continuous verbs it indicated the duration of some event in the past before another event). ""Jim was happy. His ex-wife had been decent enough to him and Sara when they had told him they were involved." I think that here it would be better if you skip past perfect at all. Otherwise, it would mean that his ex-wife had been decent and only afterwards or interrupting her decency they told her something. The word "when" indicated the exact time here, so you need only simple past.

    Same with the second one - both events occur at the same time, so it is simple past.

    In the third sentence you can use both past perfect and simple past after the word "after" because it indicated a certain time and definitely simple past talking about Bob - Bob arrived

    Hope this helps.

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