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18 November 2005 @ 04:45 pm
a little grammar geeking  
For writers:

When you're writing a story in simple past tense (had), and you want to use past perfect (had had), what guidelines do you follow? For example, say that you begin a story in medias res in simple past tense, and then you want to establish some backstory before returning to the current scene--when you switch to past perfect for those previous events, do you strictly maintain it even if the passage of writing goes on for several pages, or do you at some point switch to simple past for previous events, on the assumption that the reader will intuitively be able to shift gears as needed? Do you edit yourself if you catch yourself switching tenses like that? Or do it consciously and try to be unobtrusive?

If you're writing a story at length that alternates between two timelines, do you use the verb tenses as a way to demarcate each section, or is that consideration irrelevant to how you want to structure the story?

For readers:

How comfortable are you with a writer switching from simple past to past perfect--what kind of guidelines do you like to see maintained? What throws you out of a story?
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Mireille: writingmireille719 on November 19th, 2005 12:53 am (UTC)
If it's a lengthy passage, I usually switch to simple past at some point, and make sure that when I'm done with the backstory bit, I transition back to the main action with something that's going to signal it to the readers.

No one's ever complained, including my quite thorough beta readers, so I've stuck with it.
Anna S.: cupcakeseliade on November 19th, 2005 05:35 am (UTC)
Cool--this seems to be the general consensus, and I am relieved. :)
WesleysGirlwesleysgirl on November 19th, 2005 12:55 am (UTC)
or do you at some point switch to simple past for previous events, on the assumption that the reader will intuitively be able to shift gears as needed?

I think this is what I SHOULD do, although I tend to cling stubbornly to the past perfect, which I feel becomes tedious and is probably unnecessary after the first two sentences or so.

As a reader, I think I'd probably prefer that as well -- a switch to past perfect to demarcate the "time zone" of the story, then a return to simple past after the first few sentences, but I also think that it really, really depends on the individual story being told.
Anna S.: confessionseliade on November 19th, 2005 05:37 am (UTC)
I think this is what I SHOULD do, although I tend to cling stubbornly to the past perfect, which I feel becomes tedious and is probably unnecessary after the first two sentences or so.

I obssess like that over so many things. Like: Oh my god am I mixing contractions and non-contractions?! Plus I have a really disturbing need to left-justify my documents and yet at the same time try to balance all the line lengths. Someday you will see me in the park, lining up birdseed in carefully parallel rows on the sidewalk for the pigeons.
grime and livestockcofax7 on November 19th, 2005 12:58 am (UTC)
On the switch, I've gone to past perfect for no more than a sentence or two, and then switched back to past. It's too complicated to phrase otherwise.
Anna S.: cat_chickeneliade on November 19th, 2005 05:39 am (UTC)
Thank you! By the way, the guy hanging like a sticky insect on the wall in your icon is very inspiring. I mean, he's just hanging there...forever. Unable to go up further, unable to climb back down, paralyzed by photography.... Did I say "inspiring"? o.O I must have a crumpet now and sit down for a bit.
(no subject) - iamsab on November 19th, 2005 07:42 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - eliade on November 19th, 2005 10:52 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cofax7 on November 19th, 2005 05:09 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - eliade on December 12th, 2005 02:48 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cofax7 on December 12th, 2005 03:18 am (UTC) (Expand)
after me, the deluge: beauty and king dorkiamsab on November 19th, 2005 01:06 am (UTC)
a Story in Past Tense
What mireille said. I usually do it once, up top, to set the time: "Sheppard had had genius boyfriends before," but then switch to simple past after getting it all laid out, so I don't end up with a paragraph all choked up with helping verbs.

So it's, "Sheppard had had genius boyfriends before. He had dated a kid in college named Marco who graduated at fifteen from an International magnet school and moved out to California to build microchips for tech firms that paid Hollywood sitcom star salaries. Marco took Advanced Aeronautical Engineering as an elective and sat next to John in the back row, doodling pictures of airplanes John had no doubt Marco knew how to build and fly in his spare time. On Marco's sixteenth birthday, he won a grant from Intel and flew off for a semester to build things he couldn't even see without a microscope. John sketched his own pictures of planes and fell asleep remembering the shape of Marco's sleek, teenaged body wrapped in his arms.

Rodney was a genius too, but Rodney liked to build things he could see and therefore hold up to show other people. At ten o'clock, before their morning staff meeting, John kissed Rodney square on the mouth. Then he went inside and got a good seat and left Rodney in the corridor, trembling and shellshocked and red-faced and, undoubtedly, erect. John liked it when Rodney built stuff he could see."
Anna S.: john pretty!eliade on November 19th, 2005 01:08 am (UTC)
Re: a Story in Past Tense
Jesus God. ... Can we talk about grammar some more?
Re: a Story in Past Tense - iamsab on November 19th, 2005 01:14 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: a Story in Past Tense - eliade on November 19th, 2005 01:17 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: a Story in Past Tense - iamsab on November 19th, 2005 01:28 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: a Story in Past Tense - eliade on November 19th, 2005 01:31 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: a Story in Past Tense - bibliokat on November 19th, 2005 05:26 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: a Story in Past Tense - yin_again on November 19th, 2005 01:11 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: a Story in Past Tense - iamsab on November 19th, 2005 01:32 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: a Story in Past Tense - yin_again on November 19th, 2005 01:08 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: a Story in Past Tense - alizarin_nyc on November 19th, 2005 03:54 am (UTC) (Expand)
Explicit Adult Content? You're soaking in it!: word whore foryourdionlyyin_again on November 19th, 2005 01:10 am (UTC)
I drop into past perfect for the first sentence or two of the flashback, then transition into simple past. When I return to the initial timeline, I try to make it obvious that I'm coming out of the flashback.
Anna S.: polarbeareliade on November 19th, 2005 05:41 am (UTC)
*nods* I like to use blinky text for that. *g*
(no subject) - yin_again on November 19th, 2005 01:09 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Carla: hell of a lover (liviapenn)beledibabe on November 19th, 2005 01:11 am (UTC)
Several of my published friends follow the rule of thumb of switching to past perfect for two to three sentences, then slipping back into simple past for the remainder of the flashback section. Give a clue when returning to the current narrative.
Anna S.: jack oneilleliade on November 19th, 2005 05:43 am (UTC)
Good to know! I will follow where the published authors lead. I mean, as long as they're stopping for coffee.
(no subject) - beledibabe on November 19th, 2005 06:20 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
Anna S.: jack-blackeliade on November 19th, 2005 05:44 am (UTC)
Thank you! Also, I hi-five your turkey.
Herself_nycherself_nyc on November 19th, 2005 01:35 am (UTC)
Oy. That 'had had' is such a bugbear. I will start with it and then drop it if the flashback goes on for a while, and hope that I can make it clear otherwise when the flashback ends.
Anna S.: rodney-happy-smileeliade on November 19th, 2005 05:45 am (UTC)
I should have made this a poll! :D
do you want orcs? because this is how you get orcs: VK: So very Wrongkita0610 on November 19th, 2005 01:40 am (UTC)
*sigh*

I have a story that contains past, present and future. I'm thinking of using flashing neon signs.

Also, this is the second comment thread this week in which Atreyu from the Never Ending Story has been referenced as 'hot'. I AM ASHAMED because omg it is true HE IS LIKE ELEVEN!
after me, the deluge: flirt little french boyiamsab on November 19th, 2005 02:27 am (UTC)
we're all going to the special hell
He may BE, but he is ABSURDLY hot. Several months ago there was a picture circulating of the actor as he looks today. Suffice it to say he is SIMILARLY dangerously hot. And if I could remember his name...something with a B?...I'd reGoogle for the picture now.
Re: we're all going to the special hell - eliade on November 19th, 2005 05:07 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: we're all going to the special hell - iamsab on November 19th, 2005 05:14 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: we're all going to the special hell - eliade on November 19th, 2005 05:21 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: we're all going to the special hell - flambeau on November 19th, 2005 10:10 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: we're all going to the special hell - eliade on November 19th, 2005 10:52 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: we're all going to the special hell - flambeau on November 19th, 2005 10:56 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: we're all going to the special hell - eliade on November 19th, 2005 10:59 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - eliade on November 19th, 2005 05:47 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - kita0610 on November 19th, 2005 05:51 am (UTC) (Expand)
Malkin Greymalkingrey on November 19th, 2005 02:23 am (UTC)
The way I usually manage the backstory switch within a simple-past narrative is to start out by using the past perfect, then switching to simple past after a few sentences. (How many? It varies. But it shouldn't take more than three or four verbs, if that, to establish the switch.) Nailing down the past-ness of the backstory with a few adverbs or phrases of time (yesterday; last year; back when whatever-condition obtained; and so forth) also helps.

If I'm alternating two or more timelines within a story, I do the main narrative for each timeline in the simple past and rely on other means of keeping the timelines straight. It can be done typographically -- setting one timeline in italics and the other in roman would be the most common example. Or it can be done by the simple and straightforward method of heading each section with the relevant date. (I'm all for the straightforward method, myself. If there's no thematic or symbolic point to be made by leaving the reader to fight with the text . . . why not put up clear signposts?)

A lot of the time, though, context alone will suffice to distinguish between the two timelines, and once you've established that the story will be moving back and forth between them, the reader will be able to keep track of the changes.
Anna S.: kitteneliade on November 19th, 2005 05:49 am (UTC)
(I'm all for the straightforward method, myself. If there's no thematic or symbolic point to be made by leaving the reader to fight with the text . . . why not put up clear signposts?)

I agree. When I think of the all the unnecessary italics and dashes and ellipses and, quite possibly, commas I used when I started writing, (,,,,) I...well, I try not to think of them. *g*
(no subject) - eliade on November 19th, 2005 05:50 am (UTC) (Expand)
raqsraqs on November 19th, 2005 02:31 am (UTC)
i think past perfect is too hard for more than a few lines. if i were to switch extensively back and forth between timeframes, i would find some other device to demarcate the switch.
but that's just me.
Anna S.: sydney-bristoweliade on November 19th, 2005 05:51 am (UTC)
Thanks! :)
cathexyscathexys on November 19th, 2005 02:32 am (UTC)
reader only: it annoys me when past perfect slips. if the passage is too long to maintain past perfect it makes sense to have a few intro sentences to establish past perfect and then slide into past tense, but i see a lot of people move back and forth which just really bugs me :-)
Anna S.: harry-pottereliade on November 19th, 2005 05:58 am (UTC)
Yeah, quick tense switches rarely work that well. And I'm always thrown by one of the few switches that's actually correct--when you're using past tense, but a fact remains current and true, like:

I walked into Smallville along Main Street, noticing the changes that had taken place over the years. Houses had been torn down, new ones built. There were new roads too, and the dreaded strip malls that plagued every town. The Snake River runs through the center of town just as it did when I was growing up along its banks, but it has dried up to a trickle.

...I think I've written that right.
(no subject) - cathexys on November 19th, 2005 06:10 am (UTC) (Expand)
Painfully perkyicarusancalion on November 19th, 2005 03:19 am (UTC)
I would want a clear transition, and I usually expect a new paragraph for the shift in tense.

Icarus
Anna S.: tas-devileliade on November 19th, 2005 05:58 am (UTC)
That's a good thought to keep in mind--thanks! :)
caia: Sinfest Evil Signalthisficklemob on November 19th, 2005 04:02 am (UTC)
I'm not sure which I do, but my instinct says that I maintain past perfect when I maintain a connection to the current (past tense) character. So if I'm staying with somebody remembering or flashing back, then I stay with the past perfect (I think of it as pluperfect, if it's the same thing, because of French) to maintain their perspective. If, on the other hand, I'm really venturing back into that time, then I probably do slip back into the past tense after a sentence or two. (You could think of it as the historical present, except it's the historical past.) And with longer sections I think I definitely switch to past, because the pluperfect is, as you say, too clunky to maintain for long.

And I think if an entire section is going back to a previous time, as in in medias res, then it can be in the past tense the entire time, as long as it's clearly demarcated... by line breaks or chapter breaks and contextual clues... then you don't really need the pluperfect at all.
Anna S.: rodney-sheikeliade on November 19th, 2005 06:03 am (UTC)
(I think of it as pluperfect, if it's the same thing ... You could think of it as the historical present, except it's the historical past.)

Verbs confuse me! This is my confession. All of grammar confuses me. I've forgoten the names and rules for everything. As an editor, I am a fraud. Thank god for reference books. Plus the thesaurus is about one-fifth of my auxiliary brain these days.

When I start wearing my pajamas to work and forgetting where I put the coffee that is in my hand, you guys will still stick with me, right? ...eesh.
(no subject) - thisficklemob on November 19th, 2005 06:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cathexys on November 19th, 2005 06:15 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - ratcreature on November 19th, 2005 11:17 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cathexys on November 19th, 2005 06:57 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - thisficklemob on November 19th, 2005 06:42 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cathexys on November 19th, 2005 06:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - thisficklemob on November 20th, 2005 03:03 am (UTC) (Expand)
This Space Intentionally Left Blankbarkley on November 19th, 2005 06:20 am (UTC)
Well, today I was reading this story and it went kind of like this:

Don had a gun and he looked hot and then he spoke to more people who agreed that he looked hot.
THE REST OF THE STORY WILL BE TOLD FROM CHARLIE'S POV
Charlie did this, that, and pi. Then he sequenced with the best of them.


That bold notation there kind of threw me out.
inappropriately bibliophilicraucousraven on November 19th, 2005 07:42 am (UTC)
...Okay, that was all-over amusing. Like Larry!
(no subject) - cofax7 on November 19th, 2005 05:12 pm (UTC) (Expand)