How to use the past perfect to build effective narratives

past perfect narrative useGetting back to some gritty basic English grammar, it struck me that it would be useful to publish some of the tips from The English Tenses Practical Grammar Guide to help with general creative English writing. Though aimed at foreign learners of English, these fundamental building blocks of the language offer some handy tips for anyone trying to master the craft. For example, a solid understanding of the past perfect can be essential to building an effective narrative. The past perfect helps to create atmosphere, feeding new information into a narrative at crucial moments.

The past perfect is mostly used in storytelling to provide background information. A simple, clear main narratives in the past should be based in the simple tense, giving the past perfect the opportunity to provide details of events that happened before the main narrative.

  • Jim arrived at the crime scene. He found a man whose head had been cut clean off.

In this example, the main narrative follows Jim, and when he arrived. The head had been cut off before Jim arrived, so the past perfect is appropriate. We could simple describe the body here (He found a headless body, for example), but the past perfect framing of the action brings to mind what happened here – that this was a scene actively created by someone or something.

This use of the past perfect helps put the subject in a situation before revealing past information that sets the scene. It can establish past events, and add details which were not important enough to explain earlier, or it can help put events in order of discovery for the subject (for instance for tension).

  • We were talking for hours before I realised we had dated the same circus performer.
  • I walked into the shop and immediately ordered the lemon cake. I had already decided that it was a day for lemon.
  • Juliet went into the pantry and was devastated to find that someone had devoured all the croissants.
  • The children opened the door and searched for a light. They flicked the switch, but nothing happened. Someone had removed the bulb.

As a narrative becomes more complex, and you add style to your English writing, the use of the past perfect becomes rather flexible. For example, you may choose to use the past simple after the past perfect has been used once, rather than repeat it.

  • She had been to this area before. It was deserted, that time. There were no people, and certainly no cars. Now, it was vibrant and noisy.

The past simple may also be used instead of the past perfect to represent the subject’s point of view.

  • He wondered if buying this house had been a bad idea.
  • He wondered if buying the house was a bad idea.

Both of these sentences could be seen as correct, though the past perfect emphasises the idea happened before; the past simple version, however, puts us more in the subject’s point of view, making the bad idea seem much more immediate. This is not a hard rule and requires practice to set the scene correctly, but once you start thinking about it, you’ll find all sorts of ways to adapt the past perfect.

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