Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Using the Past Perfect ... i.e. What Happened Before the Other Thing Happened

A few months ago, I received feedback from an editor on a manuscript I submitted. She asked if I would change at least half of the highlighted passive verbs and replace them with more active, descriptive verbs. To my overwhelming dismay, I found over 1,000 highlights and realized I really faced an eye-popping, finger-cramping task.

Now, the thing is that a good many of these involved the past perfect and wouldn't be necessarily labeled passive, but can make writing a bit cluttered when overdone. This is where I move on over into my teacher mode and say that if used wisely and sparingly, the past perfect is an effective tool.

It can introduce a flashback without using trite, boring phrases such as "It was several weeks ago" or "I remember the time when". For instance, "Mary had buried the shoebox under the oak tree. She died the next winter and we realized that her secret might never be told. But then, Max dug a hole to bury his bone and found the box, which he carried proudly in his mouth to the front door..."

Note, I only used the past perfect -- had buried -- once, and then the rest of the verbs remained in the past tense. It does the job and remains clear and tight.

Now, if you are using the verb "to have" -- I have, I have had, I had had; or "to be" -- I was, I had been, then you probably want to change all or most of them to more descriptive and concise verbs. For example, "he had the answer to her problem" could easily be replaced with "he discovered the answer to her problem." Or ... "the bird had a wingspan of at least five feet" could be changed to "the bird carried a wingspan of at least five feet."

I think that it takes practice to defeat the use of "lazy" passive verbs. Sometimes, like in my case, you might not even realize you are using them. Do a word search and tally them up, then toss a good deal of them out! Your writing and stories will thank you :-)

Happy writing!

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