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Past Perfect Tense and Dialogue

The word “had” represents the past perfect tense. When editing internal dialogue, we usually want the reader to go back in time with the character’s memory and experience the event as present. To do this, leave the first “had” in the dialogue. Then remove most or all of the other uses of “had” in that memory. Here is a before and after.

Seeing the gaping wound on his leg reminded me of the night Jim had been in a terrible fight on the beach. We had just laid our blanket out on the sand and had just unpacked our picnic basket when a group of drunken teens had staggered over and had started shouting obscenities at us. Then they had started to push Jim around. Suddenly, one had pulled out a knife.

Seeing the gaping wound on his leg reminded me of the night Jim had been in a terrible fight on the beach. We laid our blanket out on the sand and unpacked our picnic basket. A group of drunken teens staggered over and shouted obscenities at us. Suddenly one pulled out a knife.

Not the most fascinating writing, but you see my point. Which one has more impact and makes you feel as if you were there? Also, look at the difference in length: 70 words versus 53 words. Notice I also used what we learned in the first exercise and removed “started” and the infinitive “started to push.”

Your Assignment

Now go to your first chapter. Use your find tool and type in the word “had.” Again, be sure to put a space after the d. Check all your internal dialogue and remove any unnecessary uses of “had.”

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