Margaret from Exeter is having trouble with the pluperfect (even if she may not realise that’s where the problem lies): I’ve been told my flashbacks are clunky to read because I use too many hads, but if I’m already using the past tense for the main story, how else am I going to show that I’ve gone even further back? Is there another way to show that other than using had?
Let’s look at the definition of pluperfect in English: It denotes an action completed prior to some past point of time specified or implied, formed by using had and the past participle, as in he had wanted to meet her, but she had already left.
As a flashback shows action completed prior to the time she is writing about using the past tense, this definitely qualifies as a reason to use the pluperfect. So, Margaret is absolutely right in using it, but her friends are also right: overuse can be clunky and distancing to read.
If we look at this short passage, you’ll see what I mean.
Michael had wanted to see for himself that Janet was meeting another man. He had sat at a corner table of the pub where he had been certain he could not be seen and had waited for over an hour before Janet had appeared. She had been alone when she came in. She had gone straight to the bar. As she had sipped her drink, a man had come in and had stood next to her.
When going into flashback it is important to signal it so that the reader is aware of what is happening, so using the pluperfect in the opening sentence is fine. However, to avoid the clunky feel, you should switch to the simple past tense as soon as possible.
Michael had wanted to see for himself that Janet was meeting another man. He sat at a corner table where he couldn’t be seen and waited for over an hour before Janet appeared. She was alone when she came in and went straight to the bar. As she sipped her drink, a man came in and stood next to her.
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