In my manuscript-appraising life, I’m prone to slashing and burning when it comes to the pluperfect tense – cuts here, red lines there – I think it should only ever be used sparingly. I know that when they teach you grammar in school, they tell you that the pluperfect is the tense to use when you are talking about the distant past – I had been, rather than I was, but I like my stories to be more immediate than that: I don’t want to be reading about things which seem remote from me, what I’m after is a sense of current engagement. I prefer to use the perfect – I have been, the simple past – I was, or even the zingy present – I am. I’m also wary of any grammatical construction that burdens a sentence with additional words – had and have can weigh your prose down unnecessarily. I’m not saying never use the pluperfect: it can be fantastic for adding dimension to your narrative of the past and for giving a sense of perspective, but once in a scene is probably enough, there’s no need for reinforcement.
If you want an exercise to help you explore the effect on your writing of using various tenses, try this: I’ll jot down four first lines below to get you started on four different paragraphs – they don’t have to be related in any way. Just continue in the tense in which I’ve started and when you have finished read them through and see what effect they have on pace, tension, accessibility and immediacy.
- It had been a cold winter and I hadn’t seen our neighbour for more than a month.
- I have been meaning to write, honestly, I have.
- The beeping stopped, the monitor flatlined, the nurse checked for vital signs.
- The child is inching along the wall, heel to toe, trembling; he cannot reach her.
You might also try constructing a sentence that uses all four tenses, just to see how muscular your prose needs to be in order to accommodate that kind of movement.
I’d be interested to hear how you get on…