Which one should be used for a story written in the past tense? Example:

But just as I was about to consider that possibility, I spotted something: a blood-stained feather. It was caught between two strands of grass, a few inches above the ground, beating in wind like a little flag. I knelt down and picked it up. Yes, it definitely belonged to the faceless man. But where had he gone?

Or should I have said, But where did he go, instead? The former I think is gramatically correct, but the seocnd one sounds more natural to me for some reason.


How about this passage?

The room fell quiet again. I regretted bringing up the topic. What was I thinking? Did I really believe she would agree? I gazed out the window.

2 Answers 2


I think "gone" fits better with what you have written. My reasoning is that he had left that area a while before the character had come to this conclusion. If the faceless man had been in the presence of the character, but the character had lost track of him, then I would lean the other way "He'd been there a moment ago, now I was left wondering, where did he go?"

  • Thanks, I incorporated your edits. How about the passage in the EDIT?
    – wyc
    Commented Feb 25, 2014 at 0:37
  • 1
    I find the "Gazed out the window" to be an abrupt change, giving me a bit of mental whiplash. How about something like "I tried to seek refuge from my worries by looking out the window" This allows you to tie the 'thinking' back to the 'physical'. Just my 2 cents. Commented Feb 25, 2014 at 4:16

Both phrasings refer to an action that occurred in the past (his going). The additional nuance you need to consider here is whether the question itself sounds like it occurred in the past. A question that is part of the narrative should sound like a past question, just like the other events you report.

"Where had he gone?" fits in with the past-tense telling of the story. While yes, you could imagine someone asking "where had he gone?" in a present-tense setting, it's not the most natural formation. With "where had he gone?", both the going and the asking are in the past.

"Where did he go", while referring to an action in the past (his going), sounds like a question in the present. "Had gone" is a marker for the past perfect (completed action), while "did go" sounds like a still-current action. (I am desperately reaching for proper grammar terms here and failing. Sorry.)

Consider this example: you're standing on a street corner minding your own business when a suspicious-looking person carrying a bag of money runs past you. Soon after a policeman arrives and asks you about the person he was chasing. What do you think he asks you? Most likely "which way did he go?" -- indicating a current question.

You are telling a story of past events, so you want the question to come across as a past event too, in order to fit in. Therefore, "which way had he gone?" will fit better in your narrative if it is the narrator who's asking the question.

Another approach would be to have a character ask the question (possibly your POV character asking himself mentally); if your character asks the question as a question in the story, then "which way did he go?" would be better because from his point of view the situation is current and active. If you do that, use the standard dialogue markers -- either or both of quotation marks and something like "he wondered" or "he asked himself".

  • Thanks for your feedback. How about the passage in the EDIT?
    – wyc
    Commented Feb 25, 2014 at 0:37
  • @Monica, How is "where had he gone?" even usable in a present-tense setting?
    – Pacerier
    Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 9:18

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