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I always get confused about whether to use past perfect in past tense narrative. Example:

I went back home that weekend to help Mom with our dog's burial. Since we had postponed it, she'd had to find a place to keep him. The house, although spacious, hadn't been an option. Too unsanitary. She'd then thought about shoving him into his house---but no, animals would drag him out and devour him, not to mention the trouble with maggots. The best solution, Mom had decided, was to put him into a stuff sack and hang him on one of the zelkova trees that bordered the yard.

The narrator and her Mom postponed the burial of their dog in an earlier chapter (they did it in Chapter 1 and this excerpt is from Chapter 6). I used had since the mother did all these actions before this chapter (Chapter 6) and when the MC wasn't at home. This makes sense to me grammatically, but I feel the passage is awkward with all those had's. And this makes me wonder if I'm using too many or whether I can omit some.

How to deal with past perfect in past tense narrative? When is it necessary and when it can be omitted?

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When I find myself typing had too many times I treat it as a symptom of either too much exposition, too much laboured logic, or too much effort invested in justifying the 'now'. At this point I've probably delved (as you have) into negative storytelling, and probably deviated too far from plot or character.

First thing I look at is whether I should go back and make the thing happen in the proper timeline. Rather than say 'she had painted her face blue' in chapter 5, can I say 'she painted her face blue' back in chapter 3? Or can I just cut it all and say, 'Sheila showed up with a blue face, and I never found out why.' Or can I use character to explain the state of things. 'Sheila showed up with a painted blue face, and warned me not to discuss the football results until she could get it all off.'

In your case. Does the reader really need to know how the dog ended up hanging from a tree? In this case I suspect they do, so retell it in a more immediate fashion. e.g.

I went back home that weekend to help Mom with our dog's burial. I found him in a stuff sack hanging on one of the zelkova trees that bordered the yard.

'What the heck, Mom?' I said.

'I was worried about flies, and pests, and I don't know what. What am I supposed to do?'

  • Thanks a lot! I never thought of that. (Good thing I asked. I thought I was the only writer in the world who had this problem.) – Alexandro Chen Nov 1 '15 at 10:43
  • I "had" exactly one past perfect paragraph in my (ridiculously long) last manuscript. It was awful. It was necessary, I think, because of a time frame shift. If forced to do it, I learned two valuable lessons: 1) Read it out loud about ten times to make sure it sounds right. You're usually going to wind up combining with future tense, among others: "If I had known then what I know now, I would never have done that." Yuk! 2) Don't repeat the word HAD (I.e., "had had"). As per your example, use a contraction with the first "had" to improve readability. – Stu W Nov 3 '15 at 1:57

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