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I have a question about tenses. Similar issues have been discussed in other threads, but I have a very specific question.

Now, most stories (including the one I'm working on) are written in the past tense - i.e. that is the "default tense", used when talking about what happens as the story unfolds, the "chapter-time" tense. When we need to talk about something that happened earlier, before our current chapter time, like in a flashback, the perfect tense is usually used.

A lot of people seem to find the perfect tense a bit clunky, however, and prefer to stick to the simple past tense as much as possible, but from what I understand, editors are generally quite strict about this rule, and they usually want to see it used also when it's "clear from the context" that we're making a flashback/talking about earlier developments. Apparently, it's rather common when people submit their first script to a professional editor that they get a lot of directions of the form "need perfect tense here!" and are a bit surprised by this.

From what I've read, it seems to be accepted when making a long flashback to slid back into the simple past, but we should then at least have the first sentence in the perfect tense and mark the return to chapter-time clearly, for example by making the last sentence perfect tense again (like closing a parenthesis).

Now, my question is: what if I in the same sentence specify a date or time, or a timewindow etc? Can I skip the perfect tense in that case?

So, for example, should I write:

I looked at the body. It felt unreal. I had spoken with both him and his sister last Friday. Everything had seemed fine. Now he was dead.

or:

I looked at the body. It felt unreal. I spoke with both him and his sister last Friday. Everything seemed fine. Now he was dead.

Or can I use the simple past in any of these sentences?

I'm working on translating a trilogy from Swedish to English, and have some help from an American to polish the language (he's not a professional editor, though, but a voice actor (I want to do audiobooks as well)), and he seems very keen on dropping my usage of the perfect tense in flashbacks, in particular when there's a date or other kind of temporal specification in the same sentence. Since I'm not a native English speaker, I would want a second opinion here.

Thanks!

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  • Who are these editors insisting you use perfect tense in flashbacks? Editors with publishing houses? Your teachers? People selling editing services? The last group will tend to be stricter than professional publishers. There are certainly a lot of books that use the simple past tense for extended flashbacks; some even use the present tense.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 17, 2022 at 20:47
  • In my case, we're talking about a number of different paid editors and one (small) publisher, all Swedish. For English I have no direct experience with professional editors, but I've read in a blog post that authors often get this kind of directions from English editors as well.
    – Dave
    Mar 19, 2022 at 16:40

1 Answer 1

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It is perfectly acceptable to use the simple past tense in the example you give. The past perfect tense (pluperfect) is usually used to indicate an action has happened before another (past simple) action. For example: I had kicked the ball before they went home. Or: She had gone home.

You usually don't need to show this explicitly. You simply indicate the sequence by the order you list the events in.

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  • thanks for the reply. Though the thing with flashbacks is precisely that you don't list events in the order they happened, you make jumps, like in this case, right? One moment I'm looking at a dead body, then I recount how I had spoken to the now dead person some days ago, and how everything was fine then. Then I jump back to chapter time again where he's dead.
    – Dave
    Mar 19, 2022 at 16:55

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