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The Dreaded “had had” Construction

I have heard that some agents/editors will immediately reject a manuscript either written in present tense (due to their personal preferences) or with inconsistent use of tense (based on the assumption of poor editing).

The latter (inconsistency of tense) may be attributable to the fact that, when writing in past tense, you are fairly restricted to four basic past tense forms. But when writing in the present tense, you have eight — the four basic present tense forms plus the original four past tense forms — because narrating in present tense does not remove the need to reference something that happened in the past. This leaves you with a lot of grammatical forms to mix and match, but it can potentially lead to confusion regarding what tense is being used for the primary narration.

When narrating in past tense, you have the following options:

(The majority of the narration will be in these two forms.)

1) Simple past: “He had a good time.”

2) Past progressive: “He was having a good time.”

Then you have your references to the “past within the past,” aka the dreaded “had had” construction.

3) Past perfect: “He had had a good time.”

4) Past perfect progressive: “He had been having a good time.”

Narration uses the last two forms when talking about the story’s past, ie something that happened in the story prior to the point in time currently being narrated.

Please note that this is different than going into a full-on flashback. For a true flashback, the reader travels with the narrator back to that moment, and the tense can either be kept the same as the regular narration (requiring a very clear delineation of when the flashback starts and ends) or else changed (eg primary narration in past tense, flashback in present tense, or vice versa) for effect, in order to emphasize the change. This is very different than a reference to the past, which I like to call a “thought-back.”

When using present tense narration, you have the following four options in addition to the four already listed above:

(These are now the primary forms being used by the narrator.)

1) Simple present: He has a good time.

2) Present progressive: He is having a good time.

So then one might assume that the following forms are now being used to refer to the “past of the present,” ie anything that happened prior to the present point in time being narrated.

3) Present perfect: He has had a good time.

4) Present perfect progressive: He has been having a good time.

One might also assume that converting a piece written in past tense to make it present tense is a simple matter of exchanging all past forms to their present equivalent.

In my next blog, I will take a short paragraph from my current WIP and demonstrate why the above assumption is inaccurate, why some agents/editors might assume the author is being inconsistent with tense when they really aren’t, and suggest some solutions for how to edit a piece currently written in past tense into a true present tense form.

For more information on use of different tenses, “Grammar Girl’s” blog was particularly helpful. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/present-tense-novel.aspx

Did you learn anything helpful from this post? As always, feel free to comment.

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2013 in Writing

 

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