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The infamous 'had'
Posted: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 11:00 PM
So, in several cases throughout my novel... I use the word had... in sentences like:

"They had made quicker work of this leg than was good for them."

"The squat man had removed Locklin's coin purse."

"but the man to his right had tensely gripped"

With all of these, critiquers have mentioned that I should remove the "had" because it is unnecessary, and yet it is indicating an action that happened, not one that is happening... Am I making a grave grammar error? Or is it necessary to put words like had and then and just in the text occasionally?

Marshall R Maresca
Posted: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 11:58 PM
Joined: 3/7/2011
Posts: 56

It's not a grammatical error. However, stylistically, using the past perfect tense is considered by many to be less than ideal. It doesn't need to be struck from your writing completely, but it's a tool that should be used judiciously.

Past perfect (as well as past progressive & past perfect progressive) are like adverbs in that way. And some writing advice tells you to avoid it, and therefore you will get critiques that tell you to remove it.

The biggest problem with using past perfect is it tends to make your prose less active. That's the key thing to be aware of. (Note also, past perfect/past progressive is NOT the same thing as "passive voice". Which you should also use only judiciously.)

Posted: Friday, June 3, 2011 1:21 PM
Joined: 3/11/2011
Posts: 157

The word "had" performs a necessary role in writing. A story is generally written in the past tense. So when making a reference to something that occurs further in the past, the past perfect indicates to the reader that the event was further back in time.

He checked his pockets. He'd (he had) forgotten his cell phone when he left the house.

He stood outside the gates of the prison where he had been visiting his father since he was six.

The bigger problem I see when editing work is that everyone is telling everyone to take out "had" without stopping to consider if it is needed for a sentence to actually make sense. If the "had" is being used to show that something happened before we hit the moment we're at in the story, then removing the had can create confusion.

But if you are finding the need to use "had" too often, you may be writing the wrong scenes. The passiveness associated with "had" comes about because often it is used when a character is reflecting back on an action, rather than acting on the action. This means the writer isn't actually presenting the heart-pounding action to the reader but rather getting the character to a slow part and having him reflect back on the action. That isn't something you generally want to do.

Now there are always exceptions. If you're writing mysteries or detective fiction, you may need scenes where your detective investigates a crime scene after the event and considers what has happened there in the past. But even then, a writer develops techniques to make sure these scenes don't slow down the book.

Robert C Roman
Posted: Friday, June 10, 2011 12:02 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

Beware the bandersnatch....

OK, that sounds a lot better than what I was going to say, which was "Beware people parroting 'always' and 'never' advice they've received, but look to the root of that advice for why they received it in the first place."

In this case, I think Marie mostly plugs it, and I would add this: there are times when you must balance the inclusion of too many slow scenes vs. too many scene-slowing 'hads' in your fast paced scene.

To put it another way, if you can show the things that inform the action in a slow scene that has some character building purpose, you don't need the 'had' in the fast scene. The best example I can think of at this moment is Brust's Vlad Taltos novels. In the slow moving 'talking in the office' scenes, Vlad is constantly (in the background to the conversation) loading up his pockets and sleeves and pant legs and boots and underwear and orifices with sharp bits of mayhem. When the action scene rolls around, there is no need for Brust to say 'He had hidden a dagger in his sleeve'. Instead, he just starts dispensing little bits of hurt in all directions.

Of course, then you run the risk of losing your audience in the slow scenes, but if you make them engaging from a character perspective, the reader might not notice the scene has no mayhem occuring.
Lisa Hoekstra
Posted: Friday, June 10, 2011 5:15 PM
Joined: 5/10/2011
Posts: 89

Could it be the mere presence of the entire word that is throwing people off? I feel like everyone commonly contracts had with the noun "They'd run a mile" rather than "They had run a mile"

Maybe mix it up with a few contractions... or is that not good in manuscripts? Do you use contractions in novels?
Posted: Friday, June 10, 2011 6:58 PM
Joined: 3/11/2011
Posts: 157

Yep, I use contractions in novels. There are times when the 'd can confuse people, but then they often say "what's this" instead of "don't use had." The problem is that people are often passing along information they've heard but haven't completely understood or perhaps didn't hear in context. It's really just part of the writing group syndrome that comes about with everything from adverbs to any version of the "was" verbs.

What happens is that somewhere along the line someone is told they overuse had. So they join a writing group and see someone use had, and they pass along the warning that they were told not to use it. Then that person tells someone. And the next person. And then it just becomes standard writing group advice. The problem is that the reason behind the original writer hearing the advice has long been lost in history.
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Saturday, August 27, 2011 11:47 PM
The thing about “had” when used to indicate something in the past, as against possessive, is that it can only come from the author, because it takes the reader into the past of the current scene, where the character can’t go.

So if I say, John had always loved Sally it’s me, interjecting a comment, and stopping the scene clock, If you’re telling your story as if you’re sitting with the reader talking, that works. But if you’re telling it in the character’s POV it’s a POV break every time the author intrudes. And that stops the scene clock and kills the scene's momentum. It takes a little doing, but you can place it in the character's present. Instead of telling the reader that John had been in love with Susan in college, the sight of her might trigger memories and thoughts about possibly making a mistake in breaking off the relationship, bringing into into his POV.


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