Following on from my article about using the past perfect to demonstrate sequences, let’s look at how it can build an effective narrative. The past perfect can help create atmosphere, feeding new information into a narrative at more flexible times.
The past perfect is used in storytelling to provide background information. Main narratives in the past are usually in the simple tense, so the past perfect can provide details of events that happened before the main narrative.
- Jim arrived late to the office. He found a colleague had stolen his computer.
In this example, the main narrative follows Jim, and when he arrived. The computer was stolen before Jim arrived, so the past perfect is appropriate.
This use of the past perfect helps put the subject in a situation before revealing past information. It can establish past events, and add details which were not important enough to explain earlier, or it can help put events in order of discovery for the subject (for instance for tension).
- We chatted for hours before I realised we had been in the same class at school.
- I walked into the restaurant and immediately ordered the goulash. I had decided what I wanted on the way.
- Hannah went into the kitchen and was devastated to find that someone had eaten all the pie.
- The children opened the door and looked down the stairs. They flicked the light switch, but there was no light. Someone had removed the bulb.
It is useful to note that as a narrative becomes more complex, and you use more style in your English writing, the use of the past perfect may become more flexible. For example, you may choose to use the past simple after the past perfect has been used once, rather than repeat it.
- She had been to this house before. It was cold, that time, when they played tennis in the courtyard. Now, it seemed different.
The past simple may also be used instead of the past perfect to help represent the subject’s point of view.
- He wondered if eating the burger had been a bad idea.
- He wondered if eating the burger was a bad idea.
Both of these sentences could be seen as correct, though the past perfect emphasises the idea happened before; the past simple version, however, puts us more in the subject’s point of view, making the bad idea seem more immediate. Grammatically, this is not a hard rule and requires practice, and a sense for the style. But it is possible, in case you see such a use from an English speaker!