One of the useful tools that can help you tell your story–most often as a novelist, but sometimes as a self-help author–is that you can take the reader backwards and forwards in time. Nothing is quite so boring as simply saying, “He did this, and then he did that, and then he did the next thing.” In real life, things that we do, and events that happen to us, are colored by context, including our memories and our expectations.
You can conjure up a memory for a reader by using the past perfect tense. The past perfect tense indicates an event that has taken place in the past and has been completed. Generally it suggests an event that has taken place before some other event.
For example, “I climbed the mountain” is the simple past. At some undefined time, I climbed the mountain.
Here’s the past perfect: “Before my thirtieth birthday, I had climbed the five highest mountains in the world.” The event(s) took place before some other event.
The past perfect is also used when there is some triggering event. For example, “He saw Robert. He remembered the last time he had seen Robert, at the restaurant. They had eaten dinner together…” and off you go into your trip down memory lane. As long as your reader can keep straight in their heads the time line, you’re OK.
Use the past perfect to provide context, and to fill in information that your reader needs to know about how past events have colored what’s happening now.
– Thomas Hauck is a professional author, ghostwriter, and novel editor.