The word pluperfect is reminiscent of the sound effects that come out of a bad guy when Adam West’s Batman hits them. In actuality, pluperfect is the shortened version of a longer Latin phrase (for all you language geeks: plusquamperfect) which means “more than perfect”. It might be simpler to call it past perfect or past past. Pluperfect is a verb tense wherein the verb reflects an action that has occurred previously. If you write your story in the past tense and a moment indicates an action has already taken place, this will be your past perfect.
Past perfect is a crucial tool for every writer it is important to make sure you use it correctly. Similar to past perfect is simple past, which is just a specific way of saying past tense (as past tense has a few other forms). Keep in mind if your novel is in the present tense, any references to events happening before that moment in your story will be in simple past and not past perfect. It’s important to note that the tense of your novel will not change with POV shifts. Your novel’s tense should stay consistent across all different point of view shifts or chapters to avoid confusing the reader.
When you write in past tense, your verb tense will be simple past. Think of it as the first step to past perfect. It only indicates a single action taking place in the past.
Rudy saw a rainbow.
Lena was a gymnast.
Whereas pluperfect piggybacks and adds an extra step backwards, while using the formula Had+ past participle.
Rudy had seen a rainbow.
This example as it currently stands is incomplete for past perfect. It does not provide a point of reference for when Rudy had previously seen the rainbow.
Rudy had seen a rainbow after the last rainstorm.
Past perfect requires that second reference point to indicate a previous point in time from the current moment. Past perfect would work well if you are inserting a flashback that adds flavor text to your MC (probably traumatic) backstory, or even a minor foreshadow point that will come into play later on.
As a writer, it is likely you have used past perfect before and fairly often, but until now it was an amorphous grammar rule you did not think twice about. Or perhaps, you made use of it impartially and created a stress point for your editor. In either case it’s never a bad thing to do something wrong, just that you learn how to do it correctly. The goal as writers and editors is to learn enough to make words and stories function, and a vital aspect of that storytelling process is a consistent timeline. Stories which fail to do so can often feel like reading a script out of order – difficult to follow and impossible to connect to.
Regardless of the overall tense of your story, the effective use of simple past or past perfect is vital to keeping the sequence of events in order for your audience. Pluperfect is a necessary tool for any writer’s toolbox, enabling your novel to maintain a coherent narrative and flourish. Just remember: when you need to put the past in the past, use past perfect.