My question is about using "had" and "had been" in a complex sentence. A character is flashing back over something that happened about an hour ago, and I write:

"I had been seconds away from leaving the room when the door had suddenly opened as if by a divine force."

Is it correct to use "had been" in the first part of the sentence and then "had" in the second? Or should I use simple past tense in the latter part, as follows:

"I remembered that I had been seconds away from leaving the room when suddenly the door opened as if by a divine force."

PS. I'm not simply writing in past tense, "I was seconds away from leaving the room when the door opened..." because my character is having a sort of flashback about what happened a while ago. Thus the use of "had" to indicate that this all happened before, rather than in the present moment where the character is just ruminating over it.

1 Answer 1


The simple past, "...suddenly opened...", is correct.

For tenses in dialogue, we're just dealing normal speech, rather than having to adjust for the narrative simple past of the story itself. Ignoring the narrative past makes things much simpler, because we can just answer the question as if we're talking in real life.

When we use the past perfect in real life, we're always talking about a time before some simple past time. If there's no simple past time, then past perfect is incorrect.

In this line of dialogue, "being seconds away from leaving" is the time before the door opened. The door opening is the event the speaker is focusing on, so it's the simple past event.

It's possible to use more than one past perfect verb to create context for the simple past portion, but in those situations you'd use "and" instead of "when" to keep the time in the past perfect:

I had been seconds away from leaving the room and the door had suddenly opened as if by a divine force. Sickers the Goblin King was standing in the doorway, and my heart dropped.

  • I disagree. The example isn't common, but it is perfectly possible, if the "story time" is later than both the intention to leave the room, and the door flying open. In narrative, the "simple past time" may be the time that the narrator is notionally telling the story from, which may not be a time when anything in particular happens in the story.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 16, 2022 at 15:10
  • @ColinFine Do you think it's correct with "when", or would "and" make it more natural?
    – gotube
    Jun 16, 2022 at 15:13
  • I see no problem with when. If the narrator uses and, they are telling a series of events. If they use when, they are telling of one event (the opening of the door), in the past from their "story time", and adding a subsidiary prior event to the narration.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 16, 2022 at 15:16

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