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Imagine I'm writing a story in past tense. Here come some questions: SENTENCE 1: "Tom simply couldn't imagine how different the world had been when his father was at Tom's age: there hadn't been fancy smart phones, people had appeared to be more altruistic, and the parents wouldn't have had to be worried about their kids being killed at school."

Many pulperfects are used. It looks very clunky to me. I suppose the readers would perfectly understand what I mean if I changed all the pulperfects to simple past, which could be: "Tom simply couldn't imagine how different the world was when his father was at Tom's age: there weren't fancy smart phones, people appeared to be more altruistic, and the parents would have to be worried about their kids being killed at school." Could anyone, especially native speakers, give me some advices? Do you think it's awkward? Or you think although it looks alright, it would convey different meanings?

My second question is about the back shift of subjunctive mood in reported speech. SENTENCE 2 & 3 "Tom always said if he had lived in his father's time, he wouldn't have been able to survive for a week. His father always replied that he had used to say the same thing to Tom's grandpa." Again, for me, they're very cumbersome. I'm not even sure if subjunctive sentences should shift back when they are reported. Can I just write:"Tom always said if he lived in his father's time, he wouldn't be able to survive for a week."? Also, in the 3rd sentence, "had used to" sounds very awkward to me. Can I just write: "His father always replied that he used to say the same thing to Tom's grandpa."?

I've been confused by these grammatical questions, and they really put me off from writing stories in English. I'd really appreciate your advices.

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Your instincts are completely correct. Your "grammatically correct" versions are clunky, awkward, and no fun to read. Your simplified versions are completely idiomatic, smooth, easy, and enjoyable to read. Throw away the rules. Go by your ear. Keep it simple and idiomatic. And keep up the good work! You're a good writer.

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I'm a native speaker, so I can only answer based on personal experience.

For Sentence 1, the sentence reads better to me with the pluperfects changed to simple past. The first version seems to be a bit clunky and choppy. Readers will understand what you're saying here if you keep the rest of this sentence in simple past, too.

For Sentence 2 and 3, you included these two rewritten sentences: "Tom always said if he lived in his father's time, he wouldn't be able to survive for a week." and "His father always replied that he used to say the same thing to Tom's grandpa."

I personally prefer these two sentences. There is no need for "had used to" in the first version of Sentence 3. It only makes the sentences feel awkward. Readers will still understand what you're saying if you keep everything simple past.

Good luck writing! I hope this helped! :)

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I would personally go with pluperfect just once then revert to simple past, the understanding being that simple past was for the duration of the passage standing in for pluperfect:

Tom simply couldn't imagine how different the world had been when his father was at Tom's age: there weren't fancy smart phones, people appeared to be more altruistic, and the parents wouldn't have to be worried about their kids being killed at school.

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  1. One common function of perfects is to shift your reference time. Once you've established the temporal relationship between the current RT and the prior event you're free to move into the prior timeframe as your new RT—the perfect provides an “anchor” to haul yourself back if you need to.

    Police have arrested a suspect in last week’s string of convenience store robberies. They apprehended the suspect as he left a downtown Denver nightclub. He was taken into custody without incident. Arraignment has been scheduled for ten tomorrow morning.

  2. This drifts into off-topic LitCrit, but anyway ... Your sentences are far too solemn, even when you allow yourself more tensual freedom. If you're going to detail Tom's thoughts or conversations, do so in Tom's voice, with a minimum of third-person interference.

    Tom couldn’t imagine how different the world had been when his father was his age: no smartphones, people were altruistic, or at least they seemed to be, parents didn’t worry about their kids getting being killed at school—if he’d lived then he couldn't have lasted a week. And his father would always answer that’s what he used to say to Tom’s grandpa.

    Don’t tell Tom what to say or how to say it; listen to what he has to say for himself.

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