Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Tense Overview: Past vs. Present

Quite a while ago, I did an overview of the different forms of perspective and tense in which stories are commonly written. Since that time, I’ve done more in-depth looks at each type of perspective and have gone over numerous perspective errors. But what about tense? I never got around to returning to that topic, so let’s do that today.

There are two primary tenses from which stories are written: past and present.

There's a reason "Future" isn't checked: unless you have an amazingly good reason for it, you shouldn't bother trying to write a story in future tense.

I mean it.


Past Tense

Past tense is the most common form of tense in fiction. Stories written past tense are being told as though they have already happened and are being related to the reader after the fact, whether by a character in the story, an omniscient narrator, or an implied, invisible narrator.  Here’s some examples.

     When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt. (from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

     “Good evening,” said Lucy. But the Faun was so busy picking up its parcels that at first it did not reply. When it had finished it made her a little bow.
     “Good evening, good evening,” said the Faun. “Excuse me—I don’t want to be inquisitive—but should I be right in thinking that you are a Daughter of Eve?”
     “My name’s Lucy,” said she, not quite understanding him.
     (from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis)

Advantages of Past Tense

It’s common and familiar: Most stories by far are written in past tense, which means most readers are accustomed to reading it. Past tense presents no barriers to them; anyone can pick up the book and get straight to important things like plot and character. With present tense, on the other hand, readers can often get irritated or confused because the tense feels unfamiliar and foreign. Odds are that the more reading your readers have done, the less they will like present tense.

Believability: Part of the difficulty of present tense is that it is unrealistic—is this character standing here narrating to someone while events happen? Is there some sort of chip in their brain translating their thoughts into diary entries? Past tense, on the other hand, uses a perfectly common convention—that of someone telling the story of something that once happened. “I went to the store this morning, but they were out of the bread I like.” That’s a past tense story that you might hear any day.

Present Tense

Stories written in the present tense are told as though they are currently happening. The most well-known example of this is probably The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:

     “Look what I shot.” Gale holds up a loaf of bread with an arrow stuck in it, and I laugh. It’s real bakery bread, not the flat, dense loaves we make from our grain rations. I take it in my hands, pull out the arrow, and hold the puncture in the crust to my nose, inhaling the fragrance that makes my mouth flood with saliva. Fine bread like this is for special occasions.
     “Mm, still warm,” I say. He must have been at the bakery at the crack of dawn to trade for it. “What did it cost you?”
     “Just a squirrel. Think the old man was feeling sentimental this morning,” says Gale. “Even wished me luck."

Advantages of Present Tense

Immediacy: Stories told in the past tense tend to have a reflective nature, since the narrator presumably knows the whole story and is now telling it from a position of comfort and safety. Present tense stories, however, give the impression that not even the narrator knows what will happen next—readers are seeing everything as it happens, so anything could happen!

Easy flashbacks: In a present tense story, it can be very easy for your readers to keep track of the when of the story if you flash back to earlier events—the majority of the story will be told in present tense, and flashbacks will be told in past tense. Easy to see and follow. In past tense, however, it can be difficult to tell when the author jumps backwards or forward in time. Everything will either sound the same, or the author will be forced to dive into awkward past perfect continuous sense—a complete mess of a task for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

In the future, we’ll take a look at some of the ways that tense errors can crop up in your writing.

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