Thursday, June 4, 2015

Timey-Wimey Tenses: Getting Future Tense Right

Last time we discussed the sixteen different tenses of the English language, all of which you’ve probably used before. Of course, some of them get used more often than others. All of those “future in the past” tenses, for example—those are complicated and strange enough that you surely won’t need to use them often, right?


The future-in-the-past or relative tense is used when speaking of an action or event that will be in the future for a particular person whose actions are being related in past tense. It’s a bit of a convoluted notion, and that’s why many people consider it an obscure tense when they first encounter it—I know I did. But think about it; the vast majority of stories are written in the past tense, right? So if a story is written in past tense, and the author needs to discuss actions that the characters plan to undertake later on in the narrative—in their future but not ours—then the author will need to use the relative tense.

Yes, I am going to use Doctor Who memes for every single post on tense that I ever write. I may even go back to old posts on tense and put pictures of the Doctor in them, because he can go back in time like that.

As it turns out, authors use the relative tense all the time. Here . . . I will grab the nearest book to me and flip through it; I can almost guarantee that I will find some usage of the relative tense. The book is The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (italics added for emphasis):

     The two talked of small matters as they worked. And while they moved around a great deal, it was obvious they were reluctant to finish whatever task they were close to completing, as if they both dreaded the moment when the work would end and the silence would fill the room again.

There you go. The story is told in the past tense—“the two talked” and “they moved around”—but the author needed to refer to a moment that was yet to come for the two characters. The moment is in the future for the characters but not for us, the readers, so the proper tense to use is the relative tense.

I often see errors when it comes to future tense in stories, and it’s usually because writers use the future tense where they should have used the future-in-the-past tense. The mistake might look something like this:

     Callie kept glancing at the clock as she worked. Her shift will finish at five o’clock, and then she will go hunt down the nightbeast.

Callie’s shift finishing and her hunting down the nightbeast are events that are in the future for her, but not for us the readers, since the whole story is in past tense. Therefore, those wills should be woulds:

     Callie kept glancing at the clock as she worked. Her shift would finish at five o’clock, and then she would go hunt down the nightbeast.

Simple as that. Note, however, that if this had been dialog, the normal future tense would have been required. If the narrator is speaking of future events, then you need to use future-in-the-past tense; but the characters themselves still speak of their future in future tense.

     “Callie, you need to take care of this,” Maria insisted.
     Callie glanced at the clock. “My shift will finish at five o’clock, and then I will go hunt down the nightbeast.”

The same rule applies to stories told in the present tense:

     Callie keeps glancing at the clock as she works. Her shift will finish at five o’clock, and then she will go hunt down the nightbeast.

But if you’re writing a story in past tense, keep an eye out for situations where the narrator refers to events that haven’t come yet—these will often require the relative tense.

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