Writers are faced with lots of choices when it comes to writing, especially so when writing a novel – things like choosing the right characters, the right themes to enhance the plot, choosing the right setting, and even choosing the right beginning and ending. But there’s one thing that still make many writers stumble, and that is making the right choice of tenses.
Getting the tenses right is essential for ensuring the writer gets the most from his or her story. If told in the wrong tense, or written with a lack of understanding and knowledge of tenses, the result will be dreadful. Get the tense right, however, and everything falls into place.
This begs the essential question. How do I know which tense to use?
Whatever the tense, there are advantages and disadvantages.
Most novels are written in past tense. It’s the easiest and most expressive tense to work with, but there are novels written in present tense, too, which is less expressive and more difficult to get to grips with.
Of course, once you have chosen whether your story is past or present tense, you have to maintain that tense throughout the story. And that’s when the trouble starts. Past tense is easy, but present tense almost always makes writers begin tangling their tenses.
So what exactly is tense?
Tense refers to the way a verb ends (usually –ed for past tense and –s for present tense, for instance, ‘He started the car’ is past tense and ‘He starts the car’ is present. This is why your story will either be written in past tense or present tense, using first person or third person, for example:First person past tense – ‘I knew from her expression she hated it...’
First person present tense – ‘I know from her expression she hates it’
Third person past tense – ‘He knew from her expression she hated it’.
Third person present tense – ‘He knows from her expression she hates it’.
Consider this excerpt, taken from my short story Voices (published 2012):
The stench of humanity poured from open pores in Deckert’s skin, but no matter how many times he wiped his face and hands, the clammy discharge wouldn’t go, and in his frayed mind, the glistening perspiration looked more like streaks of blood.
The description is past tense, thus allowing more emotion and imagery. Not only that, but there is no authorial voice to intrude the narrative. If I had written it in present tense, it would look and read very differently:
The stench of humanity pours from open pores in Deckert’s skin, but no matter how many times he wipes his face and hands, the clammy discharge will not go, and in his frayed mind, the glistening perspiration looks more like streaks of blood.
While the integrity of the example hasn’t changed, the structure and readability has. The narrative voice is a little more intrusive and the emotional effect is lessened.
The point here is that the writer must choose the right tense in order to create the right effect for the reader.
Should tenses change?
There will be occasions where the tense should change, for instance, to show something from the past such as a memory or flashback. This is quite permissible in present tense stories, because by its definition, a recollection of actions in the past has to be written in past tense. This is known as past pluperfect tense.
There are other times when writers have used both present tense and past tense in novels. This works if they are treated separately, i.e. by new scenes or new chapters, but tenses should never become mixed in the same scenes/chapters, and of course this happens all the time when writers attempt present tense, particularly first person present tense.
Problems with Present Tense
Present tense is difficult to write over an entire work because it has a tendency to fool the writer into slipping into past tense without even realising. That’s because some sentence structures can blur the distinction between what is present and what is past, for instance:
I climbed the stairs, aware of how dim the hallway was, and I slowly walked to number 109, feeling wary yet excited to meet her, knowing this is the moment I’m waiting for.
The error with this example lies in the fact that it’s inconspicuous. The tense changes halfway through the sentence from being first person past tense to first person present tense with, ‘...this is the moment I’m waiting for’. It’s that easy to slip from one tense to another, without realising.
The present tense also limits and suppresses the creation of suspense, tension, emotions and atmosphere, because the main character is restricted – he or she cannot possibly know what will happen or what is around the corner (which can be done in past tense), what character B is doing lurking on the stairs, because the writer is working with ‘I’. Everything is done from the main character’s viewpoint, so it’s impossible for that character to have any knowledge of future events in the story. It limits the range of expression and emotion that would otherwise be explored in third person past tense. That is why present tense is more difficult to tackle than past tense. But if it’s so problematic, is present tense actually useful?
It’s well known that present tense creates ‘immediacy’. That’s because the main character is the narrator, and the reader is right there with the main character, sharing all those personal thoughts and points of view. This is why present tense works wonderfully for short stories – it’s more personal and intense.
Present tense can also enhance characterisation because by virtue of the narration, because everything is seen through the eyes of the main character. Similarly, present tense is also a good way for the writer to drive the story forward, through the main character’s actions, dialogue and thoughts.
Is Past Tense Better?
It would be wise to write in the past tense until you gain more confidence writing present tense.
Past tense allows the writer to explore everything; it allows the viewpoint to change from character to character, this allowing the reader to become privy to all manner of things, it allows them to share the information from characters, to see what lies ahead in the story, to become involved in the emotions, conflicts, atmosphere, suspense, action and tension.
Past tense makes it possible to explore. That’s because the events of the story have happened in a short determinable past, hence past tense. Present tense cannot tell the events in any other way but the present, the now.
The thing to remember with past tense is that writers make fewer mistakes. And that’s because it’s almost impossible to jump from past to present in the same sentence and context, in contrast to how easy it is to slip from present to past to present again.
So, when you consider the story you want to write, make sure you write it in the tense that best tells your story and conveys exactly what you want it to say, but don’t attempt a full length novel in first person unless you know precisely how to handle tenses.
Next week: Some grammar rules can be broken