First off, welliewalks’ comment last week about setting a goal to get something published before the next school year gave me an idea: how nice if you would post your publishing triumphs here so we can all bask in the reflected glory. Please do!
Now for the post. On October 20, 2011, Charlotte wrote, I've been thinking lately about tense, as in past or present. I've read some fantastic stuff in the present tense (read: THE HUNGER GAMES and other less fantastic things) and I've been wondering what everyone thinks about which tense a story should be written in, and how to decide.
I reckon it depends on the needs of your tale, like POV does, but I'm interested to hear other people's thoughts, especially on choosing which to use....
Going quickly through my bookshelf I notice that young adult novels in a contemporary setting are more often written in present tense than books for younger children, which seem generally to be in the past tense. This isn’t a scientific survey, just my impression. Not sure why this may be. Maybe present tense seems more immediate and real, less storybook-like. I haven’t done any sort of survey of novels for adults, so I don’t know.
Historical novels on my bookshelf are written in the past tense, except for my historical fantasy, Ever. I chose present because the survival of Kezi, one of my POV characters, is in doubt, and I felt that past tense would suggest to readers that she’s okay at the end. I used present tense for a short story, too, in that case because my main character has a decision to make, and I felt that past tense would suggest one choice or another. I wanted the reader right there with her as she chooses. Aside from those two instances, however, I’ve stuck with past tense. I don’t think Ella Enchanted or most of my fantasies would have succeeded in present tense.
Susan Cooper’s novel Victory alternates between a modern narrator and a nineteenth century one. The current-day chapters are written in the present tense, the historical ones in the past tense. I suppose they both could have been in one or the other, but this way works beautifully - and it’s a terrific book.
So, yes, the decision depends on the needs of your story. You can ask yourself if you want to create a storybook atmosphere or if you want the grittier reality of present tense. You can also see if you gravitate one way or the other and then decide whether you want to go with your own flow or if you want to write against it.
I suppose I have a bias, which you may or may not agree with. Sometimes you won’t have a strong reason to choose one tense over another. In those cases I’m prejudiced in favor of past tense, which I think is more flexible. You can achieve a noir reality using the past tense, as in, Mickey spat cigar juice into the gutter and muttered, “You do that again, I’ll knot your legs into a pretzel.” But it’s harder to get that timeless aura in, say a medieval fantasy, as in, Sir Grathnath turns to his liege lord and says, “I pledge my allegiance until the firmaments ripple and the seas grow trees.” Then he dons his armor and buckles on his trusty sword. Doesn’t sound right.
When I say I have a bias I mean as a writer, not as a reader. As a reader I’m fine with either tense. If I like the story, I’m just happy. As a writer, though, present tense seems like more of a DECISION. Past tense seems more like, for good or ill, choosing the common path.
Flashbacks are a little different in the different tenses. If you’re writing in present tense, you just have to switch to simple past. If you’re already in past tense you need past perfect, with the auxiliary verb had, as in, Nancy had seen this blue-headed boy before. It had been during school break in the fall when she and her father had gone to the shore for one of their long rambles. They picked up knobby skipping tortoise shells and smooth driftwood. Notice that after the first two hads I revert to simple past tense. That’s what all the writing books I’ve read tell me to do. Then, at the end of the flashback, you bring in the hads again once or twice to bracket the anecdote. The reason not to use them constantly is that all those hads draw attention to themselves and are an obstacle to the reader’s complete entry into the flashback. This little bit of complexity isn’t enough of a reason, in my opinion, to write in the present tense.
I’ve never read anything in the future tense. Has anyone out there?
Future tense, now that I’m thinking about it, lends an air of inevitability, as in, Cinderella will step into her pumpkin coach and set out for the first ball. She will smooth her satin skirts and stare at the grand houses scrolling by. Hmm.
I just called my editor to ask if she has a bias (I didn’t tell her mine). She doesn’t. She said the tense just needs to serve the story. I asked what kind of story is best served by which tense, and she thought that mystery and suspense stories sometimes benefit from present tense, allowing the reader to get inside the action. She also opined that present tense can be harder to pull off. She felt that flashbacks can be harder in present tense, the shift from present to past more jarring. She added that some authors try one, find it isn’t working, and shift to the other.
I called my agent, who had no preference either at first, then, after thinking a minute, said she might like present tense better. Then she became unsure again. Then we segued into great first lines, like, “Call me Ishmael,” the beginning of Moby Dick (which, I confess, I’ve never read), a present-tense, powerful start to a book written mostly in the past tense. So you can change it up even if you’re writing in the past tense.
When I read student work I sometimes see tense drift. The story is steaming along in past tense when it suddenly shifts to present and then veers back. This isn’t a big deal, just another thing to mop up in revision. When the story is finished, of course we want it to be consistent.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Rewrite the beginning few pages of one of your stories in the other tense, past if you’re using present, present if you’re using past. How do you feel about it? Which do you like better?
∙ Use my sentences above as a story starter. Change tenses if you like. Here they are again: Nancy had seen this blue-headed boy before. It had been during school break in the fall when she and her father had gone to the shore for one of their long rambles. They picked up knobby skipping tortoise shells and smooth driftwood.
∙ Try writing a story in future tense. I suspect you need either a very tragic ending or a very happy one for this, no bitter-sweet or you may get a let down. A sad Greek myth might work well, like the story of Oedipus.
Have fun, and save what you write!