Tenses

What up, my writer-y friends!

Sorry, hi. This post is a continuation (sorta) of my last post on narrative viewpoint- it’s Baby Step #2 to writing your first draft.

Picking the tense of your story

The tense of your story affects its impact upon the reader. I’m only going to delve into the basic tenses- past, present and future, since specifics such as future perfect “will have”/ “going to” are unlikely to be employed for fiction writing. If you write a novel entirely in future perfect tense then you deserve an award in my opinion- and I’d be intrigued! So, onto tense #1:


Past Tense

Horrible generalisation but basically: ‘was’ and words ending in ‘ed’… check out a dictionary if you’re stuck

By far the most common tense in fiction, in my experience. I’m no historian (I dropped History four years ago… I could never remember dates) but I would imagine this is because before we wrote things down stories were passed on through word-of-mouth, in which case they have already occurred. In the case of fiction, I think past tense adds security to a story because, if this doesn’t sound silly, you know there’s going to be an ending. It’s not like present tense (more on that later), where everything is happening now– ‘it’s’ happened already; it’s over: with past tense, you are reflecting on everything that has taken place.

Beware:

  • Past tense shouldn’t be the literary equivalent of sitting around a campfire and telling someone about that time your great-aunt Susie’s nephew’s wife’s cat ran away. You’ve got to engage the reader- it comes back to that age-old advice for writers: show don’t tell. It’s a lot easier to fall into the trap of telling when writing in past tense.

On the bright side:

  • Past tense is reflective, which makes it feel more natural. We all love a good muse/ cringe about times gone past. The reader feels as though they are remembering something.

Well, there are a lot of books written in past tense, but these books I feel use past tense most effectively: Catch-22, Joseph Heller; Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë; Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn.

Catch-22 is a social satire, filled with dark humour and witticisms about the absurdity of the military life its hero (well, more like anti-hero, but I like him) Yossarian experiences. It wouldn’t work if it wasn’t in past tense- it’s like when you have a row and only think of a good comeback later on. Catch-22 is ‘later on’.

Wuthering Heights is a great example of what I mentioned previously: someone sharing a story with another. It’s actually almost like a past tense story within a past tense story, because it begins with the narrator reflecting on the day’s events, which at a later date includes someone (Mrs Dean) telling him about the ‘main’ story of Heathcliff and Cathy. So he’s telling the reader a story someone told him. Yes, it is a bit strained- the narrator’s memory of the day is impeccable, as is Mrs Dean’s, but it wouldn’t be a great story if Mrs Dean had forgotten half the events, would it?

Gone Girl’s use of past tense is one of my favourites, because we get the present events (though they are still written in past tense) from Nick alongside his wife Amy’s diary entries from the beginning of the relationship. The crossover of current and past depictions of their life makes you wonder just how Amy’s description of a perfect couple became Nick’s reality (I won’t spoil it!). Plus the twist in the story, regardless of how obvious it was (I guessed it, but I still enjoyed the book), makes you want to go back and re-read it all over again to see what you missed!


Present tense

Equally horrible generalisation, but: ‘is’ and words ending in ‘ing’… again check out a dictionary if you’re stuck

Present tense is immediate. This makes it an interesting technique for genres such as Thriller, Crime, Horror etc because the reader is experiencing everything at the same time as the characters. This makes every twist- and, of course, the climax- of the story doubly intense. Present tense= a good day for suspense (that rhymes… hey, I’m a poet!). It also means we can see how a character changes, instead of just hearing about it happening in the past.

Beware:

  • From my experience, present tense can mean your writing becomes overly simple. Remember Catch-22? It’s hard to make witty comments and dry asides in the present tense.
  • It’s becoming more common, and not everyone can write very well in present tense. I include myself in that. It’s quite easy to include a load of minor events that don’t mean anything- that could have been cut out if you had written in past tense.
  • For all I say it can add suspense to a story, it can also go the other way (tricky bastard!). You can’t really foreshadow events- it’s like in life, when you make a stupid mistake, and later you realise in hindsight there were red flashing lights all around that path, and you feel stupid. In the present tense, there is no hindsight (dun, dun, dun).

On the bright side:

  • Present tense is fab for the crime/thriller/fast-paced-action-whatever genres. Everything is happening now!
  • Your reader can actually see character progression.

I’m struggling to think of good examples of present tense fiction- I can only think of fan-fics, and I can’t remember specific ones- so if anyone has any, let me know and they’ll be gratefully received!


Future Tense

A final horrible generalisation: look out for ‘will’

I would imagine it’s unlikely that you would write a whole story in future tense, mainly because in the future the events you’re describing haven’t actually happened yet, which is a minor setback. The only instance I can think of where you would intentionally use future tense for a prolonged time would be if you were writing about a prophecy/ prediction of the future in a sci-fi/ fantasy book.

Beware:

  • Events haven’t happened yet, so remember:
    dw
    Time is not set in stone, so don’t go giving concrete descriptions of future events- they are liable to change.

On the bright side:

  • I suppose it depends on your story, but a prophecy can give your hero a kick up the behind so he actually starts being a hero e.g. if he sees the destruction of his land in a prophecy he might (well, hopefully) decide to do something to prevent it.

I can only think of Trelawney’s prophecy from Harry Potter as an example- again, if you have anything better drop me a line!


So, that’s my refresher of tenses over and done- I hope you find it useful and don’t decide to write an entire book in future tense just to spite me!

Again, if you have anything you struggle with when you write, contact me and I will try and do a post to help you out!

Picture from: http://funny-pictures.picphotos.net/hey-david-tennant-you-re-not/

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