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Tense Matters: Verbs in the Past, Present, and Future
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
July 5, 2012
One of the first choices a writer must make with respect to verbs is to pick a tense. So let's talk about how the different tenses can impact your storytelling.
The English language has many tenses, but we'll concentrate on the three simple categories.
Most stories -- I'm referring to the narration, the non-dialogue passages – are told in simple past. Here are two famous beginnings:
"Mother died today." Albert Camus, The Stranger.
Some stories are told in the simple present.
Some readers find the present tense too artsy, and when I encounter a story in it, I usually need several paragraphs to adjust. Nevertheless, Updike enjoyed composing in it. "I liked writing in the present tense. You can move between minds, between thoughts and objects and events with a curious ease not available to the past tense. I don't know if it is clear to the reader as it is to the person writing, but there are kinds of poetry, kinds of music you can strike off in the present tense."
Very few stories are told in the simple future. In fact, I know don't know of any! However, changing the tense of the passages above yields some interesting results:
Dickens in the future: "It will be the best of times, it will be the worst of times..." This sounds like the prediction for just after an election, when one party will be ecstatic with victory while the other is downcast with defeat.
Camus in the future: "Mother will die today." This sounds ominous and could make a powerful opening sentence.
Updike in the future: "Boys will be playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles will seem to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires. Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, will stop and watch, though he's twenty-six and six three." This paragraph sounds more like the directions being given for a film, and readers would tire of it quickly.
It's difficult to imagine a story told completely in the simple future, but a judicious sprinkling of the future tense could add a sense of foreboding.
Different Tenses for Different Threads
While researching this article, I came across several discussion threads where people wondered if they were "allowed" to write some sections of their novels in the past tense and others in the present tense.
First, there's no law against it! You may have pushback from agents and publishers and readers -- but they may like it if you do it well. Second, if scenes belong in the past tense, write them in the past tense, while if scenes occur in the present or the future, you may choose those tenses.
What does matter is that switching tenses can jar the reader. So you should not do it randomly but rather when you have a reason for it. For example, shifts between the present and the past may indicate different threads of a story, as in Dickens' Bleak House. Dickens also uses the change of tense as a time to indicate a different narrator.
In our novel, Jocasta: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus, the prologue and the epilogue are written in present tense, while the rest of the novel is in the past tense. In fact, many books are introduced in present tense; here's an example:
The sentence above – and yes, there is only one sentence -- employs several tenses. The announcement that he will tell the story is given in the simple present (the words "I am" -- you have to look for them but they're there, although not right next to each other) while the summary of the story is in the simple past (the words "I found"). Starting in present tense gives the narrator the chance to say hello to the readers, to invite them to sit down and to make themselves comfortable -- because the readers are basically living in the present tense -- before segueing into the past and the bulk of the story.
Peeved with Perfection
Besides the simple past, present and future tense, there are many others. We'll review another set: those called perfect.
The perfect tenses are used to describe actions that are, relative to the simple tenses, already finished. That may be as clear as mud, so here are some examples:
Present perfect is used frequently in conversation where it causes no problems. Future perfect is an awkward tense -- popping up in time travel stories in which the characters themselves often comment on the awkwardness of the tense -- but it is employed rarely. Past perfect, however, is another matter.
Past perfect signals to the reader that the narrator is referring to an earlier time. Example:
Then it started to rain.
This is fine; past perfect has its place, and the "had replaced the spare" obviously occurs before the tire goes flat. Besides, the narrator returns to using simple past when the rain starts. Unfortunately, some authors get stuck in the past perfect. Example:
There he had received the worst news of his life.
I dislike this for several reasons. First, I think it is unnecessary. The author has already moved the story to an earlier time, and does not need to keep signaling this move. I accept that some grammarians may choose to argue with me! Second -- and this may be my own pet peeve -- when the past perfect continues paragraph after paragraph, I stop paying attention to the story and start noticing how often the author uses the word "had." This is especially frustrating when a passage could be made less annoying with a few edits:
There he received the worst news of his life.
Whether or not you stay in the past perfect is of course your choice, but I believe that it should be used in small doses. If you jump time again, you can signal the jump with another phrase, such as, "That was yesterday -- this was today -- what would he do?"
You need enough "hads" to make it clear to the reader at what point the current passage is taking place. Hence I have kept the first two "hads" and have edited out the rest.
Conclusion and References
When I started this column I wanted to write about the eight parts of speech: verbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. But that proved impossible, so I restricted myself to verbs, and then whittled it down to verb tenses. Far more could be written even on this subject – I'm saving my modal auxiliary rant for another time! – let alone verbs and parts of speech.
If you want to delve further, here are some links:
The quote from John Updike about his writing comes from his book, The Art of Fiction.
Until next time, by which point you will have digested this article.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.