Tenses

One thing the serials reveal immediately is change in tense. If one chapter is in the past tense and the next in present it stands out and causes the reader to pause to figure out what is going on. It can be quite confusing.

We all have writing challenges. Mine is where to put the commas. Other people try too hard to be clever instead of letting the story tell itself. Others struggle with tense.

Mignon Fogarty, who calls herself the grammar girl, has written quite a useful blog on tenses. One of the points she makes, as do others, is that the use of present tense for fiction is a relatively new thing. The advantage of using past tense is that it allows the writer to manipulate time and events with greater ease. However, present tense seems to have become a modern favourite.

Some of my short stories are written in a combination of past and present tense. The reason for this is that I am signalling a different time-frame but also cueing the reader that these stories are linked to the main narrative but separated by time and situation. Readers are able to move between events that happened recently and those that occurred many years earlier. The use of tense in this way is a very useful tool. The transitions present a challenge but, if they are smooth, readers experience the story as two interwoven narratives showing how, in life, things never happen in isolation.

I use tense consciously. That is, I am aware of how I am using it and why.

I have read a lot about present tense being the preferred way to write as opposed to past writers who relied on past tense. This is not a good reason for using present tense.

There has to be a conscious decision about which tense best tells the story.

This is part of one of our serials, which is in present tense.

They are teetering on the edge of a huge crater. This is the site where the meteor landed and started spreading the infection. Lillith knows the antidote also lies within this smoking indentation in the earth. It is like a suppurating sore and Lillith reels from the odour it emits.

The writer has followed the present tense set by previous writers but goes into past when telling about the past – when the meteor landed.

The challenge to writers who choose to write solely in present tense is that they have to find a way to talk about past events in a way that is smooth and does not jar.

In the sentence, this is the site where the meteor landed….the reader receives background information and past tense is the only way to deliver this so that the context is clear. I suspect that this need to combine earlier events with present events is what causes writers to trip up occasionally.

So let’s take a look at this same sentence in past tense and see how the back ground information works.

They were teetering on the edge of a huge crater. This was the site where the meteor landed and started spreading the infection. Lillith knew the antidote also lay within the smoking indentation in the earth. It was like a suppurating sore and Lillith reeled from the odour it emitted.

Both tenses work. The secret lies in choosing the one that tells the story best and then managing the words that create past or present tense. It will take practice but, once mastered, it becomes second nature to use the right one.

For those who find tense difficult to manage, the best advice I can give is to observe how words change when they change tense and check to see if they are consistently used in that way.

Make – present

Made – past

I know I make it sound simple, but if we get into past progressive and present progressive you will panic just as I once did. This is what editing is about….observing every word and its behaviour. Whatever tense you are using, it should be consistent.

past tense
present tense
writing challenges