Tense: past, present or future?

It’s so easy to take tense in writing for granted…things either are happening, have happened or will happen – present, past, future. In fact, of late, I have had good reason re-think my somewhat blasé attitude to the use of tense in writing.

The starters for our serials generally set the tense and each writer maintains it. This keeps the continuity and maintains the story flow.

However, every now and then a writer changes the tense. Whenever that happens, it jolts me as a reader, and I find myself having to make a mental adjustment that somewhat spoils the reading experience. This happened recently. It took me back to when I was writing my novel and as the story covers three events in different periods, the choice of tense was easy. It makes sense to have the long sections of the story which recount an actual event 300 years ago set in the past, and the historical account of a period 120 years earlier also in the past tense. But the third timeframe happens in the ‘now’ and present tense is the logical choice for those shorter passages.

In a well-written piece of writing, the tense is unobtrusive as is the narrative voice - first, second or third person. It is important to think about how we use tense and why we settle on one over another.

In her blog, The Itch of Writing Emma Darwin lists the advantages of using past and present tense.

She makes the point that present tense is immediate and puts the reader right into the centre of the action. Characters are interacting right in front of the reader. The emotional experience is also immediate. It draws you in and you are part of the story. If combined with the first person then the reader sees the world through the narrator’s eyes and we experience all that the character experiences. That can make for a highly charged emotional reading experience. However, it can also leave the reader feeling breathless and desperate for a break.

Present tense and first person voice can be limiting for other reasons. Consider what happens when we want our character to narrate the story from someone else’s perspective. How do we get the reader there? The narrator has to be everywhere in order for us to tell the story. We not only see the story through a single view but we can only experience what the narrator experiences. What about all the other events, people and emotions that feed into the story? How do we describe those?

It is very difficult to introduce a new character or action when our perspective is limited to the one character’s voice or narration. If the point of view is that of the narrator’s only then we know that this perspective can be coloured by that narrator’s view of the world. If a narrator does this, we run the risk of casting our narrator into the role of an ‘unreliable narrator’.

Ginny Weihardt  on the About.com website provides an excellent definition of an unreliable narrator. It is a perfect technique to use if you are looking to have the character trick the reader into believing his or her version of events are the only true account. But what if the narrator wants you to believe his or her story and slant the story to suit his or her account.

However, be careful, readers do not like to feel manipulated or tricked.

This is probably the most compelling argument for using past tense and third person as it provides the writer with the freedom to manipulate time and events without the limitation of one point of view or time.

The reason for using past tense is the ease with which you can manipulate time. The writer can change pace and flip back into flash-back with ease. Nevertheless, it is very easy to gloss over events and slip into the mode of telling rather than showing. That is important to bear in mind.  

The key point is that the writer must consciously choose which tense and voice to use in order to tell the story well.

I’ll give Laura Miller the last word. “Whenever I find myself talking to people who have done either [teach creative writing or judged literary contests], I ask them if they’ve noticed any trends in subject matter or form. On three separate occasions recently, this has prompted long, exasperated rants about the present tense. “They can’t even say why they’re doing it,” remarked one writing teacher of his students. “They just see it a lot and start using it because it seems ‘literary’ to them. It’s a mannerism.” I judged a literary prize myself last year, and can testify that a preponderance of enervated, present-tense fiction made up the daily portion of entries I slogged through.”