I reviewed a recent submission to our group with some comments on the tense changes. In the places I wanted them to be more consistent, other people didn’t even seem to notice.
I do get caught up in the details and technical elements of writing. Which means that now I’ve started thinking about tenses and all the things they can tell us about a story. Tenses are subtle and can be used in more complicated ways than we might give them credit for. There are reasons for using one tense or the other and authors have established patterns for how they might be used in certain kinds of novels.
I fell into a bit of a rabbit hole once I started going through my bookshelves. I’m about to take you down with me.
What I’ve observed:
Most novels are written in the past tense, that’s basically the “story-telling tense”. It’s the most popular tense to use in a narrative and also the popular way to write a third-person POV account. Past tense is super traditional and you really can’t go wrong in telling a story purely in the past tense.
Lately, there’s a trend for YA Novels to be written in present tense. Most of these novels are also in first person. Having a specific narrator who describes what’s happening “right now” makes everything feel immediate and puts the reader right into the action. YA novels are written to be exciting and addictive and present tense complements the tone.
It is common for first person narratives to switch from present to past as the character relates their current circumstances and then tells the story of their past. If you’re going to go flipping through tenses, you have to define certain structures in the narrative that makes this logical. Narratives that move between past and present can use different tenses to further compare or contrast the two time periods. A narrative that takes place in a specific location may describe existing buildings or scenery in present tense to plant the reader into the space, while telling in past tense the events that happened there.
I’ve gone trawling through my bookshelves again to look for examples of how authors use tenses. Some quick page flipping resulted in some interesting passages.
Past Tense Narrative
Here’s some pure past tense in third person and in first person.
His wife knew first. “Do me a small favor?” Greta called from the bedroom that first afternoon. “Just help me with something for a little bit?”
“Of course,” Einar said, his eyes on the canvas. “Anything at all.”
The day was cool, the chill blowing in from the Baltic. They were in their apartment in the Widow House, Einar, small and not yet thirty-five, painting from memory a winter scene of the Kattegat Sea. The black water was white-capped and cruel, the grave of hundreds of fishermen returning to Copenhagen with their salted catch.
The Danish Girl, David Ebershoff
I went back to Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer then when I was a student there fifteen years before. It seemed more sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and strait-laced, with narrower windows and shinier woodwork, as though a coat of varnish had been put over everything for better preservation. But, of course, fifteen years before there had been a war going on. Perhaps the school wasn’t as well kept up in those days; perhaps varnish, along with everything else, had gone to war.
I didn’t entirely like this glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that’s exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be.
A Separate Peace, John Knowles
Everything in these passages has to do with the specific times and places as related to the characters.
Present Tense in Past Tense Narrative
I thought it would be easy to just open books and find just past tense, but it turns out to be trickier than I thought. When generalities are being spoken about, present tense enters in to create a sense of something being timelessly true. Here’s a book written in past tense except for the first few lines.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
The first two sentences are expressed as a fact – true at any time and place the reader might be. The Bennet’s conversation, however, is a specific one and takes place at a particular time, so it switches to past tense. The rest of the novel stays there. This switch is a stylistic choice Austen made.
To my surprise, Ursula LeGuin does the same in the first passage of The Wizard of Earthsea. She sets the tone by writing as if her fantasy world is a world which the reader is part of and already familiar with, despite it being all her creation.
The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.
The present tense here is used to convey that these stories are currently being told. They never stop being told. Gont has no true time or place, it exists at any point we might pick up this book and start reading.
There’s another way authors change to present tense in a past tense novel. It’s when a character begins to reflect or imagine a scene. Though the POV is third person and narrative is in past tense, the character’s thoughts become present tense.
A gull, bigger and darker than the rest, flew over, and he raised his eyes to follow it. Perhaps this focus on the bird’s flight explained why, in later years, when he looked back on that day, he remembered what he couldn’t possibly have seen: a gull’s-eye view of the path. A man and a woman struggling along; the man striding ahead, eager to escape, hands thrust deep into the pockets of a black coat; the woman, fair-haired, wearing a beige coat that faded into the gravel and talking, always talking. Though the red lips move, no sound comes out. He denies her his attention in memory, as he did in life.
Border Crossing, Pat Barker
Though the novel is in past tense, this character begins to imagine the scene as if he’s watching it. The tense shift brings the reader into the character’s thoughts.
Present Tense Narrative
Writing in present tense makes the action feel alive. It’s like watching a movie, narrating everything that happens on screen at the moment it happens. A lot of YA novels in the first person are choosing present tense. I haven’t found it in third person, but I’m just going by books I have at hand, so who knows.
It’s all I can do not to scream. I dig my nails into the marula oak of my staff and squeeze to keep from fidgeting. Beads of sweat drip down my back, but I can’t tell if it’s from dawn’s early heat or from my heart slamming against my chest. Moon after moon I’ve been passed over.
Today can’t be the same.
I tuck of lock of snow-white hair behind my ear and do my best to sit still. As always, Mama Agba makes the selection grueling, staring at each girl just long enough to make us squirm.
Children of Blood and Bone, Toni Adeyemi
Switching Tense Narratives
The switch is common in first person narratives. The character is at one point in their lives and thinking about a past point. The switches here can be very subtle. It’s like any story you might tell to a friend. You tell it in past tense, but interject with present tense tidbits about what you think about your own narrative. “There was vanilla cake at the party. I prefer chocolate so I only ate a small piece.”
The narrative will take place mostly in the past, but the narrator freely switches tenses. This is harder to find a short example for. And example of a novel that moves from present to past in different sections of the narrative is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving wherein the narrator tells of his current life in Canada and how he came to be there by knowing Owen Meany. Canada is in the present tense, his days with Owen Meany are in the past tense. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin also keeps up the present and past switch throughout as the narrator spends one night reflecting on many years in his past.
Here’s an example which shows the switch between paragraphs. The first paragraph introduces us to a character in her present moment. She then goes on to talk about events from her past.
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
The last time I glanced at the library books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue, and I wondered whether I would have chosen differently if I had know that these were the last books, the ones which would stand forever on our kitchen shelf. We rarely moved things; the Blackwoods were never much of a family for restlessness and stirring.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
The tricky part here is to make sure you’re staying consistent in your switches and not breaking the flow of the narrative.
Tenses are actually quite versatile, aren’t they?
Well done, Jenn! It’s a good thing someone around here is actually paying attention to such issues of technique. Puts us pantsers* to shame. I’ll re-read this a couple more times and consider myself a far better-informed writer for it. Thank you!
*Pantser in this case applying to more than the “Damn the outlines and plot plans, just write the bloody thing and see where it goes!” attitude. It’s us folk who tend to string words together for the music they make and the story they tell, and clean up the mess in rewrite.