From the web archives: A Tense Situation
I always wrote in the past tense, thinking it more appropriate since everything I wrote about had happened in the past. It also seemed foolish to write in the present tense – how can a character write and walk, talk, and jump off cliffs at the same time? It was pretentious. But for one of the Institute's assignments, I wrote a story in the present tense simply to flex my writing muscles. It felt right. The story was based on a personal experience. While I wrote the first draft I went back into time and re-lived the experience. All the emotions were at my fingertips. Later I embellished the story and it became a work of fiction. When my teacher’s reply came back, one of her comments was on the use of tense. She suggested I use the past tense. I tried it. But wonder of wonders, I preferred my story in the present tense. I analyzed why it was effective and there were three reasons:
1. The story was in first person.
2. Present tense heightened tension.
3. The reader implicitly did not know how the ending would be.
THE POWER OF PRESENT TENSE
There is a certain immediacy to writing in the present tense. It doesn’t all have to be action either. There is time for introspection. An action sequence can be alternated with an interior monologue. The character’s voice can come through.
My throat is tight and I feel the words getting stuck. I open my mouth but no sound emerges. Finally, I spit and stutter, “B-b-back off.” Randy backs off and I can breathe again.
Randy is only trying to help but he’s pushy. It’s not like I don’t know how to swim. I’m a poor swimmer. And given half a chance, I can save myself. I’ve been saving myself from disasters since I was born. Like the time when I was six. I forgot to turn the faucet off and the entire universe flooded. Randy brought towels. Like that was going to help. Randy is like that – he always means well, but he ends up being a total pain.
I paddle and float, enjoying the cool water. Randy watches me, ready to save me.
I purposely have a long passage. Notice that back-story is effortlessly revealed by using past tense. There is no need to use the past-perfect form (had forgotten, had flooded), which is what you have to use if the main story is written in past tense. Here is the scene written in past tense. I think you’ll agree that it's clunky.
My throat was tight and I felt the words getting stuck. I opened my mouth but no sound emerged. Finally, I spat and stuttered, “B-b-back off.” Randy backed off and I could breathe again.
Randy was only trying to help but he was pushy. It wasn’t like I didn’t know how to swim. I was a poor swimmer. And given half a chance, I could save myself. I’d been saving myself from disasters since I had been born. Like the time when I was six. I had forgotten to turn the faucet off and the entire universe had flooded. Randy had brought towels. Like that would have helped. Randy was like that – he always meant well, but he ended up being a total pain.
I paddled and floated, enjoying the cool water. Randy watched me, ready to save me.
THE TENSES – NUTS AND BOLTS
If you’re feeling tense, let me go over the basics. Remember, tense is the timeline of your story. If you use your tenses carefully, your readers will stay with you and not get lost. They will know the chronology of events even if you present them out-of-order. The technique of jumping right into your story and revealing the past bit-by-bit, like peeling the layers of an onion, is well-suited for middle-grade and young adults as well as adults.
Simple Tenses: An action occurs in the past or present or will occur in the future.
Present: Today Billy rides a bike.
Past: Yesterday Billy rode a bike.
Future: Tomorrow Billy will ride a bike.
Perfect Tenses: An action occurs in one time-zone but is seen in relation to another time-zone.
Present perfect: Billy has ridden a bike many times (and will continue to do so).
Past perfect: Billy had ridden a bike all afternoon (until he fell off and broke his leg).
Future perfect: By next summer Billy will have ridden a bike for a year.
When things happen at the same time, the tenses of the verbs have to be the same too.
Right: When Jack calls, Billy rides a bike to meet him.
Wrong: When Jack calls, Billy rode a bike to meet him.
Within a sentence, things don’t have to refer to the same time, and you can use different tenses.
Billy says he rode his bike yesterday and will ride it again tomorrow.
Confusion between will and would: Use will for the present, would for the past.
Present: Billy says he will wear his helmet.
Past: Billy said he would wear his helmet.
If you write in the present tense, make sure you stay in the present. You can slip into the past BRIEFLY while your character remembers something or talks about the past. Back-story requires past tense. But the thoughts and actions must remain in the present. It isn’t confusing one bit. In fact, it can be more puzzling to have a story in the past tense and have flashbacks and interludes in the past-perfect tense explaining current behavior.
WHEN TO USE THE PRESENT TENSE
Is it possible that some stories are better told in the present tense? I think so. Stories with a lot of reminiscing and non-fiction are best told in the present tense. Recently I read an adult novel, Sister Of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. She used present tense for the entire story with alternating (first person) viewpoints between the two main characters. The effect was stunning. She went over the past through dialogues and interior monologues, had lots of action and even went over the girls’ dreams, without confusing the reader.
In writing non-fiction you are dealing with general truths. Forget your old science projects, where you had to do an experiment and then write the results in the past tense with a passive voice. That’s a sure-fire way to put a kid to sleep. I’m talking about inviting the reader into your world of bouncing balls, sleeping bears and shooting stars.
Why do balls bounce? The key word here is ELASTIC. During a bounce from a hard floor, the ball gets a dent. All of its energy is put into flattening itself against the hard floor. As the ball returns to it’s rounded shape, it releases that energy into upward motion.
So give the present a whirl and see how you feel about your writing. Chances are, it will feel fresh.
"A Tense Situation" was first published in the Jan. 2003 issue of ICL's Rx for Writers.