Tuesday, June 7

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, June 07, 2011 18 comments
Dear Editor-on-Call:

Any advice on staying in one tense while writing? I struggle with slipping between present and past tenses (first person). Is this issue something that improves with experience?

Tense about tense
a.k.a. Christine Danek (Christine's Journey)

Dear Tense,

Using a consistent verb tense does become easier with practice, but there are some simple things you can do now to help yourself.

Verb tense is a reflection of the when of your narrator sharing his/her story. You might find it useful to create some visuals to take you there (or "then") whenever you sit down to write.

Past tense narration
For most writers, past tense flows most naturally because it is the usual mode for discussing events. Every day, we tell others about the events of our lives after the fact. For example, you might arrive at the office and tell a co-worker, "You wouldn't believe what this bozo on the bus just did!" Or you might write in a journal, "In fifth period, a student got up during the exam and puked in my trash can."

Aside from the naturalness benefit, past tense narration give your characters psychological distance from the events and the lovely gift of hindsight. From a looking-back vantage point, your character can clue the reader in about which events are pivotal and can express attitudes about how well or badly s/he behaved in story events. Many of the typical tension-building phrases like "little did I know, my life was about to change forever" express hindsight and require past tense narration as well.

To create a visual, it's helpful to decide how long after the story events this storytelling is occurring. A week later? Six months? Three years? Go search for photos that represent the older, narrator version of the character, and the younger, active protagonist version of the character. Combine the two images. Show the narrator thinking about her past self with the words, "years ago, I..." or "last year, I..." or however you can best express the passage of time between the story actions and the storytelling. This visual can also help you develop voice.

Here's an example (please pardon my lame Photoshop skillz):

If you can't find photos and don't feel confident drawing, it may be enough to post a note on your computer screen: "Yesterday, I ...". This should remind you to have a think-back approach to your story.

You might also find it helpful to keep a short list of common verbs attached to your screen: was, had, saw, felt, thought, went, ran, talked, said, told.

Present tense narration
Present tense is more difficult to maintain, because it is not how we naturally tell stories. Seriously, do you go about your daily routine with a running commentary in your head describing what you're doing? Probably not.

So why write in present? Some writers say they like the immediacy. I don't feel that's reason enough, because this tense is so psychologically weird when you really think about it. What you do gain from present tense is lack of hindsight. You remove a character's ability to have any perspective on what's happening. He or she has to deal with story events as they come.

When might you want to remove hindsight and perspective? When you're presenting an unreliable narrator and/or when your story situation is most plausible and compelling if the character has no idea what the outcome will be.

Your visual reminders can be far simpler. Stick a note to your computer monitor that says, "Right now, I ..." You may also find it helpful to post a list of common verbs in present tense: am, is, talk, say, tell, go, feel, think, see, run.

Flashback caveat
Keep in mind that when you deal with flashback material--events occurring prior to the main story time frame--you should change tenses.

If your main story time frame is narrated in present tense, you would switch to past tense for flashbacks.

Example: As I sit in the windowsill and watch traffic flowing below, I remember [here's your time shift marker--everything after "I remember" is in past] the day ambulances swarmed on Columbus when some dude threatened to jump off the roof of April's building. She gave me a blow-by-blow of the whole freaky event as it went on above her.

If the main story is narrated in past tense, flashbacks should be in past perfect tense.

Example: As I sat in the windowsill and watched traffic flowing below, I remembered the day ambulances had swarmed on Columbus when some dude had threatened to jump off the roof of April's building. She'd given me a blow-by-blow of the whole freaky event as it had gone on above her.

Sorry I can't offer a foolproof method to ensure you never switch tenses. This is a discipline that takes time to develop.

If anyone has helpful tech tools to assist with verb tense issues, I'd love to hear about them!

What helps you maintain your story's verb tense? Which tense comes more naturally to you? Why do you think so?

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  1. Great advice. I like reading books I like to see how they deal with it.

  2. I was wondering about flashbacks lately and you answered the question exactly. Thank you.

  3. Maybe it's taboo, but I love present tense because it brings me into a story faster so I feel like I'm actually there.

    Some of my favorite authors who write in present tense are: Kristin Higgins, Suzanne Collins, Libba Bray, Simone Elkeles, and Laurie Halse Anderson.

  4. I write in present tense. Always. I don't know why but it comes to me more naturally. And I don't think it stops a character from having hindsight. Just because things are being narrated as they are happening, doesn't mean the narrator hasn't had any life experience to draw from. String Bridge is in present tense, first person. And my MC has plenty of hindsight. What's stopping the narrator from analyzing what he/she has just done? I see this complaint about present tense all the time, and I just don't understand the quandary.

  5. this was great. I nornally write in past tense, but sometime I'll find a spot where present somehow managed to show up!

  6. Thank you so much, Laurel. This helps me a ton.
    Thanks and I will be bookmarking this.

  7. Laura: I think reading helps more than grammar books. For me, visualization does too.

    Clarissa; I've seen some variation on this--some authors keep all narration in one tense and put the flashback portions in italics. That's more the exception than the rule, however.

    Angela: that's the "immediacy" effect. Some people love it, some hate it. Cutting off the character's knowledge of how the story will end certainly adds something, I think.

  8. Jessica: You're right that in present tense the chacter can express hindsight about events BEFORE the story time frame. They just can't have hindsight on things they haven't yet experienced, right? That would be illogical.

    Personally, I found that blocking this knowledge from my character was really helpful for telling my story. She herself doesn't know if she's psychologically unraveling or if what she's experiencing is real. If the character knew what was real all along, she'd be tempted to filter too much, if you know what I mean.

    I happen to love present tense, but I'd never recommend it unless one has a compelling reason to do it. It is trickier for inexperienced writers.

  9. Kelly: The visualization tools may help you hang onto a think-back mindset while you write.

    Christine: Because of your interior design background, I thought a visual prompt might be the most helpful way to keep you focused in the right storytelling timeframe.

  10. Visual prompts are the only way I learn. Thank you very much. I notice I do write in present more than past. It comes easier to me. Also, thank you for the information on the flashbacks. In my current WiP (written mostly in present), I have a lot of flashbacks. Your information has helped me understand the tense it should be in.
    I will definitely put a sticky note on my screen with some verb tenses to help me focus.
    I so need to focus. Thanks again.

  11. I definitely switch tenses a lot when going being a flashback and present in the story. This is something my critique partners have had to sift out for me. Your points are all so true, Laurel! I need to re-read with them in mind.

  12. This is so helpful Laurel... Thanks.

  13. I have to constantly watch my tenses. It's so easy to shift tenses.

  14. Loved the discussion about present tense! I haven't tried it, and I tend not to like it in novels, but I can see your point. Fascinating!

  15. I never tend to focus on things like this when I write, but sounds like I should get some practice in

  16. Stopping by from the Follow Swap Blog Hop to say hello! Also, my stepdaughter actually does narrate her life as it's happening. I'm not sure if she actually enjoys the storytelling aspect or if she just likes to hear the sound of her own voice, but she narrates everything, so, "Seriously, do you go about your daily routine with a running commentary in your head describing what you're doing? Probably not." made me smile. :)

  17. Popping in from the blog hop - tickled to find your blog!

  18. I'm stopping by through the blog hop. I'm a new follower and will be visiting often.
    This is an *excellent* post on tense and such a creative way to demonstrate and visualize the proper way to use it.
    See ya:)