Tag Archives: verb tense

Writing

Is Past Tense always reflective?

I had a lively discussion with my fabulous crit partner about the connotations of tense, and she opened my eyes to a point of view I’d never considered before (gotta love that). Thus started a raft of googling to try to find out if I was alone or not.

Apparently I am.

Present Tense

  • Talking about things as they happen (I run up the stairs.)
  • Can make the reader feel they’re right there with the narrator as the story happens.
  • Can make the action feel as if it’s happening RIGHT NOW!
  • Can feel unnatural, because we’re not used to hearing stories as they happen.
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a really well-known example of a novel written in present tense.
  • Here’s a great blog post on present tense by Ava Jae if you want to learn more.

Past Tense

  • Talking about things that have already happened (I ran up the stairs.)
  • Can make the reader feel they weren’t with the narrator when the story happened.
  • Can make the action feel like it happened ages ago.
  • Can feel more natural to read, because we’re used to hearing stories told about the past.
  • I’m not going to give an example because there are a bazillion of them.
  • Here’s another great blog post about past tense by Ava Jae.

So, what’s the problem?

Looking Back

photo credit: linh.ngan
via photopin cc / Text added

According to everyone who isn’t me, past tense implies the story is being told from a point in time after the end of the story.

I’m not saying everyone’s wrong, just that I don’t see it that way when I’m reading (or writing.)

For me, past tense:

  • Makes me feel like I’m right there with the narrator as the story happens.
  • Makes the action feel as if it’s happening RIGHT NOW!
  • Feels more natural to read, because I’m used to hearing stories told about the past.

I prefer reading past tense. In fact, present tense can ruin a book for me. A story has to be really well written for me to get over the tense and into the story. That was one reason I didn’t like the Hunger Games. But it did work for Sheena Wilkinson. I think this is mostly because of point 4 in the Present Tense list. Who narrates their actions as they run for their lives or have some quality time with their significant other?

 

Is Past Tense always in the past?

I think it comes down to more than just tense.

Some stories are framed as an older version of the narrator telling a story to her BFF days later (or her children years later). But this should have an effect on the way the story is told. Because the narrator knows how the story is going to end and what events are important.

For a book like this, try When We Wake by Karen Healey. The main character, Tegan, sits down and tells her story directly to the reader (or listener). It’s been a while since I read it, but parts of it are definitely reflective. The first page is full of it. (“…on the last day of my first lifetime…”, “I’ll tell you the whole story…”, “…one thing I’ve learned over the past months…”)

For a standard story (without the let-me-tell-you-a-tale framing) I read them as if they are happening right then, and I’m along for the ride. The narrator doesn’t know how the story’s going to end any more than I do. (And, in the case where I’ve read the story before, I know more than the narrator does.)

If that doesn’t make sense, think about it as if I’m live tweeting my day. (Well, not my day, that’s boring. But someone’s Very Exciting Day.) No one tweets in the present tense (do they?). And as I’m tweeting, I don’t know how my day’s going to end.

And I think this is a crucial point for writing YA. You can’t tell the story from the POV of the older narrator (even if it’s only older in terms days or weeks). It needs to be told by the teenager as they experience(d) it–going through that coming-of-age moment, rather than looking back on it.

Whether you see past tense as something that happens after the fact, or a play-by-play as it happens, you need the voice to be that of the character as they were during the story, not as they are afterwards.

That is how I’ve always read novels written in past tense, and why they suck me in. I’m living the story as the characters do.

But maybe it’s just me.

Writing

Was or had been

Do I need to preface this by saying it’s just my opinion?  No?  Good.

I write in the past tense, which means I’m telling you about something that has just happened.  (If you’re unsure what a tense is, you can get more details about past tense and usage on wikipedia.)

Present tense: He jogs down the stairs.

Past tense: He jogged down the stairs.

Past Progressive tense: He was jogging down the stairs.

Past Perfect tense: He had jogged down the stairs.

Past Perfect Progressive tense: He had been jogging down the stairs.

This is all well and good, and in general conversation most people flick between different tenses without thinking twice.

He jogged down the stairs and over to the parked car.

He was jogging down the stairs when a woman’s scream stopped him cold.

He had jogged down the stairs three times already this morning.

He had been jogging down the stairs when he tripped and now, crumpled at the bottom, he wished he’d stayed in bed.

tense

photo credit: ricmcarthur
via photopin cc / Text added

Writing in the past tense is fine until you need to show something that happened before the current moment in time – a flashback.  Now we need to switch to one of the other tenses, but we have to balance that against making it read well.

He had jogged down the stairs three times already this morning.  The first time he had forgotten his briefcase, the second time he had met Ann on her way up with coffees and muffins, and the third time he had received an urgent call on his cell phone.

That’s a lot of hads clunking things up.  We need the first one to show that we’ve moved into the flashback, but we can play around with the others.  In this case, if I change the entire second sentence to simple past tense, the reader should go along with it without being confused.  Then, depending how the flashback ends, I’d be inclined to use the past perfect again, just to make it clear when we go back to the current time.

So, to flesh my incredibly contrived scene out a bit:

Dan paused on the landing.  He had jogged down the stairs three times already this morning.  The first time he forgot his briefcase, the second time he met Ann on her way up with coffees and muffins, and the third time he received an urgent call on his cell phone.  He‘d cursed under his breath and trudged back upstairs.  This time he ran down at double speed, hoping to reach the bottom without another interruption.

Need a neat little rhyme for when the hads are trying to take over?  Here you go: If I change the tense, will it still make sense?