Last year I did a post on verb tenses. Recently a question came up regarding this subject, and I saw that the previous post had not covered this particular issue.
In that post I discussed past tense narratives and gave an example of slipping between past and present tense, but I did not talk about writing narratives in present tense. I have mentioned present tense from time to time here and pointed out that not all readers like such narratives.
In the first post on verb tenses I said that most fiction is written in the past tense and that when the writers needs to talk about events prior to the story even, they use past perfect tense. Past perfect is “had” + a past participle:
–He had walked five miles along the road before he saw any houses.
–The night Aunt Ethel passed, she had already lived ten years longer than the doctors had predicted she would.
–Allen had had too much to drink the night he crashed his car.
We have to understand that even though a story is written in past tense, it is effectively being written in present tense. This is where writers sometimes get confused. Although a story is written in the past tense, “story time” is in the present. The past tense is used to denote that the story took place in the past from the narrator’s, not the reader’s perspective.
There is a somewhat growing tendency today to write in the present tense. Not all readers are comfortable with this. Scott, my co-blogger, dislikes present tense. This is something writers need to be aware of. Some readers are turned off by present tense because it feels unnatural to them, given that they’re used to past tense. My advice is that present tense is fine when it fits and enhances the story, but it shouldn’t be used simply because you want to try something different.
When a story is written in present tense, past events are written in simple past tense, not in past perfect. Before I give examples, let’s look at the passage that led to this post (used with the author’s permission and with any errors corrected). The piece is written in past tense, but the author felt that a switch to present tense part way through was warranted because these things were still true. I’ve placed asterisks (***) before the switch to present tense.
I knew there was nothing but more dirt roads “down the road” from her house, but I wasn’t worried about finding the chicken she’d requested. The few gas stations scattered here and there were more likely to be out of gas than to be without fried chicken. Even late in the day, with any chance for potential grabbers gone, dried up legs and back pieces were still under heat lamps within an arms’ length of the checkout. Warming table benches somewhere in the station, retired farmers sat and whispered as each new customer walked in the door. *** This is where the real business of the town happens, not in a boardroom at city hall down the street. Big decisions are made over black coffee and egg sandwiches, served up with a side of resentment by tired women who would rather spend their day at the register than enduring sexually charged innuendos by the well-respected, church-going men of the town.
I understood what the author’s intent, but I pointed out what I said above–that in the story past tense = present tense. There’s no need to switch tenses because the reader intuitively understands this.
Here’s the latter part of the revised to use all past tense.
Warming table benches somewhere in the station, retired farmers sat and whispered as each new customer walked in the door. This was where the real business of the town happened, not in a boardroom at city hall down the street. Big decisions were made over black coffee and egg sandwiches, served up with a side of resentment by tired women who would rather spend their day at the register than enduring sexually charged innuendos by the well-respected, church-going men of the town.
Now, let’s cast that passage entirely in present tense. Note that the meaning of the passage is unchanged.
Warming table benches somewhere in the station, retired farmers sit and whisper as each new customer walks in the door. This is where the real business of the town happens, not in a boardroom at city hall down the street. Big decisions are made over black coffee and egg sandwiches, served up with a side of resentment by tired women who would rather spend their day at the register than enduring sexually charged innuendos by the well-respected, church-going men of the town.
This should make it clear that there’s no need to mix the tenses since using all present tense doesn’t affect the meaning of the passage. It only changes the voice. Therefore, all-past or all-present is the way to go here.
In the first post on verb tenses, I give a notable exception to tense mixing, but it’s valid there because of how the author delves into the character’s head. (You should check it out.) Using present tense in that story gives the feeling of borderline direct thoughts (which are always in present tense) without the need to italicize or set them off as such. In that story, the author used the technique to pull us closer into the character’s head and to bring the reader there as well. It’s a brilliant technique.
NOTE: In a “past-tense” story, the dialog is always in present tense except where characters refer to past events, just like we do in real-life conversation. Likewise, direct thoughts (which are often italicized) are in present tense, while indirect thoughts are in past tense.
[DIRECT THOUGHTS] Tim looked at his watch: 7:22. I wonder where Jason is. He said he would be here at seven.
[INDIRECT THOUGHTS] Tim looked at his watch: 7:22. He wondered where Jason was. He had said he would be here at seven.
I hope this clears up some confusion over tenses. I’m going to close with one more example, and I want you pay close attention to the tenses. The main story is written in present tense, but the narrator refers to past events (past tense) and in one spot uses past perfect to refer to an event in the past of one past event. I’ve used bold font for the past tenses and underlined the one past perfect.
NOTE: The words “might” and “could” are used in the passage. Technically, these are past tense verbs (“might” is past tense of “may” and “could” is the past tense of “can”). In the earlier post I gave links for the use of may/might. “Might” expresses more uncertainly than “may.” In a similar manner, “could” functions as “might” in denoting greater uncertainly than “can.”
You could also write, “I may be somewhere in Canada” and “eliminated everyone who can threaten my life.” These are a matter of writer preference in the degree of uncertainty he wishes to convey.
Here’s an additional reference to clarify this.
I now sit in a log cabin so far from civilization that a helicopter delivers my supplies. I’m not even sure where I am. From the weather patterns, I believe that I’m in the northeastern United States, but I might be somewhere in Canada. After the lie detector test, they told me it had gone well and to relax while they analyzed the results. They offered me a Coke.
And I woke up here.
It’s not so bad. I have a spectacular view of snow-capped mountains and green valleys. I have electricity–two gas-powered generators, one for a backup. For companionship, I have two cats. My laptop has wireless Internet access over secure channels, and I’m wrapped in a firewall that ensures my safety and privacy. My email filters through a secure server. I have an account to purchase whatever I want. It’s delivered to them, and they fly it in by helicopter–there’s a large clearing nearby for it to land. I’m even allowed to access Internet porn, but that gets tiresome after a while. The cats are good companions.
I still work for company, testing software. They say they don’t monitor my Internet activity, but they also said my well-being depends on my discretion on the Internet. Since I don’t know where I am, I can’t divulge my location accidentally. That’s the reason for my seclusion. Apparently they can’t be sure that they have eliminated everyone who could threaten my life.
I met this wonderful lady on the Internet two months ago. She’s an artist and likes privacy. We’ve been getting on very well and have reached the cybersex stage in our relationship. I wonder if they’ll let me have her in place of the cats.