Past or Present: why tense matters in our writing, and how to use it well

Nine months ago, I began translating my novel from past to present tense. At the time, before a bunch of ruthless cuts, it was about 160,000 words long, and changing the tense of every verb–it took a while. It was grueling. It set my brain reeling into the depths of grammatical subtlety.

It also taught me a lot about the role of tense in our writing, the meaning it carries, and how we can leverage this tool to get the effects we want. Let’s explore. There’s more tension here than you might expect. …

What is tense, really?

The images in this post are selected from Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for “Rip van Winkle.” This story, with its playful treatment of time, is a worthy accompaniment for a discussion of tense. You can find more of Rackham’s illustrations here.

Let’s start with a little theory.

Linguistically, tense denotes how languages mark the time an action occurred. In English, “I eat” happens in the present, while “I ate” happens in the past. Note that English also has a number of grammatical aspects, which mark the extension of an action through time. So “I eat” refers to a general, habitual action, while “I am eating” situates the action specifically at the time of speaking. Both are present tense, but each extends from the present time differently. In school, we usually don’t distinguish between tense and aspect; rather, we refer to each of the different tense-aspect combinations as actually its own tense. As writers, however, it’s worth noting that when writing in the present tense, all of the present tense aspects are still available to you: “I eat,” “I am eating,” “I have eaten,” “I have been eating.” In past, the same holds true: “I ate,” “I was eating,” “I had eaten,” “I had been eating.”

As languages go, English is actually fairly light on tense (although some languages actually are considered tense-less!). We distinguish present and past morphologically (meaning that the verb actually changes form [“She plays” vs. “She played”]), but a lot of other languages have a morphological future tense (which English doesn’t; we instead use the modal verb “will”), and some languages have tenses that refer specifically to the recent past vs. the distant past, the near future vs. the distant future, and even (and I think this sounds marvelous) tenses that mean specifically “tomorrow.”

Tense in literature

Convention: use the past tense

From A Tale of Two Cities to Harry Potter to Toni Morrison’s Sula, past tense is standard for fiction in English. Historically, traditionally, past tense is convention and default.

This makes sense, really, if we think about the author as a storyteller–we usually have the sense as we read that the story has already happened; the author is simply relaying the events. In that regard, if the story indeed takes place in the past, it makes sense to tell it in the past tense.

Some stories in fact employ this author-as-storyteller conceit as a way to lend authenticity to their writing. My favorite example is Washington Irving’s 1819 short story, “Rip Van Winkle,” which opens with the following [wonderfully fictitious] author’s note:

The following Tale was found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker, an old gentleman of New York, who was very curious in the Dutch history of the province, and the manners of the descendants from its primitive settlers. ...

The result of all these researches was a history of the province during the reign of the Dutch governors, which he published some years since. ... Its chief merit is its scrupulous accuracy, which indeed was a little questioned on its first appearance, but has since been completely established; and it is now admitted into all historical collections, as a book of unquestionable authority.

To narrate the ensuing tale in anything but the past tense would be ludicrous, and I think it worth consideration that convention is worth something. As we add our own voices to long literary traditions, it’s worth considering what has been done in the past, why it has been, and that it may have value.

The historical present tense: a counterpoint to the above

In German, there are two completely different forms of past tense, used primarily in written vs. spoken contexts. For the linguaphiles among you, here’s the table:

German past tense
(spoken form)
German past tense
(written form)
English
Ich habe gegessen.Ich aß.I ate.
Ich habe gedacht.Ich dachte.I thought.
Ich bin gegangen.Ich ging.I walked/went.

When I was first learning German, I found this distinction bizarre. Little did I know that English actually makes a similar, if subtler, distinction in our own present tense:

The historical (or sometimes referred to as [and obviously this is a bit more relevant for us here] the literary) present tense is the conventional use of the present tense to narrate a story that did indeed take place in the past (see this short but engaging look at the benefits of the historical present tense here). Historically, it is accepted and indeed perhaps even preferable to discuss what Plato thinks (dead for millennia as he may be), and when discussing literature, we describe what Gatsby does rather than what he did.

In works of literature themselves, we can use a slightly unusual form of the present tense analogous to the German examples above. In spoken English, if I say, “The moon sets,” I am explaining a general fact about the moon. I am explaining that, in general, habitually, the moon sets. However, in narratives, this same sentence actually takes on a new meaning: “The moon sets” means that it is setting right now, in the present of the story at hand. To express this same idea in spoken English, we would say, “The moon is setting.”

The truth is, we actually use this literary present tense quite regularly, even in informal contexts. A prime example is the narrative joke:

A neutron walks into a bar and orders a drink. When the neutron gets his drink, he asks, "Bartender, how much do I owe you?"

The bartender replies, "For you, neutron, no charge."

                       - I cribbed this from Jokes.cc

The literary present is also not new (even if it isn’t established enough to overwhelm the convention of the past tense). In this article, Joe Bunting identifies everything from Dickens’s Bleak House to The Hunger Games as exemplars of the present tense. There is precedent. It’s undoubtedly part of English literary tradition. Conventions change over time, after all. Perhaps the literary present tense is at the beginning of its heyday.

Effect of tense choice

This is the all-important question. How does our choice of tense affect our readers? We need to consider this so that we can determine the best choice for the experience we want our readers to have.

In truth, there are a lot of common-sense ideas we can bandy about, and I think this has some merit (see again the Bunting article for some nice discussion of these), but I don’t think there’s a real substitute for seeing the two tenses side by side, with the same text. So I’m going to use my own revised novel manuscript as an example, not because I think it’s a particularly brilliant use of tenses, but because I’ve written it both ways. We can compare. Let’s see what we find. I’ve bolded verbs and particular revisions.

Past tense (the original version)

Five days after Elit’s death, Gaea awoke to find the room still dark. Soft stars glowed overhead, projected on the ceiling. Even as she watched, however, they began to recede: first a faint, red glow near the doorway; then the stars dimmed as light grew stronger. Soon she could barely see the stars. The window blinds rotated. Sun pierced the glass. To her left, she saw the MindPoint readout appear projected on the wall in soft light…

Present tense (the revised)

Five days after Elit’s death, Gaea wakes to find the room still dark. Soft, projected stars glow on the ceiling, but even as she watches they are receding: first a faint, red glow near the doorway; then the dim ones go. In a few minutes they have all melted into dawn. The window blinds rotate. Sun pierces the glass. To her left, Gaea sees the Mind Point readout appear projected on the wall…

I’ll confess, I feel the self-consciousness here. Discussing my own writing carries a bit of awkwardness for me. But bear with me. If you see an effect different than the one I describe, please share with me in the comments below. I really want to know.

Okay. To business. How does the tense change affect the reader?

Immediacy

We’ll start with the simplest details. First, there’s a greater sense of immediacy in the present tense version. The past tense feels more distant, removed, older. The past tense verbs like “began,” “dimmed,” “saw,” etc., these are simply less now than their counterparts.

In some ways, I think this is a loss. I wrote this paragraph with the goal of achieving a sleepy, methodical, meditative tone. I’m trying to signal to the reader that this story is not an action-packed thriller, but a more contemplative look at a future society. The past tense, I believe, emphasizes this element.

However, I ended up choosing present. This was, in part, a result of insecurity. I worried that the action was too subdued, too sleepy. My hope with the change to present tense was to maintain the contemplative nature of the prose while amping up the energy through language–a kind of balance.

Focus on character

In a related though not synonymous vein, the shift to present tense resulted in a closer identification with the protagonist, Gaea. Even though I am still writing in 3rd person (and here’s another big decision to make with every new story!), the present tense is closer to the way Gaea would actually experience the situation, and this results in a closer feel.

Take a look at these two lines: in past, “Soft stars glowed overhead;” in present, “Soft, projected stars glow on the ceiling.” To me, the first sounds like a description by an external narrator; the second feels like something observed by the character. Again, I think there is a balancing effect: the third person point of view distances readers from the character’s perspective; the present tense, in a way, restores it.

This quickly blends into the modernist narrative technique of free indirect style, in which a third-person narrative incorporates the subjective perspective of the first person (see Emma Darwin’s thorough treatment of the concept here). I like this because it actually gives the writer a lot of flexibility to be close to the character, then to zoom out without a jarring shift of narrator.

Register and tone

The biggest lesson I learned, and what surprised me the most about the past-present shift, was that more had to change than just the verbs. Past tense in narration carries with it, I believe, a certain formality that fades when we switch to present. Take a look at the following transformation:

... then the stars dimmed as light grew stronger. Soon she could barely see the stars.
                            (original, past tense)

As discussed above, we can see in this moment a sense of externality–a narrator is watching Gaea as she examines the stars. I think this generally works, although the significance of the scene to the character doesn’t come through as much as I would like.

Here, I’ve transliterated the above, changing nothing but the verb form:

... then the stars dim as light grows stronger. Soon she can barely see the stars.
                              (present tense; no other changes)

I am not a big fan of this one. It feels like it’s trying to do two things at once–the external observer is still there, but the pace is becoming somewhat more active. When I started changing the tense, I realized that I needed to alter the surrounding language at times also, to reflect the less formal, more personal tone I think the present tense is bringing.

... then the dim ones go. In a few minutes they have all melted into dawn.
                             (revised version, present tense)

I shortened the first clause. I think it’s more in keeping with Gaea’s point of view, what she would likely be noticing. I’ve added in the less formal “ones” and “go,” which feels more natural in this version. In the second sentence, I took a different approach. Instead of the past tense’s focus on Gaea’s perception and the static description of what she “can” see, I used the more active “melted” [notice that this -ed verb is still present tense; it’s part of a present perfect construction, one of the aspects of present tense that describes an action that began in the past that has a result in the present]. If I try to go back to the past again, the second sentence would read, “In a few minutes, they had all melted into dawn.” I find this awkward. It’s stilted. I think this sentence works because it is in the present tense.

When I look at the novel as a whole, certainly not every sentence experienced changes like those just described. Much of the text I did literally change verbs and nothing else; however, it’s worth paying attention to how tense affects formality and tone. Make sure to adjust accordingly.

So is one tense better than the other?

Obviously, definitely, no. I will say that prior to the change I made in my own novel (and it was an exhausting change. I took me ages.), I would have called myself vaguely skeptical of present tense in fiction. It felt gimmicky. It felt faddish. Then I tried it, and I think that, at least for this project, it works better than past. It’s unequivocally a decision that should be considered anew with each story, but if you’ve always written in one tense, I definitely recommend experimenting. Your story might blossom at a different time.

Best wishes. Thanks for reading. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences, questions, all of it. Happy Sunday, and happy writing.

Jimmy

5 thoughts on “Past or Present: why tense matters in our writing, and how to use it well

Add yours

  1. PRESENT greetings, Jimmy!

    Just read your PAST blog on tense. WANT (or should I have written WANTED?) to keep up.

    Fascinating topic! I had actually began (or begun?) reading your novel right after you sent it, and then stopped, thinking I don’t want to be reading two books at once – so am going to finish my “President is Missing” book first. Anyways… I was familiar with the examples you used in your blog. Under the heading “Focus on character”, I totally agree with what you wrote, and like the PRESENT tense best because I felt I was in the bedroom with Gaea rather than just reading about her in her bedroom. I also loved your neutron joke, and copied it down for a future lecture on atoms. What a huge decision and ensuing job that must have been changing the text of your entire novel! Hopefully your agent won’t suggest that you change it back! Humph!!!

    💕 Momo

    On Sun, Mar 17, 2019 at 8:24 AM Words like trees wrote:

    > Jimmy Kindree posted: ” Nine months ago, I began translating my novel from > past to present tense. At the time, before a bunch of ruthless cuts, it was > about 160,000 words long, and changing the tense of every verb–it took a > while. It was grueling. It set my brain reeling into ” >

    Like

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