Snares, Pits, and Caltrops – The things to watch out for, avoid, or be clever about – Part Three

Feeling Tense?

My apologies for being away for so long. It’s been a busy week. My husband and I have put together a new project: StreetWraith.net, which focuses on self-publishing and highlighting self-published authors. We’ve been busy getting the first posts on the site put together, so my own blog has sat at the way-side. I will also be guest blogging soon. I’m just putting the finishing touches on that set of articles.

Fun times. Fun times.

But I wanted to get back to my own project and talk about that element that I last left off with: tense.

Don’t let the title up there fool you. I mean tense, not tension. I am talking about that which determines if you are in the past, present, or future. What tense you choose to write in is important. It can help you set your pace. It can even help you build tension. It can also hinder you and play caltrops with your prose. If used incorrectly, it can also draw your reader out of the story. That is bad, because once pushed out, they may not wish to return.

As writers, we tend to think of only two tenses: past and present. That is because the bulk of writing, at least in fiction, is done in these two tenses. While one probably exists (probably written by Douglas Adams, because that’s how he was), I can’t think of a book written in any tense but past or present. These two tenses will be the focus today, but we’ll look at the others as well. Why? Because you’ll need them. They are important, as if you misuse them, you’ll jar your reader out of the story.

Past Tense

I can’t really say that there is a time you should write in past tense because, well, it’s the default tense of fiction. Most fiction you read is going to be in past tense. It’s so common that we don’t really think about it. If you want to know “hey, is this book written in past tense?” you usually have to go to the book and check. It just doesn’t stand out to us as unique. So, if you’re asking the question “should I write in past tense?” the answer is probably yes. With the exception of a few people I have known, most writers just begin writing that way.

There is one thing that is important to consider when writing in past tense or, more importantly, when editing a work that is written in past tense: know what to do when you step into the past. That seems like a no-brainer, until you actually sit down to do it or read a passage and wonder if you did it right. Remember, you’re writing in the past tense, so it isn’t as easy as changing “is” to “was”. You have to know how to construct the proper tense.

That is to say, you have to know when to stay in past tense and when to use past perfect tense. The answer to that is a sort of simple. If you’re going to be changing scene and going into a flashback, you can stay in past tense. Writing large passages in past perfect is clumsy and will probably sound odd to the reader. Since flashbacks tend to involve contextual clues that we’re changing time periods (or should), changing tense isn’t necessary to signal to the reader that the events happening are ones that occurred previous to the story. On the other hand, if you’re referencing a past event, but staying within the scene and within the same time period, using past perfect is needed. It is what clues the reader that the referenced event took place prior to that point in the story.

Present Tense

Just as I can’t say that there is a time to write in past tense, I can’t say there is a time to write in present tense either. While it is done in fiction, writing in present tense is far more rare than writing in past. For a writer unaccustomed to writing in the present tense, it can be very difficult to keep up with, making editing challenging. What is more, present tense is not a forgiving tense. Present tense has the feeling of immediate action. If you are going to write in present tense, you must be able to keep up a quick and steady pace in your story. If your pacing lags or becomes choppy, it will stand out to your reader in ways that might otherwise be masked in past tense.

Like in past tense, the question of when to change tenses can be challenging as well. Just because the time period changes into flashback doesn’t mean that you will want to switch from present to past. Take, for example, a story I just reviewed for StreetWraith.net: Panos Nomikos’ <i>Fateful Eyes</i>. The story is told in present tense, but when he changes time periods, he doesn’t change to past tense. In fact, you have to get through a couple of frames of time period before he actually changes from present to past tense.

Why? That is actually a pretty simple answer. His narrative runs in multiple time periods. For the time periods that are active narrative, he keeps the story in present tense. This keeps helps keep the pace moving forward and the tension high in each time period that he skips to. When he finally goes into the past tense is when he is going into the past before his different narrative periods. It is the true flashback of the story, and therefore needs to be told in past tense.

So, when skipping time periods, ask yourself a simple question: is this skip just a flashback or am I carrying an active narrative in this time period, one that I will probably return to in the story. If it is a true flashback, I recommend skipping to past tense. True flashbacks in present tense narratives just feel…odd when told in present tense. On the other hand, if the change in time period is going to become a co- or counter-narrative, then it is best to keep the tense in the present. To do otherwise risks slowing down the pacing, which should only happen when you want it to. Of course if the purpose of the co- or counter-narrative is to slow pace to something relaxing, well…

Another question for present tense: If you’re discussing past events in the moment do you use past tense, or do you still use past perfect?

My answer: past tense.

She follows the shadow to a church yard. It’s a large church, very old from its look. It is, in fact, over two-hundred years old and the first thing that was built in Werbrook. She waves a hand and the shadow seems to part with the movement, moving like smoke. She opens the gate to the church yard and walks in. She dislikes the way the earth squishes under the loose cobblestones. 

In this passage, it is just natural to flow from present to past tense when discussing the old church’s history. If I had instead skipped to past perfect, the passage would have felt disjointed. You would have felt like something was being skipped, and you would be right. The past would have been being glossed over for something further behind.

I do have a couple of more notes about tense.

1. You will switch around tense a lot. Dialogue may demand it. Thoughts may as well. There is a pretty simple rule to follow, however, in determining if you should write thoughts in present tense or past tense (assuming your narrative is in past tense). If you are writing direct thoughts, peering into the mind and displaying thoughts the way you would dialogue, then you should write in whatever tense the character would be thinking in. Are the thoughts of the past, then they should be in past. Future? Future. Present? Then obviously, the tense should be present. On the other hand, if you’re going to be summarizing thoughts, but not giving them like a thought-monologue, then keep the tense the same as the story.

2. Be brave. Sometimes you’ll start writing a story, and you’ll realize the tense is wrong. When you read a story that belongs in present tense, you can feel it. It is there in the pacing and the rise of tension. If your story doesn’t seem to move in past tense, try out present.

3. Experiment. When I wrote Harbin & Klai, I wanted to do something startling to really cue my reader that the mysterious Stranger was really an outsider. Now, the story is written in past tense, except when I am writing just about the Stranger. When she is on stage, I write in present tense. Yes, the shift is jarring. I wanted to take the chance on jarring the reader to make the Stranger a little more alien to the setting around her. I plan to continue the series in the future, and this otherness is something that is going to come up again for her. Of course, once she’s on scene with Harbin and Klai, I move the story back to past tense. Yeah, there’s a little symbolism there as well.

Okay, I’ve gone on a long time about tense. Next time, we’ll be discussing another aspect of fiction to look out for in editing. Until then, good writing everyone.

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