Choosing Your Tense: From Ever-once to Never-when
Walk inside me without silence,
Kill the past and change the tense.
Empty gnawing and the ache is soaring;
Take me places that make more sense.
― Melina Marchetta, The Piper’s Son
Albert Einstein said that “the distinction between the past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” And while he is no doubt right on a cosmic level – I would not dare challenge Einstein on a cosmic level! – every day we writers are faced with tense decisions which are far from illusory.
Before even setting pen to paper, we must choose between telling our story in the past or present tense, mindful of just how that choice will influence what is to come. I am omitting the future tense today as it’s virtually never used; it presents problems of divine omniscience that tie you in verbal knots and stretch credulity to the breaking point. Indeed, off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single book told in future tense, either simple, perfect, or pluperfect.
Most of us tell our stories in simple past tense: he said, she said, they galloped across the green and tripped the light fantastic beneath the gibbous moon…. This is the natural tense of Once-upon-a-time, familiar to the ear and so making the reader comfortable for the journey ahead. This is the tense of Dickens and O’Conner, Brontë, Forster, and Marquez, to name but a very few. Regardless of the point of view (something I will discuss in future), working with the past tense has the advantage of implying a degree of knowledge: events have already happened, the author/narrator knows what is around the next bend and how things turn out. Some people feel this creates a distance – a sort of fictional fourth wall. To my mind – and this may be because I’m talking about my comfort zone – this layer of prescience gives the storyteller extra latitude.
Less familiar, yet increasing used in modern literature (thank you Runyon, Updike, and, recently, Suzanne Collins, to name a few) is simple present-tense narrative. Being in the world of “I am” rather than “I was” creates of certain immediacy and some say a cinematic, even IMAX quality that, for better or worse, demands to be noticed, though perhaps more for form than substance. There is no fourth wall, no distance of time. You are standing along side the characters, in the umbra of their moment. It can be quite exhilarating when done well. As a matter of personal taste, I find it rather unsettling for long stretches of prose, though that is likely my more traditional leanings – some have called me positively medieval; go figure! Predilections aside, I must admit, the more I read of present-tense narratives, the less time it takes me to adjust my ear and go with the authorial flow.
Of course, as with so many things literary, there is a lot of mixing and matching going on. An epistolary novel like Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” is present tense when Celie is starting her letters, but then becomes past tense when she describes what has been happening in her life. Or, as with Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius,” you might have a prelude where the protagonist, in the present, speaks directly to the reader, and then jumps back into the past to tell his/her story. You can even have alternating sections/chapters, some past, some present, some first person, some second or third. (Now second person POV is fascinating and very tricky but that’s for another time.)
In short, you are the author, you decide on the when of your story, and you can puzzle together all sorts of combinations. While you are having a blast with your verbal gymnastics, remember to have your verbs in proper tense and be sure you don’t lose your reader. Ask yourself why a particular tense suits a particular story. Put reason behind all your choices, logic dictated by the needs of the story and not imposed from the outside for the sake of showing off or because all the other kids are doing it.
And remember the words of Winston Churchill: “If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”
Now, have fun playing through the ever-once of never-when. Perhaps a quick game of hide-and-seek in the here-and-now….