When Is Your Narrator?: Picking the Right Tense

“Past, Present, and Future”; photo © 2009 MissLeslie17 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What to do with tense? I wrote about this briefly a few months ago, in the context of narrative mode, and I mentioned a few narrative modes and how they were used by their authors. But how do you pick a tense to use?

To review, narrative mode has three components:

  1. Person – First (“I”), second (“you”), or third (“he”).
  2. Tense – Past, present, or future.
  3. Voice – Objective, Limited, or Omniscient

(I’ll cite some examples of narrative mode in a later post.)

For now, I’m going to look in more detail at the second one, Tense, because of a question Paula B (of The Writing Show) recently asked on FaceBook. (I’ll look in more detail at Person and Voice in future posts.) She asked, “What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of present and past tense for novels and memoirs?”

Before we answer that question, let’s look at what we mean by “tense.”

Our word tense comes to us through Old French from the Latin tempus, which means “time.” And indeed tense tells us in what time the action is happening: past, present, or future. But what does it mean to write a story in “past tense”? It means that the action is being described as having happened in the past. But even in a past-tense narrative mode, individual sentences may occur in present tense, past-perfect tense, or even in future tense. How can that be?

The answer is that tense indicates what time the action occurred relative to the time the words were spoken. So for narrative tense to have any meaning, you must know who is doing the narrating. Or more precisely, when he is narrating it. And your mind—I’m convinced—subconsciously intuits the frame of reference of the narrator and adjusts its understanding appropriately.

Past Tense, Present Tense, Future Tense

Take a memoir for instance, usually written in past tense (first person). So the narrator is the memoir author himself, the person who had the experiences, and he’s describing them as though sitting in the same room as you, looking back at them. Consider this snippet from my own romantic memoir, Love through the Eyes of an Idiot:

We made tentative plans for Wednesday night, but she refused to commit. I understood that she was hurting from past relationships, and that she had other friends, but I also felt like an outsider to her, because she seemed to have less and less time for me.

Past tense, plain and simple, because I’m describing an experience that happened to me years ago. But then how do you account for the following bits, from the same chapter?

She explained that after classes that day, her friend had asked her over, and she needed to study for an important exam the following day…

She told me that she didn’t mean to be unavailable, but that she had lost track of the time.

Looking back, I understand how she felt, and I understand what she did, and I agree with her priorities. But at the time, I felt like I was at the bottom of her list, and that sucked.

How can I use past-perfect-tense verbs like “had asked” and “had lost,” or present-tense verbs like “understand” and “agree”?

See, you read the book as though I were there with you, in the same room as you, reflecting back on these experiences as I describe them. But while I tell you the story, I can still refer to things happening in the present time, as well as explain things that had led up to the events of the story (using the past perfect).

Take another example, a story written in present tense: “Harry drags himself out of the house, down to the grocery store. He shells out his $2.59 for a lousy loaf of bread.” And so forth. Here, we understand—without anybody telling us—that the narrator is a fly on the wall who’s recording these events as though he were right there watching the action. He’s not reflecting back on the events, because then he would be using past tense. Rather, he’s describing the action as he observes it. But this narrator could also explain, in the middle of this story, “Harry just got paid yesterday, and now he wonders where the money all went.” And we naturally understand how that fits in with the story, even though it includes a verb in the past tense. Because it’s past tense relative to the narrator’s frame of reference.

We could even use future tense. “Harry doesn’t know it yet, but his luck is going to turn any minute now.” (Maybe that’s a poor sentence to put into the story, because it tells rather than shows, but my point here is that it makes sense grammatically within the context of the story.)

So…

We also have the perfect tenses:

Choosing Your Tense: When’s the Narrator?

There are two places from which the narrator can describe the action, which place his frame of reference.

  1. in the same place as us (past-tense narrative mode)
  2. in the same place as the action (present-tense narrative mode)

There are also more unusual narrative modes. For example, prophetic literature may be written in future tense, because it describes events that haven’t yet occurred. But this also sits the narrator next to us (case #1 above), and he uses future tense simply because the story he’s telling happens in the future.

Really, as an author, you’re not choosing the tense of the narrative, even though that’s how we usually think of it. Rather, even if you don’t realize it, you’re actually choosing the frame of reference of the narrator. You do this in order to optimize how the narrator tells the story. Once you know where and when the narrator resides, then the tense in which he speaks automatically comes together, depending on what he’s talking about at any given moment.

So the trick in choosing a tense is really just the trick in choosing where you want your narrator to be. Do you want him to sit in the room with the reader and tell his story as he reflects on it (past tense)? Or do you want him to dictate it into a tape recorder as the action is happening (present tense)?

Past tense (option #1) often feels more natural, because in conversation we typically tell stories that happened in the past using past tense. In past tense, you can also more naturally include anachronistic details that fit in logically with the narrative. For example, you could stop and explain “future” implications of the story without interrupting the narrative, as I did in my memoir example above, when I used the present tense in my past-tense narrative. This works, because we intuitively understand that “I agree” places my agreement now, in this modern time, and we make that connection without any further explanation.

With present tense (option #2), the reader can feel much closer to the action, because it feels like it’s happening all around him, because the narrator is describing the story into a tape recorder in real time, as the action is occurring, rather than reflecting back on the story after years of distance. With this option, you can more easily distinguish between present time (i.e., the current action), past time (i.e., what happened before), and past-relative-to-past time (i.e., what preceded what happened before, using the past-perfect). This could be especially useful, for example, if you have a first-person narrator telling his story (in present tense), and then flashing back on events that happened before (in past tense), including other events that preceded those events (in past-perfect tense). To sort out all those timeframes using option #1, you’d have to use a lot of context in order to keep the reader from getting confused. (In fact, I’m not sure I haven’t made the situation more confusing, myself. How’s that for befuddlement?)

In the final analysis, it really depends on what you’re more comfortable with. Choosing a tense, like any writing decision, is a creative choice. Any story you can tell in past-tense narrative you can also tell in present-tense. But one or the other might feel more awkward to you, depending on the requirements of your story. At least now you can hopefully qualify those requirements a little more easily.

Keep writing!
-TimK

About J. Timothy King
J. Timothy King

I'm the eldest of three siblings, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, the husband of a wonderful wife, and an indie author of life-expanding character fiction. When not writing, I read, watch old TV and movies, play bass guitar, and tend to my family in our Boston-area apartment.

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Comments

sir, will u write a simple story three times (same story) which each one is written in different tenses (one in past tnse, one in present tnse n last one in future tense). I hope u are willing to help me in understanding these tenses this way. u can send those stories to my email, virusxz7@yahoo.com/shima.azza@yahoo.com. I prefer the first email. Thank you very much for spending your precious time.

J. Timothy King

For some examples of narrative mode (not only tense but also person and voice), see the last post in this series, “Playing with Narrative Mode.” -TimK

I have written my first novel. I used first person past, but the editor who looked at my first chapter said that it’s just not usually done. I really like writing that way, even though some parts may get confusing, like flashbacks to the past. I’m in a quandary, trying to edit my book to be of consistent tense.

Also, there is the question of describing the character traits of a person who is still alive. That seems to get really messed up when using past tense. Can I still use the present for that? Example “She loves water.” rather than “She loved water”. What if the character died by the end of the book, would that make a difference? (I almost wrote that into the story, but changed my mind)

J. Timothy King

Hi, Angel. I have definitely read books that tell the bulk of the story in first-person past-tense narrative. The most obvious: memoirs and autobiographies. But some editors may not like stories written this way, because it doesn’t fit the genre (i.e., the market) or because of their personal preferences. And there are some pretty strong opinions out there.

I was once chatting online with someone who said she had never read a good book written in first-person, and she didn’t know whether it was even possible to do so. I mentioned The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, one of my all-time favorite SF novels. And she replied, “I do not consider TMIaHM a good novel.” As if anyone in the world ought to care what she thought. That conversation ended pretty quickly.

But if she were your editor, and if you wanted to continue working with her, you might need to be more diplomatic and flexible than I am usually capable of. (Of course, it also depends on the relationship. If she works for a publisher whom you’re courting, that’s one thing. If you’re paying for her advice, that’s something else entirely.)

I have also read (and probably written, too) sections of such a story using present tense, because the narrator was talking about a character whom she still had a relationship with. But if the character had died by the time the narrator told the story, she would not use present tense (unless she had a relationship with his ghost).

On the other hand, I also had a piece rejected by a publication editor who thought my tense was inconsistent. That conversation did not last very long, either.

So, yeah, I think it’s perfectly fine to use different tenses, as you would in everyday language. (No, this is not rocket science! It’s something every English-speaking baby masters by the time he’s four years old.) But if you’re working with a pedantic editor, you may need to decide how far you’re willing to push, how much you really care about something so minor.

Best of luck!
-TimK

P.S. WRT to a flashback in a past-tense narrative: You can use past-perfect tense. Or sometimes, if it’s an extended flashback, I’ll set the stage with past-perfect and then switch context so I can continue in past-tense for the remainder of the flashback. I don’t know whether anyone else does this, though, although I don’t find such things confusing. The trick, in my opinion, is to anticipate the switch, as if you’re switching camera angles as a film director, so that the audience can follow the action from before and after the switch. (But your mileage may vary.)

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