One of the first book launches I ever attended was the launch of George Ivanoff’s Gamer’s Challenge. It was a great event, not least because of the MC who managed to keep a room full of writers entertained and laughing – can you think of a tougher crowd, especially when you are keeping them from their wine? Further encounters with Michael have convinced me that he is one of the most engaging guys in Aussie spec fic circles, with a very cool steampunk sensibility to boot. Just as important, though, is the fact he is a vastly accomplished and experienced writer, and it’s a pleasure to invite him here to give some tips on tense.
Things Are Getting Tense
You face a number of important decisions when writing a story, some more important than others. While the choice between dark chocolate Tim Tams and milk chocolate Tim Tams might take up a considerable amount of writer brainspace, decisions about character, motivation, setting and plot sequencing are probably more crucial in the successful outcome of one’s story. There are, however, aspects even more fundamental than these, matters that are verging on the mechanical but are vital in making your story all that it could be.
Two of the most important involve choices about Tense and Point of View. I’ve previously written an article where I give some thought to the pros and cons of the various points of view a writer can adopt. Now it’s time to do the same for the prickly matter of Tense.
In formal grammatical terms, the tense of a verb indicates the degree of completeness of an event, and traditionally is considered as an sign of when something happened. In most straightforward terms, we tend to think of Past Tense, Present Tense and Future Tense. After that it gets much more complex and much messier. It is with some relief on my part, therefore, that I’m writing about writing, and not about grammar.
Whether you realise it or not, when you write the first word of that first sentence of that first draft, you’re committed to writing in one tense or other. Sometimes it’s only on the rewriting that one begins to question the tense used, and then the can of worms opens.
Broadly speaking, you have to decide between two tenses: the Past Tense and the Present Tense. I know, I know, some have chosen to write in the Future Tense (‘Brianna will be going through the door and then she will encounter the mysterious stranger.’) but while that sort of thing has a sort of old-fashioned avant garde charm, it’s hardly the stuff of mainstream narrative.
First some examples, just to make sure we have everyone on board.
Present Tense: ‘Brianna goes through the door and she meets a mysterious stranger.’
Past Tense: ‘Brianna went through the door and she met a mysterious stranger.’
And before the nitpickers jump up and down too much (and where would we be without nitpickers? Overrun with nits?) you can have many variations on these while still remaining, broadly, within the domains of the Present and the Past – ‘Brianna is going through the door and she is meeting a mysterious stranger.’ ‘Brianna has gone through the door and she has met a mysterious stranger.’ English is a language not without possibilities, after all.
So what tense do you use? It all depends. Both have advantages. Both have disadvantages. Sometimes, you only know if you have chosen the better tense by rewriting a section in the alternative tense. Often, the contrast is stark and either reassures you that the better tense has been chosen, or it’s a striking demonstration of the benefits of the tense you should have chosen …
The Present Tense’s great quality is the immediacy it imparts. When done well, the Present Tense puts a reader right in the middle of the narrative and it unfolds in front of him or her. It’s happening here and now and you’re part of it!
The Past Tense, on the other hand, appeals to our expectations of a story as a recounting, as something that has already happened and we are only learning about it.
In that case, is it too much to say that reading the Present Tense is like being in the audience for a play, while reading the Past Tense is like listening to a story-teller tell a tale of days gone by?
The Present Tense can sound fresh, almost spontaneous – but in unexperienced hands it can sound breathless, as if the narrative is running on the spot. Sometimes it can verge on sounding as if the narrative is being made up as it goes along.
The Past Tense can sound authoritative and assured – but if done carelessly can be ponderous and distant, and the whole thing starts to resemble the opening title crawl from Star Wars.
Regardless of your choice of tense, one fundamental rule remains: DON’T CHANGE TENSE! Whatever tense you’ve chosen, stick to it throughout your piece. Naturally, this rule is like the Pirate Code and is more of a guideline than your actual rule, but I strongly suggest that you abide by it. Deliberate and conscious tense changing can be done, has been done, and continues to be done but unless you’re actively aiming to jar your readers or to upset them or to irritate them, don’t do it. Actually, even if you’re aiming to jar your readers or to upset them or to irritate them, don’t do it. Find some other way to impress – or annoy – them.
While it might sound revolutionary and experimental, tense jumping is actually tired, self-conscious and a too-easy device that draws attention to itself and away from the narrative.
I tend to write in the Past Tense, particularly for longer works. I have written Present Tense pieces, but mostly short stories. I like the naturalness of the Past Tense and the feel of working within a tradition that has deep, psychological resonance with us, that part of us that responds to and wants to be part of Story. Having said that, I have found times when only the Present Tense will do, with the intimacy that it brings and the seductiveness with which it works.
Which Tense? Whichever is right for your purposes.
Best-selling author of the ‘Laws of Magic’ series, Michael Pryor was born in Swan Hill, Victoria, and currently lives in Melbourne. He has worked as a drainer’s labourer, a truck driver, a bathroom accessories salesperson, an Internet consultant, a software developer, a textbook publisher, in a scrap metal yard and as a secondary school teacher.
Michael has published more than thirty popular and critically acclaimed novels, more than fifty short stories, and has over one million words in print. His work has been longlisted for an Inky award, shortlisted for the WAYBR award and six times shortlisted for the Aurealis Award. Seven of his books have been awarded Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book status.
For more, see his website www.michaelpryor.com.au