#WriterWednesday: The Tension of Tenses

How does a writer choose whether to tell a story in past or present tense? Is it advisable ever to switch between the two? My answer below. xo!

Hi, Jenna: so, upon revisiting my project, I’ve found myself playing with verb tense. I want to jump into the quasi-near present day, and the present tense feels about right for that. Yet, I’m reading All the Light We Cannot See, and it is all in present tense about the past, which I love. In your experience, is jumping around verb tense a good idea? I suppose it varies story to story, but the section I am working on right now is only about 16 pages near the end if not the actual ending itself. What do you think?  ~ Dr. S.

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Hi, Dr. S! So you know your impulse to jump around with verb tense? No, DON’T EVER DO THAT.

French TWSU cover sans text

I mean, not within the flow of the narrative. It’s very confusing for the reader. Of course, if you’re writing in present tense and you have to narrate something that happened in the past, you’d use past tense to describe that event. (If you have my novel The Stormchasers, I’ll point you to a passage, pp. 79-83, where I had to segue from present to past to present, It’s a gear-switching device.) But overall, it’s not a good idea.

There are pros and cons attached to each tense. The present tense is the “tense tense”: readers don’t have any guarantee that the characters will survive the situation they’re in. The reader is strapped into the roller coaster along with the character. But present tense can often read as dreamy, which can read as slow. I chose present tense for my first novel Those Who Save Us because the book is so much about the persistence of memory; I wanted the reader to feel as though the memories were still as alive as what the characters felt that day. For The Stormchasers, I used present tense to create suspense. Readers almost NEVER notice the present tense in TWSU but they do comment on it, sometimes unfavorably, in The Stormchasers–I believe because ‘Chasers is a faster-paced book and perhaps the slower-feeling present tense feels incongruous. I stand by my choice, but for faster-paced or traditional books, you might want to stick with the traditional past-tense, “once upon a time there was….” narration.

If you’re talking about playing around with tense to see which better suits your book, by all means, do! Once you choose a tense based on what you want the tone to be–faster or slower? does the book’s content demand a dreamier cadence? a snappier one?–make sure you STICK WITH IT. Few things are as annoying to a reader as inconsistency.

I hope this helps!

3 Responses to #WriterWednesday: The Tension of Tenses

  1. I am writing my novel entirely in the present tense, as you did in both your novels. I do not, however, show my characters inner thoughts. I use the character’s actions/behavior to impart to the readers what they are thinking or their motivations. I believe this is called a cinematic point-of-view. I thought it important at one point in the novel , for the development of the main character, to impart her back story, so I took a page of The Stormchasers. I wrote a chapter detailing her past actions/behavior whole growing up. I also set this chapter in the present tense.
    I find writing in the present tense, without display of the characters inner thoughts, emotions, or motivations to be challenging, but fun. In a sense it is like writing a screenplay.
    Thanks for posting this issue in your blog. As always, I learn a lot as a writer from you.
    Mark

    • Mark, thank you so much for this interesting response to my tenses post! I had the privilege of writing the screenplay for Those Who Save Us and while I did find it challenging not to be able to simply state what the characters’ thoughts were, it was a valuable exercise. And you’re right, writing this way as well as in the present tense is reminiscent of writing a screenplay. I wish you Godspeed with your current project!

      Yours,
      Jenna.

  2. Does this mean Those Who Save Us is coming to the big screen? If so, it is exciting news indeed! Given the admittedly strong sexual content, what do you think the film will be rated?

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