61. chester fountain

I have been thinking about the use of tenses in writing.

I was taught (and yes, I’m a dinosaur) to use the past simple tense for telling stories. All the books I read were this tense, sometimes known as narrative tense, and I got used to both reading and writing in it. But how far should we go in sticking with one tense?  I thought I’d look at a few tenses and my feelings about them.

The past perfect tense.

I have always appreciated the advice that the use of the past perfect (‘he had begun’, rather than ‘he began’) should be avoided whenever possible, and left for occasions when it was essential to differentiate the times involved. Whole passages written in the past perfect are hard to read and usually unnecessary; the time can often be suggested by other phrases at the beginning. Consider the following examples:

a)He had always liked the quietness of the early mornings. He had risen, dressed, and breakfasted before most people were awake. He had enjoyed the stillness, the birdsong uninterrupted by cars or conversation. He had luxuriated in the knowledge that this was his time. Since the accident that damaged his hearing, he no longer appreciated these things.

b)Before the accident that damaged his hearing, he liked the quietness of the early mornings. He rose, dressed, and breakfasted before most people were awake. He enjoyed the stillness, the birdsong uninterrupted by cars or conversation. He luxuriated in the knowledge that this was his time. Now, he no longer appreciated these things.

The second version is, in my opinion, easier to read and gives exactly the same information. But of course there are occasions when the use of the past perfect is mandatory, if the author is not to employ a great deal of circumlocution. Consider:

 He knew he had seen her before somewhere but was unsure when or where.

I have tried, unsuccessfully, to replace the past perfect in this sentence. ‘Had seen’ can be erased but then you need ‘had been’, ‘had appeared’ or something similar to make sense.

The past imperfect tense.

I have always looked askance at American editors (to my knowledge this is something totally confined to the USA) who suggest that the use of ‘was’ is unacceptable. Sometimes, the imperfect tense is the only one that will do. Consider the following:

a) He was crossing the road when a car almost knocked him down.

b) He crossed the road. A car almost knocked him down.

Note that in the second version, the act of crossing the road is finished. We have no idea when the car almost knocked the character down. Did it mount the pavement? Of course we could alter the information to read:

c) A car almost knocked him down as he crossed the road.

d) As he crossed the road a car almost knocked him down.

But quite often the writer wants to establish an impression of movement before introducing something that might curtail that movement. The contrast is important. Hence the first version.

A whole passage written in the imperfect is unlikely to be either necessary or easy to read, although to show movement, it might be necessary to use more than one imperfect verb in a sentence e.g.

He was flying, soaring, winging his way through the clouds. (Note that ‘was’ is not repeated and is assumed to apply to all the actions.)

‘He flew, soared, winged his way through the clouds’ does not, I submit, have the same effect and the ‘music’ of the sentence, read aloud, is drastically altered.

 There may be cases of too much use of the tense, but to cut it out altogether seems arbitrary and strange. Admonitions about its use seem to go hand in hand with a misunderstanding of verbs and a fear of using the passive voice, which is certainly something to be avoided wherever possible in a story because it makes the account seem impersonal. That’s one reason for its use in reports or other non-fiction documents although even there it is less than ideal. But the difference between ‘he was running to catch the train when the rain started’ (imperfect) and ‘this effect was observed by several scientists’ (passive) is surely one all editors should understand.

The present tense.

There is a fashion, one that has become more and more pronounced in the last few years, for stories to be written in the present tense. I remember a time when the only use of the present would be for a section where the author needed to engender a sense of immediacy or urgency in contrast with the rest of the writing. I have a feeling the current use of the present is intended to convey a sense that the reader is watching a film, that events are happening as the reader reads, and that everything is both current and exciting. I can understand this motive, but I do wonder how the writer can then impose an even greater sense of urgency when required.

I personally find long pieces of writing in present tense quite hard to read. I am getting more used to it, but it is not my favourite way to take in information and I have been known to put down a book after the first page having realised that the present tense is to be used throughout. I think when I read I want to know what happened, not what is happening. I need to have some certainty in the back of my mind that for the author at least, the story is finished, and I can rely on it reaching a conclusion. I lose this if the present tense is the chosen one.

This is obviously to some extent due to my own upbringing and habits, but it is also a reaction to everything seeming to be too immediate and less of a story. Stories, for me, take place outside my own time and place, and need to be told in a form that suits that slight distance. I have come across thrillers and detective stories that use the present tense technique and I find them irritating; when everything is present and immediate there is less room for surprise or shock.  I have accepted some present tense fanfiction with a sigh, if the plot is appealing, especially fantasy or sci fi tales set around familiar characters transported in time and space. I have got used to the tense in short stories or even shorter pieces of fiction (e.g. flash fiction) but I have to say that in novels I dislike it intensely.

I would never, ever write in the present tense. I would find it extremely awkward to do so. The present appears quite often enough in dialogue and the narrative in between stays, for me, firmly in the past.

How do other people react to the different tenses? Does it depend on the reader’s age, native language, familiarity with particular types of documentation, or any other factors? What do you think? And which tense do you automatically start to use when you begin to write?