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?

5 thoughts on “Tenses.

  1. Very interesting, and something we’ve discussed previously as well. I never remember being thought what tense to use in story telling when I was in school, but the convention in Finnish is tto use the past imperfect one also. When reading in Enlish, I don’t really care whether it’s written in that or present tense, as long as it’s done so consistently. Nothing (okay, maybe some things) throws me out of story as fast as switching between tenses without any clear reason or need. Interestingly though, when I think about reading in Finnish, the present tense jars much more, so I think some of my tolerance for it in English is due to its second language status.

    When writing in English, present tense is my current default choice and the one that I automatically fall into unless I make a conscious decision to go past imperfect. The sense of immediacy and being in the middle of the action are precisely the things that appeal to me. It is also a reflection of the fact that I’ve been doing a lot of co-authoring over the last few years with Pushkin and we tend to write in borderline rpg fashion, going back and forth with povs.

    • I can see that rpg type co-authorship can alter the tense used. I’ve done some of that and had to do a lot of editing to get the results to fit with narrative I’d written before and after.

      I wonder if different languages tend to default to a particular narrative tense? And it’s interesting that you choose the present but only in your second language!

      In shorter fiction I can nowadays cope with almost anything, though when I first came across something written in present tense I was really thrown. But for novels, I find it much harder to accept present!


  2. In general, I prefer the past tense, somehow it feels more natural. The present tense can feel sometimes a bit pretentious in the wannabe-artistic way. The past perfect is quite another problem, cause I still don’t really get it; I know it in the ‘theoretical’ way, but I think I don’t really feel it. Before reading your examples, most probably I’d write it as the #a, cause I’d have assumed that using past simple would be judged as incorrect.

    He knew he had seen her before somewhere but was unsure when or where.
    ‘She seemed familiar but he couldn’t quite place her’. But it’s maybe more colloquial? Just a try.

    a) He was crossing the road when a car almost knocked him down.
    I totally agree it’s the best version just for this reason: impression of movement.

    He was flying, soaring, winging his way through the clouds.
    He flew, soared, winged his way through the clouds.

    Hm, I like the former way and I tended to use it (probably overuse?) in such cases, but my beta(s) use to correct it for the latter, hence I’ve learned to make it rather this way now… I didn’t realise it’s rather the matter of style than correctness. I usually work with Americans, maybe I should insist for my choice more often? But I guess it also depends on circumstances, and I don’t really feel confident enough in English, so I rather rely on beta’s advice, American or not.

    I personally find long pieces of writing in present tense quite hard to read.
    Same here!

    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.
    Heh, same here. *g*

    I used the present tense once or two, but only for a drabble. I think the tense fits nicely what is intended as a picture-like impression, a single scene presenting some particular atmosphere, but doesn’t work well for long pieces. I agree with what you say about present tense in thrillers and such.

    My preferences don’t change with the language I read in. My native literary tradition is quite similar – the prevalence of the past tense. Myself, getting down to writing anything with a plot, I’d use the past tense automatically, but in very short pieces it depends on a case. As I said, I happened to use the present tense, but I don’t think it was entirely conscious and considered choice. It was something that just came with the tense included. The tense was a part of the idea in a way, I mean, it just felt natural in that time. It worked with this particular idea, but it wouldn’t with another, if it makes any sense.

    • Sorry about the late reply. I am finally online again in Portugal, but not for more than very limited access. Thanks for your detailed response!

      Yes, you can definitely get round using the past perfect, but so often it’s the way we speak (in England, anyway), so it seems clumsy to find an alternative. In speech, needless to say, it is shortened further by using he’d, she’d etc.

      The Americans, or a section of them, are hung up on the style guide produced by a guy called Strunk (I think – I have limited internet at the moment so I haven’t checked the spelling). He had no academic qualifications – I think he was a self educated newspaper editor. He wrote largely for journalists and tried to cure them of using the passive, which is quite a reasonable intention, but ended up scaring them off ever using the word ‘was’ which of course helps to form the imperfect… The use of the imperfect is certainly a matter of style, and you will find – probably have found – it in the works of British writers. Have the confidence to stick with it against the advice of American betas, because the more people explain to the Americans that theirs is not the only form of English, the better. Of course, there are Americans who know how to use the imperfect, too – mainly more literary writers, or those with some academic background in languages. It has two important uses – to express ongoing motion and to express an incomplete action which is then interrupted. You clearly know it – so use it!!

      It’s interesting that one of my other friends who uses the present a lot in her writing is not a native English speaker (though her English is virtually perfect) and admits that in her own language (Finnish) she is more likely to be happy with the past/narrative tense!

      • Speaking only for myself, regardless of my choices in narration, in the purely linguistic sense for me it’s easier to grasp the difference between English present simple and continuous than between any perfect and non-perfect tenses. I’m not sure why, cause in theory it’s easier to find in Polish some functional equivalent for the latter (perfect/non-perfect) than for the former (simple/present).

        Thank you for your explanations, all this post was quite helpful. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.