Making Sense of Tense

Here’s an article about ‘tense’ that I wrote for the Melbourne Age newspaper in 2008. Happy reading …

Making Sense of Tense

If you’re reading a story at the moment – and I really hope you are – it’s probably written in the past tense. Most stories are for very good reasons. However, experimenting with other tenses, particularly the present tense, might be just what’s needed to infuse your story with a whole new energy.

Tense means ‘time’. It refers to the period of time in which a story takes place. There are many different tenses – at least twelve – but usually stories are told in the three basics: the past, the present or the future. Or a mix of the three.

Here’s how to tell the basic (or ‘simple’) tenses apart.

Past tense – Jill rode her bike.
Present tense – Jill rides her bike.
Future tense – Jill will ride her bike.

As stories written in the future tense are rare (I can’t actually recall ever reading one), I’ll stick with the differences between stories told in the past and present tenses.

The logic of a story written in the past tense is clear: a series of events have happened some time ago, the author has written them down, and you’re now reading about them. Very simple. Very clear. Very logical.

Less simple and clear is the logic of stories written in the present tense. The present tense suggests that the story is unfolding as you’re reading it. But how can that be if it’s already written down? When on earth is it supposed to have happened?

This logic problem is distracting for some readers. It can just about ruin a story for them. And that’s fair enough. But you know what? As a reader, it doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I love stories written in the present tense. To me, present tense stories are vivid, urgent and fully involving. Reading one feels like the difference between watching live action and a replay.

And, as a writer, when I’ve taken the risk and written in the present tense it’s as though a fresh light has been cast over my story. That’s particularly true when I’ve been writing the unavoidable, slower parts of the narrative.

Consider these two (very slow) sentences:

Jack sat on the couch. (past tense)
Jack sits on the couch. (present tense)

Neither sentence is too thrilling, mainly because Jack isn’t doing much. But the second sentence feels slightly more interesting. It reads as if there’s a touch of forward momentum about Jack’s decision to sit on the couch. It also hints at the possibility of something exciting happening soon.

So, the same action (or lack of it) written in different tenses creates a subtly different level of energy. As a writer, I love it when my words have momentum and energy.

So, if you want a smooth, clear logic to your story, the past tense might be your thing. But if immediacy, involvement and energy are what you’re after, maybe give the present tense a try.

As for the future tense, that’s for another time …

March 29, 2009

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