Now and Then: The Battle of the Tenses

Howdy boys and girls!  I thought that today I would talk about something I’ve been noticing a whole lot more as I machete my way through the jungles of my novel, and that is tenses.

Now, quick elementary-school run-through of what a ‘tense’ is in writing.  Tense is the time, defined as past, present or future.  Someone can write in any of these tenses.  Tense, however, is not to be confused with point-of-view, which is something else entirely.  You can pretty much combine any tense and any POV, although some are much more popular than others.  We’ll put POV on the back-burner today, though, and focus on tense.

Here are some examples,

in case any of my readers aren’t very familiar.  We’ll start with the most popular, which until recently was past, (although present is getting more popular.)

Catherine lifted the spoon to her lips and ate the raisin bran, her brows furrowed as she struggled to figure out the answer to her crossword puzzle. Suddenly the back door banged open and a huge sheepdog barreled in. “Rocky,”she managed around the barrage of dog-kisses, “I’m glad to see you too!”

As you can see, everything in the above clip reads as though it happened some time ago and the book is recounting these events.  (Sorry it’s not particularly titillating or anything!)  That is past tense, and arguably the most popular format.

Next is present, which has been getting much more use lately in writing.  Present-tense has become a favorite of YA authors.

The door opens again, this time letting in Rocky’s owner Dave.  “Rocky,” Dave sighs in exasperation, his manly appeal making Catherine blush.  She gently rebuffs the large dog and pushes her hair behind her ear.  “It was no problem,” she says, trying to hide the crossword with the cereal box.

Again nothing award-winning, but you get the idea–this one makes it sound like the actions are happening right now, as they’re being narrated.

And last is future tense, but as far as I can tell, future tense isn’t actually used to write stories, because… well, I mean, imagine it!

Dave will cross to Catherine and smile at her.  Catherine will smile back.  He’ll pull back on Rocky’s collar.  “Come on Rocky, let’s go,” Dave will say, and then he will lead Rocky back out the door.  When he is gone, Catherine will let out a sigh and suddenly she’ll know the answer to the crossword she didn’t know before.

Not exactly the best kind of futuristic thing I can think of!

Tenses and you.

I’ve been thinking about tense a lot lately because I’m having such a hard time sticking to one in Life of Gaia.  It has gotten to the point where I have actually abandoned trying to keep track and left it to editing, because trying to keep to one or the other is just taking up so much time that I feel like I wouldn’t get anywhere if I had to keep going back and correcting myself.

Not that I feel alone in this!  Sticking to a tense, while incredibly important, is also one of the harder things about writing.  Nine pieces out of ten, when I read things other people have written for critiques or workshopping in class, contain tense errors.  It’s not so bad for smaller or shorter works, but apparently any longer than that and it’s just easy to slip into the past or present, even for just a sentence or two.  (I wish I was really talking about time travel. xD)  You might not even notice it, which is the biggest problem.

Luckily it’s pretty easily caught on a second check, especially if you read your work aloud, which I always recommend.  Nothing helps you catch things like reading aloud.  Your brain can smooth over a lot of pesky errors, especially when you know what it’s supposed to say, but actually reading the thing aloud forces you to wake up and smell the coffee–or where your otherwise past-tense story suddenly jumps into the present!  (Or vice-versa.)

 

I think that Life of Gaia will probably be written in past-tense, simply because the way the story works I want it to seem like she really is relating it from a point in the future… Not that I mind present-tense.  Actually, I used to dislike present-tense writing, but when I read The Hunger Games I changed my mind. (That book is just so good, I love it!)

Like everything else about writing, choosing the tense and POV of your story should be a very well-thought-out and conscious decision, not chosen just because it is ‘cool’ or ‘sounds interesting to you’.  Think of your audience, your genre, your story, and what you’re trying to get across with these decisions.  And most of all, stick to your tense!  I’ll try to do the same. 🙂

Celeste

(Plus a superbly-awesome video of some crazy person who actually WENT THROUGH ALL THE EPISODES OF STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION and made this ‘Call Me Maybe’ music parody.  I’m both frightened and awed.)

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