Working with Tenses

The tense you use in your story can add an extra element to your writing style. Writing the narrative in past tense with the character dialogue in present tense has been the most popular method for a long time. This is also the most comfortable and familiar to readers. But, increasingly, writers have been experimenting with tense, especially in shorter works and literary fiction.

Present tense has a faster pace than past tense. Combined with a first person narrative, a story written in present tense puts the reader directly into the action with the sense of immediacy and urgency that you create.

However present tense can tend to stick out like scaffolding while past tense disappears into the background, much like the "said" dialogue tags.

Pluperfect Tense (Past Perfect Tense)

Lengthy flashbacks don't need to remain in pluperfect tense when you're writing your narrative in past tense. This is especially relevant if dialogue is quoted in the flashback scene, as it's jarring for the reader to see "had said" too often. The opening sentence or two indicate the reference to the past; once this is established the narrator can move into that "past" scene, making the action current, as long as the start and end points are clear to avoid confusion.

If you find yourself writing "had" often in scenes that are too short to easily move into current action, there are a few things you can do to avoid this problem. The simplest is to use contractions as much as possible. “She’d said”, “He’d walked” roll off the tongue much better than “She had said” and “He had walked”.

Another idea is to have your character tell the story to another character instead of using a flashback. This allows the use of past tense while making it clear that the event is a memory. Or rethink your use of an entire flashback scene. Is it really necessary?

Present Presentation

If you can’t figure out another way around the issue, you might want to consider using present tense instead for your narrative, so that references to the past take the easier past tense.

Or another option that is gaining popularity is writing your flashbacks in present tense to give them the immediacy and timelessness of memories, while your current story is written in past tense. With this style it is important to clarify in some way (for example, leaving a double paragraph space as a segue) that you're referring to a memory and not accidentally mixing tenses.

Deliberately Mixing Past and Present Tense

I've read some interesting stories using a mixture of tenses. One book involved a current investigation that triggered constant flashbacks for the protagonist to a previous investigation. The author handled this by separating the two stories and writing the main narrative in present tense, alternating full scenes of present tense and past tense reflecting the present and past respectively. It helped to clarify for which case clues were being processed.

Another story was written in first person past tense in a confessionary style. When the narrator spoke of scenes that were emotionally "present" to him, he slipped into present tense narration. Take care with this technique, as you need to have a good handle on your own grasp of tense.

Inadvertently Mixing Tenses

Some writers find they unintentionally mix their tenses. There are two main reasons for this. One is not being able to separate dialogue from narrative in your mind. Past tense creeps into the characters' words, and when the quotes close, the narrative continues in present tense for a few words.

The other reason is the tendency to tell someone about a past experience using the present tense: "So, I ordered the fish, and it arrives, and it's still got the head on, and I absolutely freak." Listen to yourself in conversation next time - do you drift back and forth from past tense to present tense in your speech?

But if you want to train yourself so that you have the choice of which tense you use and when, try some dialogue and action exercises. Write the dialogue in present tense, then immediately follow it with past tense action. You might even want to try monitoring your own speech and "correcting" yourself when you use present tense to describe the past - just to help yourself gain awareness of the differences.

This article was first published on BellaOnline in June 2007 and reprinted on Blood-Red Pencil in March 2010. © Elsa Neal

For more help with developing your writing style try
Strunk and White's Elements of Style
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost