Feeling tense about tenses

July 14, 2010

Fiction is most often written in past tense – like a storyteller telling us about events that happened in the past. So if I’m writing “The girl sat down and rested her chin on her folded hands,” readers know that it happens right now, in the fictional present.

There are a few novels written in present tense (“The girl sits down and rests her chin on her folded hands”), but I personally find it irritating. To me, it reads like stage instructions.

If you write about something that happened before the fictional present, you use past perfect (“The day before, the girl had sat down and…”).

The trouble with past perfect is that too many “hads” slow down the sentence and make reading awkward. In longer flashback passages, writers therefore use past perfect once or twice, to let readers know they’re stepping back in time, and then slip into past tense.

I used that technique in Hidden Truths too.

“Come on.” Rika took hold of Jo’s arm. “If we’re late…”

Just yesterday, an Irish girl had stumbled from Mr. Macauley’s office, crying and pressing a ripped sleeve against her bleeding lip.

“That’s for letting my looms sit idle after the five o’clock bell!” William Macauley had shouted after her.

No one said a word. No one dared to.

It should be clear to readers that “No one said a word” took place yesterday, even though I didn’t write “No one had said a word.”

But what if it’s not a lengthy flashback? What if you dip into the past for only a sentence or two? Like this, for example:

When she had been stationed at Fort Dalles during the Cayuse War, Luke had seen the waterfalls tumble fifteen feet until they hit the rest of the water. Now the river carried so much water that the falls were partially submerged and turned into a long line of roaring rapids.

Would you write the first sentence in past tense and trust that the time markers (“during the Cayuse War” and “now”) will let readers know that we’re stepping back in time?

And what if you are talking about things that are clearly no longer true?

Before meeting and falling in love with Luke, she had never trusted anyone, maybe with the exception of Tess Swenson, the only friend she’d ever had before she had met Luke.

So, how do you handle sentences like that?


One comment

  1. Generally speaking I try very hard to tell a story from a point forward, never falling backward from present story time. If a moment is important enough to reflect on, it’s important enough to tell in real time, especially if it only happened “yesterday.”

    However, that being said, I will flashback a number of years if there is a character development moment necessarily tied back that far. Maturation plots (see the book “20 Master Plots”) need this reflection I think.

    Similar to you, Jae, I use past perfect in the introductory sentence and then begin a new paragraph, italicize, and write the requisite scene in standard past tense. I’ll make the resulting reflective statement, stating what the character has learned (usually about herself) that she hadn’t understood then, after the full flashback in past perfect.


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