Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Tense? Just Relax.

Bridget Chicoine asked: "When is it okay to mix past and present tense? Is it ever okay?"

Bridget, the short answer is yes, it's okay to mix tenses, even in the same sentence.

Tense helps to convey time in our stories. There are several different tenses, but the variations can be clumsily lumped into past tense (I walloped), present tense (I wallop), and future tense (I will wallop). (The variations include phrases like "I was walloping", "I might wallop", "I have walloped", and others.)

For those of us who refuse to break grammatical rules, changes in tense are perfectly acceptable in a given passage if different times are described in that passage:

I wallop for a living. I first walloped when I was sixteen, and I will wallop until I retire.

For those of us who happily break the rules, tense can be used to create certain dramatic effects, even if they aren't strictly correct. In Light In August, William Faulkner frequently changes tenses, with the idea--so critics say--that the sudden shift from past to present brings more immediacy to the story:

He drove on, the wagon beginning to fall into its slow and mileconsuming clatter. Neither does he look back. Apparently he is not looking ahead either, because he does not see the woman sitting in the ditch beside the road until the wagon almost reached the top of the hill.

What do you all think of that?

I may be wrong (someone correct me if I am), but I think older stories were usually written in past tense. Only recently, with writers like John Updike, did present tense prose come into vogue. I personally adopted the present tense in my novel Rooster because I thought the story felt more exciting that way, like it was unfolding in the moment. But, be warned, writing in present tense third person POV can bring out an unsettling side effect when you are doing public readings. Most of your verbs will end in S, and those S's sure like to call attention to themselves. Suffering succotash.

Questions: What tense do you prefer to write in and why? Have you used tense shifts for dramatic purposes? Did it work?


  1. Great post, Davin. Nice examples too. I usually write in past tense exclusively, probably because I don't know if I could write very effectively in present tense. Note to self - try present tense sometime. Anyway, I believe I keep the tense the same throughout, but I can see how changing it does change the tone or impression.

  2. Past tense, always--I only change POVs. I can't imagine attempting a present tense novel. The AGONY.

    I'm still waiting for the crazy writer who pens a good novel in future tense so I can finally build that shrine....

  3. I've used present for some novels, past for others - whatever I feel suits the voice of that book.

    I'm all for breaking rules. Mixing tenses may have a jarring effect - but sometimes you may want that. Whenever anyone tells me about a literary rule, the question I ask myself is, what interesting thing wll happen if I break it?

    The only rule I feel is non-negotiable is this: make the reader care.

    Great blog, BTW - i totally agree with your manifesto and I'm going to link to you from mine.

  4. I write in past tense for narrative, although dialogue frequently demands present tense. My queries are always in present tense. So is this comment.

  5. I tend to write with both past and present tense, depending on the sentence structure. Usually it ends up being like Davin's example:

    I wallop for a living. I first walloped what I was sixteen, and I will wallop until I retire.

    It's all in the mood.

  6. I think I just write in past tense. That is most likely how all the books were written that I read as a kid. I'm having a hard time now recalling if I've read a present-tense story.

    Well, there are some Lorrie Moore stories that are 2nd POV, present tense. They're awesome.

  7. Great post, Davin. I have to admit I find reading present tense a bit tough, at least until I am fully absorbed in the narrative. That's one reason it took me so long to read The Namesake.

    Still, with my own writing there are times I feel drawn to the present tense. Your post has me thinking about when/why, and it almost seems like the more difficult the subject matter or the more emotionally charged the scene, I tend to default to the present tense--almost because I really just want to show and not tell anything, to not filter it through any hindsight, if that makes sense. To let the reader react and make sure he isn't reacting to my reaction.

    That being said, I usually end up rewriting and changing most pieces to the past tense, but taking care to keep my filter "quiet" for those powerful scenes.

  8. I usually write in present tense (feels more comfortable for me)but I didn't know that one could change tenses in a paragraph!So, I just learned something new! Thanks Davin. :)

  9. Nice post. I had a writing professor who always told me the exact opposite of what you said here. I think that you're right in your examples, and I think that, as long as you do it in the right places, changing tense can add tremendously to your story.

    Any idea on when ROOSTER will be hitting the shelves? I'm going to pick it up.

  10. The genre markets I submit to prefer third-person. Most stories in horror, fantasy, scifi are predominately past tense it seems. Present tense, which I love, seems more en vogue-yay!- in the literary magazines where I hope to place.

    I've never switched tenses, can't keep all those balls in the air seamlessly, I'm afraid. For now I'm rooted in the past.

  11. Good post, Davin! I've written many of my short stories in present tense, but seem to stick with past tense third person POV with my novels. Perhaps my next novel will be in present tense third, like Rooster. I loved how that felt when I read it. You're very good at it.

    I think mixing tense works when it works, and if the author knows they're doing it for a reason.

    I've read many works where the author wasn't aware of what they were doing, and it was sloppy and far from worked.

  12. I usually do past tense. In one of the books I wrote, I had some snippets in present tense and it seemed to work ok. Great post!

  13. Jennifer: I love your comment about the more emotionally charged a work, the more it can work in first person. I've found that with my short stories. The really emotional ones I always revert to first person. I never thought of it that way before.

  14. I'm just giggling at the words wallop and suffering succotash. The later takes me back to my childhood .. sitting in front of Saturday morning cartoons with a bowl of cherrios.

    ah, good times...good times...

    and - I try to write in present tense. I have a tendency to fall into passive (which, I learned recently, is different from past) - but it ruins the flow so I really work at avoiding that slip in my writing.

  15. I love playing with tenses. Except in Spanish.

  16. I write in the past mostly, but some times if I'm writing 1st person I write in present...sort of part of the character's "voice" I suppose.

  17. I write in past. I don't think that it's just "older" works that are done in past, either, and newer ones done in present. I'm sure we can find counterexamples both ways there. And the vast majority of fiction is still written in past tense (which is why we can name counterexamples—it's rare enough that people who do it stand out).

    Like Jennifer, I have a hard time reading present. It helps a little if it's in first person, but it has to be really, really well done (which I'm sure your book is, of course) or sometimes it just comes off as amateurish.

    The thing that gets me is inadvertent tense shifts. It's great to do it on purpose and to an affect(and the first example is a great one), but I think a lot of unpublished authors aren't shifting on purpose.

  18. Past tense, though I slip into present occasionally while drafting. I generally fix to be consistent though unless the sentence just won't work any other way.

    'Twill be interesting to see what a bonefide editor says about that once I get that far. I've always heard the exact opposite - that one should keep tense consistent throughout.

    Faulkner - ugh. *shiver*

  19. Faulkner. ugh.

    I think I mix tenses all the time. And I'm not sure if it's kosher. But whatever.

  20. Novice: Ugh to Faulkner!? *falls over*

  21. Firstly, I just corrected about a gazillion typos on this post. Sorry about that!

    Eric, Give present tense a try and see if you like it. I think it takes some getting used to, but after awhile it will feel natural, and then you can decide which tense you like more.

    Aimee, I bet that future tense book already exists if we look hard enough. Maybe I'll do a search for that!

    dirtywhitecandy, thanks a lot! And, I see you are another rule breaker. Rule breakers should form a club...with no rules.

    Rick, that's interesting that queries are in present. Hmmm, how did you decide on that? Or, did it just happen naturally?

    Mattdel, thanks for your thoughts. I guess your prose moves around to different times, then. In my newest story, I've been playing with time more, and I don't know how disorienting it will be.

    Annie, 2nd person POV can be very interesting, and that POV, I've found, can mix with future tense pretty well sometimes. "You will ask her if she loves you."

    Jennifer, really interesting thoughts! I think you made the case for present tense better than I did. Present tense POV can bring the reader closer because everything is happening now. Thanks!

    Ann Victor, you're quite welcome. And, let's thank Bridget for asking the question.

    Ken, you tell your professor to give us a call. :) And, thanks for asking about Rooster. I keep meaning to write about my own progress, but I keep having other ideas I want to talk about here. I'll get to it soon. The short answer: Rooster isn't available quite yet. :)

    Rebecca, yes, I think third person past is more "traditional" or at least that's how it feels to me. Good luck with the literary publications!

    Michelle, good points. I think we need to learn these rules before we can break them, at least for the most part. Sometimes not knowing the rules in the first place can lead to some brilliant things too. I think a novel can feel more high risk, but it's still good to try new things with them.

    B.J., your description of your novel sounds cool. I can see how having pieces of present tense would be quite exiting.

    Tess, I was thinking of you when I wrote suffering succotash. Don't ask me why.

    Mariah, my ability to use different tenses in Spanish has long faded away. At this point, I probably only know enough to convince Spanish speakers that I'm trying, and then they'll probably laugh at me.

    lapetus999, that makes sense. Again I think it comes to the closer point of view that Jennifer is talking about. You can write from the first person's pov more effectively that way perhaps.

    Jordan, good points. Yes, I do think present tense is harder to find still. And, having it to do over again, I would probably write in past. My current book is being written in past tense, strictly because of that problem I had with public readings.

    Jamie, okay, you're the third person to say that we should stick to the same tense. Let's keep that in mind. Perhaps it is sound advice, but I personally don't agree. Thanks for your comment!

  22. Novice, if it works, it works, right? :) Faulkner is a tough read, no doubt about it. But, at least for me, and apparently for Michelle, it's worth it.

  23. I tend to avoid present tense because verb tenses are not something I'm brilliant with, and past tense is about all I can handle.

    I think that historically, present tense was used a great deal. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are in present tense, aren't they? A lot of Elizabethan prose moves between present and past tenses, as does the epic poetry of Milton and Blake (it seems that past is used for exposition, and present is used for action). Jon Clinch's excellent book "Finn" (2006) is all in present tense.

  24. Sorry, Glam. I just could never get through Faulkner. I guess I just don't have the right brain for it. But I never could figure out what was actually happening in his writings. For me, if I don't get some sense of what is happening, I can't latch on to the deeper meaning.

    Thanks for the encouragement, Davin.

  25. Novice: Haha. I can understand. There's some authors like that for me, too.

  26. Scott, thanks for the information. Apparently, there's more present tense out there than I realize.

  27. I tend to write in 3rd person past. What can I say, I'm old fashioned like that.

  28. Davin,
    Thanks for the post!
    I thought that I write in past tense, but it has become apparent that I write in both past and present.(That sounds terrible)

    My current work is written as though it were a journal, with things that happened in the past. It does, however, include ongoing issues (present tense). I wonder if it is necessary to precede each 'journal entry' with a date for clarification. To me, it seems that the opening words of each 'entry', and the context ought, to be a dead give away. What do you think?

    I think the Faulkner passage would drive a gramarian nuts, as would some of my writing, but I'm more concerned about the average reader. Will these passages sound confusing or jar them from the story? I don't know. My mixed tenses sound natural and conversational to me, but I fear that I have lost all objectivity.
    Back to the beta readers.

    (Sorry if all this sounds rather jumbled--I'm at a small-town public library with people waiting...)

  29. I am using tense as a device... chapter one starts with bad news in May of 2005 (or maybe present time, I haven't decided yet) and then chapter two goes back five years in time, but I'm writing in all in present tense. So far.

    Also, I don't know if you would be flattered or not, Davin, but I awarded Literary Lab on my blog today... so, er, there's that.

  30. Shouldn't it be, "Faulkner rocked"?

  31. Amber: Although we don't post them, we're always flattered by awards! Thank you.

  32. I phrased my comment poorly - I didn't mean to imply that *everyone* should stick to the same tense, just that I do, and my reason for it. I apologize for any perceived offense to those who prefer to switch. Everyone needs to do what works for them.

  33. I usually write in first-person, past tesne. What gets confusing is when there's a description that *may* need to be present, depending on how far in the future the narration takes place. For example: The dog in the window reminded me of Jangles, Becky's poodle, although Jangles' left ear isn't that floppy.

    In this case, my MC is narrating the story in the not-too-distant future when Jangles is still alive. If she were narrating the story when she's 80, she'd describe the dog in past tense. At least I think that's how it works! In any event, it gives me headaches.

  34. Dominique, well, according to Bailey, it's not so old-fashioned after all.

    Bridget, I hope this was helpful. Scott is going to do a post on clarity, which you will hopefully find useful. For me, I work hard to make things clear. Sometimes I feel like things are too obvious, but I've never had a reader tell me that. Some things might seem obvious to us as writers of our own work.

    Amber, thank you very much for the award! Your book sounds interesting. I'm doing a similar jump in my current story, but I don't know yet if it will stay that way.

    Jabez, isn't it nice that writers die? It gives me a chance to catch up to them!

    Jamie, no worries. I think it was my sloppy response, not your comment!

  35. MG Higgins, I totally agree with you and your example. I've run into that a few times and it's annoying. I never quite know what to do.

  36. MG: This is where I'm no expert, but...

    "The dog in the window reminded me of Jangles, Becky's poodle, although Jangles' left ear isn't that floppy."

    It seems to me that, if Jangles' ear was floopy and if you mentioned Jangles in this same story, you would say something like "Jangles came running across the yard. Her left ear flopped as she ran." That's all in past tense. I'd be tempted to write your original sentence as:

    The dog in the window reminded me of Jangles, Becky's poodle, although Jangles' left ear wasn't that floppy.

    Otherwise, you are implying that the story is in present tense in that passage. I think.

  37. Thank you so much for this post! I needed that advice since I tend to switch back and forth and thought I had to stick to just one.

  38. I like past tense better for writing a story generally. Present tense doesn't bother me when I'm reading, but I have friends who don't like it.

  39. Tense is a tricky business, especially when one's first language doesn't quite have tenses. I don't think I dare to mix tenses up yet. When I do, it's usually a mistake.

    Clever title, by the way.

  40. Davin, what a fantastic post. I was asked this some time ago. I really wasn't sure of my answer until I read this.

    I did say for dramatic effects. I also told her that until she was published she might stick with one throughout. No sense in upsetting a prospective agent or editor needlessly. :) I love Faulkner. I found him in high school. :)

  41. I appreciate the way you handled this. Nice example.

    I think that it is important to have this kind of understanding, and not expect narrators and characters to use perfect English, or story telling that is always in one tense.

    If I write in first person, I am open to using present tense.

    If I am writing or reading a story in a third person point of view, I much prefer past tense.

    I like it best when internal monologue is used in addition.

    Sansa took a breath. [in italics for internal monologue] I am a Stark, yes I can be brave.

    The description of action is in past tense. Sansa took a breath. That's good. If George R.R. Martin had written, Sansa takes a breath, that would drive me crazy.

    The internal monologue gives us the present tense immediacy that brings us closer to a character. That, I think, is the value of using presen tense. Check out George R.R. Martin's books for an example of how this kind of style plays out. Orson Scott Card also uses the same kind of past tense acion descriptions, but present tense internal monologue.

  42. Great post and I am gald to see someone say you can change tenses. However, I mostly write in past tense. I was told for so long that I had to do it that way it has become a habit. The only time I am in present tense is in diaglogue.

  43. Davin- I'm not sure who came up with the present tense query rule, but it's pretty firm. I'm just the messenger on that one.

  44. Great post. Tense is something I should probably pay more attention to.I'm not crazy about stories written strictly in the present tense. In Canada, the novel Obasan won many literary awards and we had to read it in high school. But because it was present tense, I just couldn't get through it. I thought there was something wrong with me because it had been so highly praised. It was indeed an important story that needed to be told and so maybe I will try to reread it with my wiser eyes.- G


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