February 21, 2018 by bradcharlesbeals
Recently I concluded that the novel I’m working on would work better in the past tense, so I spent a few days converting all the verbs in a roughly ten-thousand-word passage from present to past. I once read an account of rice farming, and in one of the steps of the process the farmer combs the rice shoot for bugs. By hand. Every single plant.
It was kind of like that.
But what made it more than usually tedious was that I had just spent the same number of days the week before working on the same ten-thousand word passage switching the tense to – you guessed it – present.
So why didn’t I just commit to a verb tense at the beginning? Why did I switch the first time? And why switch back?
Good questions, Reader. I’ll take them in order…
1) Why didn’t I just commit to a verb tense at the beginning?
stupid: adj. – marked by or resulting from unreasoned thinking or acting. SENSELESS.
Because I was stupid. I didn’t make any decisions about tense when I began writing. I just started writing and out came verbs with hard endings. Stupid. I should have just left it that way, in past tense, but writing is all about the journey, so…
2) Why switch the first time?
This will take longer. The current draft (half completed if my other books’ lengths are good indicators) begins with a prologue written in the present tense. It has what I hope to be a timeless, dream-like quality, and I think the writing there does what present tense purports to do: it evokes in the reader a sympathy and an intimacy with the subject, in this case a nameless, dying man adrift on a derelict sailboat in the middle of the Atlantic.
But really, I just liked how it sounded.
So when I began to consider changing the rest of the draft to present, I started with that bias and then laid hold of some convenient reasons to go with it.
Like this one:
The story is set almost two hundred years in the future. It’s not quite timeless, but it is out-of-time, as in future, hypothetical, closer to the present than the past. It seemed more reasonable then to tell a future story in the present tense than to tell a future story in the past tense. So there was that.
And this one:
I’m very visual when it comes to plot conception. I don’t do a lot of plot brainstorming with words. I tend to run different versions of an idea forward, visually, and see where they go. I draft the plot basics in movie form, and it is that immediacy of action that is the present tense’s greatest strength. Present tense narrative, when it’s done right, can feel like it’s happening right there and then. And since I have plenty of passages in this draft that I want conveyed with immediacy, I justified the present tense as being necessary.
So, with my justifications in tow, I jumped right in. I started at the ends. I converted the first chapter following the prologue and the very last two completed chapters. Thankfully, I stopped there as other tasks pulled me away. And in the break, I began to (finally) think hard about what I was doing with tense.
3) So why switch back?
While my reasons for switching to present were sketchy even before I really examined them, I’m convinced now that those for switching back were (and still are) good. And yes, these are the reasons that I should have used at the start.
absurd: adj. – wildly unreasonable, illogical, or inappropriate.
First, the time shifts were too abrupt. The idea that present tense was closer to the book’s future setting was just absurd. It was absurd, it is absurd, it will always be absurd (all the big tenses agree!) As if proximity alone could make two things similar.
True, the novel is not set in the past, but setting doesn’t determine tense. Tense is determined by the relationship that the writer wants the reader to have with time, and this writing makes frequent and long jumps across time. The present, limited to four aspects of tense*, just gets clumsy when that much movement is involved; whereas the past tense, which can more easily draw on all twelve aspects, is much more flexible. For this novel, I need to have access to all the English verb tenses, and so does my reader. [For a glance at the twelve English tenses, skip to the bottom.]
Secondly, the past tense grounds the narration better than present. I found that the more text I converted to the present tense, the less trustworthy the narrator sounded. To have the reader experience the narration at the same time that the narrator is presenting it puts the two shoulder to shoulder, and I didn’t want that for this book. This is writing that will contain some deep convictions, so I want a strong narrator who knows the story’s entirety, not a passive one who seems confined to each moment of narration.
Finally, I decided to revert to past tense because I suspect the popular use of the present tense is a trend that will lose ground. It seems to have been a good fit for a reading public inundated in post-modernism and post-post-modernism and the many post-pre-trans iterations of a worldview free of objectivity and clarity. I just don’t believe that such a worldview can hold sway for long. We are, after all, BUILT for objectivity, clarity, and truth.
So from here on out, I plan to operate from the past tense and only pick up the present – like I would any other tool – for those situations that require it.
And yes, I get it. Rice farming is way harder than writing fiction.
Simple past . . . I went
*Simple present . . . I go
Simple future . . . I will go
Past progressive . . . I was going
*Present progressive . . . I am going
Future progressive . . . I will be going
Past perfect . . . I had gone
*Present perfect . . . I have gone
Future perfect . . . I will have gone
Past perfect progressive . . . I had been going
*Present perfect progressive . . . I have been going
Future perfect progressive . . . I will have been going
So why is present limited to 4 tenses, but past can use all twelve?
Think about the two tenses as existing on a visual timeline. The present is a point on the line called NOW. The past is the entire segment of the line to the left of NOW. By locking into one or the other, you are necessarily more confined or more free in how you move your characters through the story. Both strategies can draw on the others, but the past can pull it off more effectively because it can work in that broader space. You’re simply asking your reader to do too much when you commit to present and then break from it.