Getting tense about tenses – writing them the easy way

Mixing up tenses is stylistic death, so it’s important to pick the one you’re intending to use in your writing – any writing – early, and to stick with it.

Aha - now I can stop the Plorg Monsters from taking Earth's water!
Aha – now I can stop the Plorg Monsters from taking Earth’s water!

That’s harder than it seems. We write, usually by default, in past tense, and it’s easy – a habit.

Pure present tense has its advantages, particularly for conveying a dramatic immediacy. It works for fiction and non-fiction alike. Recently, here in New Zealand, a major military history book was written wholly in present tense. It worked, brilliantly.

Future tense is a way of expressing hope and imagined dreams for what might happen.

Where tenses get complicated is when we drop into recursive thinking. What happens if you’re writing about the way people in the past see an event in their future, which is still in the past from the perspective of the current narrative? A flashback, for instance. Or, in non-fiction, a history book.

That is the road to stylistic ugliness if you’re not careful – stupid past-future phrases like ‘was to be’, common enough in the more inept histories and novel flashbacks – often emerge. Or the sentences are reduced to a hideous mess involving double-past tenses, past-future (‘had had’).

The answer isn’t to get into grammatical tangles, but to instead understand how writing works. It’s a linear thread – has to be, because we can read but one word at a time. However, we think in simultaneous concepts. The skill of writing is to disentangle those concepts into a linear thread – to organise them, in short.

Properly organised ‘recursion’, in the form of that flashback or some non-fiction discussion of events over a time-span, shouldn’t fall into grammar tangles with tenses.

So how’s that done? One way is to set out the chronology in order, including the flashback sequence – make notes down a sheet of paper (yes, pen and ink) and highlight the flashback bit. Get the chronology clear.

Then, when actually writing it, keep in mind one golden rule: neither characters in a story, nor real people in the real world, can ever truly know their future.

If you bear that in mind, the words you are using to describe things shouldn’t – ideally – fall into that trap of double-past tenses or past-future tense.

It takes practise, but it’s worth tackling.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


8 thoughts on “Getting tense about tenses – writing them the easy way

  1. Sometimes it’s OK to break from past tense to present for a brief, intense scene. That ups the sense of immediacy, as the character (and therefore the reader) lives the scene, rather than merely recalls it after the fact. This kind of thing has to be done deliberately and with judgment to be effective.

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