On Tense and Time

Feb 25 2021

Updated on Jan 17, 2022

Controlling the narrative of time is the purpose of the comedian, the storyteller, and the writer. So which tense should you write in? Present or past?

The reason why I find critcism of present tense to be invalid and funny is because all books with dialogue are mixed tense. Why is it that readers can read mixed tense books without taking up arms?

Also, why is your synopsis and book report supposed to be written in present tense, when you’ve already finished reading the book, and the author already finished writing it? The answer: I don’t know why.

Tense mixing itself isn’t wrong. Poor usage of a tense switch will “throw” (jarr) the reader. But as a deliberate tactic, it’s acceptable.

Japanese culture #

Part of the reason why I want to study another language is because I think it’s interesting to see how conventions are different in other cultures.

Apprently, a thing that trips up English-to-Japanese learners is that stories mix tenses.

Japanese literary technique: it’s acceptable to switch to present tense, to throw the reader forward, to indicate immediacy, in the sense of, “Suddenly, an action happened.”

Japan’s Amateur Scene #

As a generalization, Japan is more embracing of hobbyist creatives. In a nutshell, fanfiction is actively supported and creators are more lax on copyright (doujinshi). Of course, there’s plenty of criticism on this front.

The point is, the culture supports amateurs a little bit more, with less elitism and pandering to corporate interests. School kids actively draw manga and indulge in Wattpad-like activities without fear since it’s everywhere.

I think this is also why people get the impression that Japanese anime is more interesting, because topics are less censored. Now, I don’t know if that’s true, because really, only the good stuff gets exported globally, so we’re seeing things through a curated lense.

Because the culture is more polite, collaborative, derivative, and embracing of amateurs, then the “amateur decision” to switch tenses has become mainstream and is justified as a technique rather than a mistake.

Anglo culture #

In English, we are trained to stick to a single narrative tense. It is a symbol of cultivation and class. Mixing narrative tense is less unacceptable. Disdain for present tense probably won’t change too much in this lifetime, but who knows. There are no hard rules, only tradition.

I am in that stage of wanting to experiment with tenses. If I ever aim to get published, an editor will tell me to stop. I probably won’t.

If McCarthy gets away with his lack of punctuation for the sake of… artistic license, then I’m going to change tense to symbolize a change in time. Shocking!

Up next: the perception of time…

Theory of Consciousness #

Time is relative.

E=mc2 baby!

My personal guideline: you can change tense when entering a new “state of consciousness.”

  1. Drug usage
  2. Surrealism
  3. Adrenaline (that bullet-time slow-mo feeling)
  4. Flashback
  5. Depression

The first hurdle is that slush pile editors find drug-usage stories boring, so if your story is about wandering aimlessly as a 20-something young adult with no goals besides scoring a packet, that’s more of an issue than changing tenses.

The second hurdle is that flashbacks used as exposition dumps are universally hated.

Otherwise, you do you.

If you want to convey a mentally stable individual, consistent tense is practically required. Changing tenses induces a “stressful” situation in the reader. Since many writers do non-fiction, escapism, or therapy, they won’t change tenses. But if your goals differ, then sure.

Depression in general, when your soul is a husk of nothing. The rollercoaster of a bi-polar’s manic and depressive states. Schizophrenia.

“On this view, the changes an individual undergoes when she becomes depressed are profound in the sense that they resemble (being changes of the same kind) the sorts of changes to her experience that occur when she departs from waking consciousness and starts dreaming, or when she enters a psychedelic state.”

—Cecily Whiteley, Depression as a disorder of Consciousness

This is not an excuse to flip-flop tenses nilly-willy, but at the same time, to “throw the reader” makes sense when a character is thrown into a new state of mind.

I fell off a horse once and landed head first. Luckily I wore a helmet. The world, for a moment, stops.

Bucking Convention #

It would be unfair to generalize everything. Conventions exist for a reason, but not all conventions are useful.

Did you know that ancient peoples used to write without spaces, because they needed to save paper, and they thought readers will only recite orally to a crowd? They never imagined that centuries later, Celtic monks would be trying to read these scrolls and bemoan the lack of spaces? Yeah.

We have societies with 99% literacy rates and people still hate reading. It’s the age of the Internet. There’s translated English literature, literature written by non-native English speakers (India and Scandanavian countries come to mind), and we’re gonna have all sorts of linguistic quirks pop up. So, what to do?

An old fart named Willaim H. Gass rants about present tense

The Reality #

Let’s start with facts. Past tense gives each verb an extra syllable in English due to the -ed ending. You’ll have verbs like waited, teleported and smacked, resulting in more spacing. This means past tense is drawn out compared to present tense.

Irregular verbs give sound variation as a result.

  • stand → stood
  • shake → shook
  • take → took
  • make → mook made
  • wake → wade woke
  • wade → waded
  • speak → spoke, spake (archaic)
  • teach → taught
  • preach → praught preached
  • peek → peeked
  • seek → seeked sought
  • light → lit
  • fight → fit fought
  • sight → sighted

(Yeah… English f*cking sucks)

Pad an extra syllableDictionary form
Irregular forms lend tonal variation3rd-person conjugates to ssssssnake speak

An interesing aside: Lieberman’s article Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language explains that modern irregular verbs are ancestors of Old English ‘strong’ verbs. ‘Weak’ verbs are conjugated by adding -ed. The most commonly used verbs keep their irregular spelling, while less frequent verbs become regularized. This is likely because most people cannot remember illogical rules, and just tack -ed on everything.

  • Bide → bode/bided
  • Bid → bade/bidded
  • Slay → slew/slayed (slang term like ‘killing it’)
  • Wed → wed/wedded
  • Fly → flew/flied (to ride an aircraft, consider “he was flown out” vs. “he was flied out”)
  • Hang, hung/hanged (hung is for objects, hanged for a person lynched/killed as punishment)

Tense as Characterization #

“Can I write a story with several 1st-person perspectives?”

“You better figure out how to differentiate each voice.”

Tense is one such tool for differentiation.

Many readers of The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, will say that they never noticed the book was written in present until they got hooked, or someone mentioned it.

Hunger Games worked well in Present, because the protagonist was, for lack of a better term, a country bumpkin. She wasn’t educated. She lived every day by the teeth of her skin, ever vigilant in her subsistence existence. Someone who’s not book smart would lean towards a present tense voice: quick and factual.

In contrast, characters who enjoy navel-gazing, educated folks with the luxury of white-collar leisure can sit back and ponder topics with their historically-backed database of hindsight.

Thus, surprise surprise, literary tradition mandates Past, because authors are more likely to be introspective navel-gazers (I don’t have scientific evidence of this assumption). The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is an example of a privileged narrator dropping social commentaries.

Imagine writing a book in future tense. It will remind us of that wishy-washy friend who always talks about their dreams and never acts on any of them, or a crummy salesman (people pretend they’re immune to advertising). The biggest rule on telling compelling stories is to have characters that show agency and make decisions, instead of being passive and boring liars. However, just because a narrator uses a lot of Future doesn’t mean the story is automatically bad. In fact, it could be very wry.

“You won’t believe what happens next. No, this won’t be another one of those click-bait articles from the deep web, but a compelling tale of failure. I’ll make note of my mistakes and have a report by—oh I don’t know—by the next two lifetimes. Will my children read it? Will anyone read about how I theorized and actually induced a black hole? I won’t have a clue about that, but I will have my revenge on Mitch McStupid, the guy who’ll steal my PhD thesis when I was still a naive, idealistic scholar. My name’s Will, by the way, but I’ll change it to Satoshi eventually.”

Criminal psychopaths narrate in past tense when talking about their crimes, compared to non-psychopathic criminals. Because they are more detached, they try to craft a well-thought out story that caters to their audience…

I am not insuinuating that good storytellers are psychopaths, just that psychopaths are good storytellers, and you might know a few of them.

Or, it’s possible that, due to a long tradition of sticking to one tense, and the whole culture encouraging distance as a sign of authority and discipline, someone who speaks like David Attinbourough is perceived as having worthy insights. Who knows?

Narrative vs. Character Frame #

Dialogue is written in Present because most people talk in Present when they reach the point of remembering—reliving an incident.

Depending on how close the narration gets, if it’s inside the character’s head, the character’s thoughts can be written as pseudo-dialogue, which switches tenses often. This is chalked to the difference between a narrative frame and character frame, which as I mentioned, is completely arbitrary. The technique of embedding dialogue into narration, without special punctation markers, is called free indirect speech.

As Agent X crouched behind the bullet-ridden table, she held her breath tighter than a chokehold. The terrorist’s just at the end of the corridor. Anything she can use for defense?

As Agent X crouches behind the bullet-ridden table, she holds her breath tighter than a chokehold. The terrorist was just at the end of the corridor. Anything she could use for defense?

The altered tenses convey subtle differences, but the overall message is the same. Using Past for the character’s mind reference casts her as detached and analytical. Using Present highlights her alert and focused side. Which angle you feel about presenting, as an author, is up to you.

As long as you stay consistent with characterization and know the message you’re trying to convey, the tense can serve that message. But, even a level-headed character can go into casual distress, and visa-versa with an untrained combatant.

Conclusion #

Past tense allows a writer, who is weaker with syntax decisions, more leeway.

Present is semantically denser and easier to grasp. However, it forces a writer to be rhythmically skilled, because you can’t rely on irregular verbs to sing for you. So if you suck, you suck.

Diction choices and syntax beat are more important, regardless if the verbs are conjugated in past or present. Non-native speakers of English probably won’t notice or care if the novel is written in past or present, unless they’re an Anglophile.

Still, a novice who switches tenses with no rhyme or reason will read the same as a composer who has no control over timing and harmony. The biggest hurdle as a writer is ignoring people who criticize all the wrong places. Blame the tense because it’s easier to be a grammar Nazi than a linguist.

Tenses are simply indicators of time. Books can be weird and fun, but people can tell the difference between Picasso and amateur.

Finally, change is a wonderful thing because there’s nothing more unbearable than boredom. As Einstein proved, time is relative. If nothing changes, time doesn’t exist. The act of change confers meaning. Instead of wallowing over which tense you should use, consider how to play the time fiddle.

As a storyteller, you control time.