On Tense and Time

Feb 25 2021

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?

Tense as Characterization #

We can see that usage of tense is a tool of characterization. Who am I kidding, I think every linguistic idiosyncrasy and literary technique is a tool for characterization.

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

Let’s start with the objective facts: Past tense gives each verb an extra syllable in English due to the -ed ending. This means past tense is drawn out, while present tense is denser. You could say that Past is like a longform wave, while Present is a higher frequency. While Past has irregular verbs, such as stand and stood, by and large, you’ll have verbs like waited, teleported and smacked, resulting in more noise.

  • 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 the Old rules about conjugation and 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”)

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, and she had to be hypervigilant in her subsistence existence. Someone who’s not book smart would lean towards a present tense voice: quick and factual.

In contrast, even in an age where literacy is expected of most of the population, there are still those characters who like to extra navel-gaze and hyper-analyze vocabulary. Scholars and educated folks who have the luxury of white-collar leisure can sit back and ponder topics with their educated, 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, and people like to 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.”

Bucking Convention #

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

Did you know that ancient peoples used to write without spaces, because they needed to save paper and they thought readers just needed to know how to pronounce the darn letters while reciting to a crowd, and not silently mindscan near a cozy fireplace? Yeah.

I can easily imagine an ancient scribe copying verbatim in the present tense of their language, or whatever their oral tradition mandated.

Now that we have societies with 99% literacy rates, we have more voices than just the snobby ivory tower folks. Present has existed in novels way back since—gasp—the 80s, but some argue there’s been an increase in present-tense books in the 21st century due to the dominance of movies and screenplays. You could say that horror, mystery, thrillers and YA have adopted present tense quite fondly, as their action-packed plots crave it.

Well, it’s the age of the Internet. Newsflash: Present isn’t new. More self-published authors, more writers, etc.

Despite claiming that tenses change the undulation of narration, and they can characterize, I also believe that in the end, tense makes no difference to good prose.

Studies In Tense #

I will preface that as a reader, I prefer succinct. As a person, I already waste most of my time navel-watching, so I prefer my novels not to do the same.

Readers who immediately think present tense is bad have probably developed a personal agenda against it. It’s different if they feel the prose is bad, and they mistakenly blame it on tense.

Too many uses of perfect and progressive tense is annoying. You know how expert writers say to cut out the “had’s” and the “was’s”? I call this I-Am-Walking-Down-The-Street Syndrome. And it doesn’t matter if it’s Past or Present, because relying on the verb “to be” indicates weakness of language.

I was walking down the market street when a scooter rushed past from behind, startling me. I jumped and uttered curses at the rude rider. At least ring a bell or say something above the din, goddamnit.

Some people argue that present progressive is a technique to establish the scene’s baseline. To me, unless the act of doing is important, it’s pointless. Revise!

The cluttered street reeks of shoppers, and a scooter rushes past from behind, startling me. I jump and utter curses at the rude rider. At least ring a bell or say something above the din, goddamnit.

As you can see, what’s the point of talking about walking? Unless the character is specifically paraplegic, walking is such a shared, universal experience that most people don’t give a crap about how you walk, unless you’re really that self absorbed. The second example paints a more vivid picture in less words by switching out unnecessary progressive.

Direct Conversion Doesn’t Work. #

Past tense gives verbs time to breathe. Because verbs are the most important part of the sentence, past tense is naturally forgiving and elevates uncreative sentence structure.

The cluttered street reeked of shoppers. A scooter rushed past from behind, startling me. I jumped and uttered curses at the rude rider.

The cluttered street reeks of shoppers. A scooter rushes past from behind, startling me. I jump and utter curses at the rude rider.

Changing all the verbs to Present induces road rage, and now the character flashes hot. I want to convey a meandering quality, more inconvenienced than raged. But luckily, coordinating conjunctions exist for a reason!

For the Past-to-Present conversion, I have to compensate for denser verbiage by combining the first two sentences, emulating the rhythm of the “I was walking” version. Otherwise it goes by too quick.

The cluttered street reeks of shoppers, and a scooter rushes past from behind, startling me. I jump and utter curses at the rude rider.

And the choppy version isn’t necessarily wrong. I just felt like making this character rambly, rather than a live-and-let-loose kinda guy.

Thus, the passage could be written in past or present tense and I couldn’t tell you what’s right or wrong. My conclusion is that it’s better to realize the tense doesn’t matter besides a few tweaks. During revision, you fix poor form.

Narrative vs. Character Frame #

Now that conflation with bad prose is out of the way, any other lashback against present tense is irrational, because most stories already tense switch once they introduce dialogue. To be mad at a narrator employing the same tense as its characters is pretty silly, especially if the narrator is supposed to be one of the characters.

Maybe in some situations, distance between narrator and scene is appropriate. Or maybe, just like in real life, social norms don’t exist as concrete things and people cross politeness boundaries all the time, making for funny stories. Sorry, I’m socially awkward and can’t understand these things.

Dialogue is written in Present because most people talk in Present when they reach the point of remembering—no, reliving an incident.

There are exceptions, like individuals who score higher than 30 out of 40 points on Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, the threshold of a clinically recognized psychopath (and not just because your ex accuses you of being one). A score of 22 is criminal sociopath, who at least have an inkling of human empathy. For reference, your average person scores around 5, and Ted Bundy scored 39.

Psychpaths 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 literary authors are psychopaths, just that psychopaths are good storytellers, and you might know a few of them.

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.

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.

No matter which tense you to start with, you’ll be switching when the situation calls for it, because the storyteller controls the time.

Change is more important than Tense #

Some authors who write a Past story switch to Present to signal a flashback. Of course, this is backwards, since flashbacks should technically be past. But it goes to show the fluidity of human experience.

Switching to a new tense is a signal amongst many signals. People like subtle changes when it has an artistry to it. It’s why one of the most common writing drills is to vary syntax. A change in tense has meaning, like how music pieces shift the key around 3/4 of the way in.

Still, reader biases exist. Relying on Present indicates your book is “amateur,” “experimental” or “popcorn.” If your target audiences are the thrill-seekers, then feel free to write in Present. Let me just say that as of 2021, mystery and thrillers are the most popular non-romance genres (although they are often seasoned with romance). If you’re afraid of conventional readers tossing the book at first glance because they need narrative distance, lest they become emotionally scarred by your Lovecraftian horror, then by all means use Past.

Sike! Horror isn’t a popular genre, and writing in the more popular tense isn’t going to change that, but it does have a diehard cast of fans.

Conclusion #

I argue that past tense allows a writer more leeway in excessive description, since Past is naturally introspective and meandering. Past runs the risk of being boring and safe. Some people just don’t like documentaries. After all, past tense = high class, present tense = vulgar, right?

Too much description in present tense is counterintuitive. Present is semantically denser, better served with poignant details. Present forces a writer to be more musically poetic with their craft, so if you suck, you suck. I mean, you can write the same as how normal people talk, if you want (but you really shouldn’t, because that’s boring, and I’d rather interview a real person, or pick up a non-fiction, if you’re gonna do that. Like seriously, imagine paying for a ticket to Medieval Times, and they all talked like normal people. Or turning on a podcast and they included the pointless parts of regular people’s dialogue).

Prose is responsible for essential meaning, regardless if the verbs are conjugated in past or present, because diction choices and beat are more important. Finally, non-native speakers of English probably won’t notice or care if the novel is 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. There are also many people who suck at playing the piano, and people who suck at reading, thus audiobooks exist. The biggest hurdle as a writer is ignoring people who criticize all the wrong places, and they blame the tense because it’s easier to be a grammar Nazi than a linguist.

Tenses are simply indicators of time. When it comes to flashback, the similarity between essay and fiction writing is: always use transitions. Really, the author saying, “Once upon a time, this is a flashback,” and not trying to confuse the reader with unnecessary coyness, is more important than whichever tense flavor you use, unless you’re writing a story about temporal confusion and time travel shenanigans. 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 with them.

As a storyteller, you control time.