On Being Tense about Tense: Writing a Past Tense Narrative in Novels
A story becomes more nuanced and gripping if an author understands how they are using language and syntax. Having a brilliant story is not enough. It also needs to be written in the right way. For example, verb tense throughout your narrative should be consistent. In this article, the first of three about the importance of verb tense in novel writing, we will explore how to write your story in the past tense.
The importance of verb tense in a novel is often beyond the mere need for consistency in a language. (Not that that’s not important, of course – if your grammar is off, chances are your reader finds your story off too.) One of the most powerful effects that verb tense can have in a novel is in establishing your narrative’s time period.
If you are eloquent in the English language, you can explore a lot of this by instinct. In fact, if you’re well-read in fiction, it is natural to think of a story in the past tense. Most of us do, irrespective of how much we read. The general assumption here is that we write stories after they have occurred.
This is reflected in the history of novel writing as well: most novels are written in the past tense.
A breakfast-room adjoined the drawing-room, I slipped in there. It
contained a bookcase: I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking
care that it should be one stored with pictures. I mounted into the
window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk;
and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined
in double retirement.
The above passage is from the first page of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Look at the verbs that have been used in this paragraph. These are verbs in their past tense form.
“I slipped in there.”
“I soon possessed myself of a volume…”
These verbs show that Jane is narrating about events that happened in the past. Jane is narrating these events after they have happened, as opposed to narrating them alongside it.
Like with Jane Eyre, we write all past tense narratives in the simple past tense. You can use a past tense narrative for stories written in the 1st person and the 3rd person points of view (limited and omniscient).
(Fun fact: Did you also know that the past tense is also known as the ‘narrative tense’? In a way, this means we have adopted the past tense as the tense of storytelling. That’s cool!)
The next question you need to ask yourself is this: so, if the entire story is already in the past, how do you write about events/points of time even further back? How do you write about things that happened in the past’s past? How do you establish a chronology within the past? How do you write a flashback?
Let’s answer these questions one by one.
Establishing Your Story’s Chronology
As a small step, let’s first look at how you can use the past tense to establish a chronology of events within a short span of time. Beyond knowing that everything is happening in the past, we also need to know the order of things that happened, right? So, let’s think of it as plotting a timeline, and then trying to understand the order of events.
Here’s a quick grammar recap. In case you’ve forgotten or didn’t know (perfectly okay, we won’t judge you for it), there are four types of tenses the past tense itself: simple, perfect, progressive, and perfect progressive. Each of them has its own function in telling us when things happened in relation to each other, all in the past. That’s the thing you need to remember when you’re writing a past tense narrative: all action takes place in the past, in a particular order or chronology.
For example, take a look at this sentence from the earlier paragraph:
“… gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk; and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close …”
There are three verbs in this sentence: “gathering”, “sat”, and “having drawn”. Each of them tells us about an action. Only one of them is in simple past.
Based on the tense used for each verb, we can figure out the order of all of them. Once we break down the sentence to these three actions to understand what Jane did first, we can determine:
- “Having drawn” is the only verb in this sentence in the perfect past tense. As the tense that shows actions that happened before the simple tense narrative, we know that this is what Jane did first. She drew the curtains first and then sat down.
- “Gathering” is in progressive past. Jane gathering her feet is a (relatively) prolonged action, which started before she sat down, and continued as she was sitting down.
Therefore, in order, Jane drew the curtains, then gathered up her feet to sit down, then sat down.
The Past of the Past: How to Write a Flashback
When we use the word ‘flashback’ in a literary context, we are referring to moments in a storyline that either directly jumps back to the past – in terms of actual events (either by an omniscient narrator, time travel, etc.), or somebody recollecting or narrating incidents that happened before the time of the storyline. (The term more accurate for literature studies and literary criticism is ‘analepsis’.)
One of the most effective ways to let your reader know that you have jumped through time is a clear change in the verb tense that you use.
With stories anchored in the past tense, you switch from simple past tense to the past perfect tense to show that your story has gone back in time. Sounds straightforward, right?
Now, if your flashback is fairly lengthy, say, more than a page long, then it gets tricky. It’s pretty distracting for a reader to read too many consecutive sentences in the past perfect. If that’s a problem you face, then you can do one of two things:
- Break your narrative to show that there is a departure in time. You can do this with the help of a dotted line, italics, chapter breaks, etc. This way you can you can continue your flashback in the simple past tense, so long as you give clear clues about when you are writing about.
- But if you don’t want to break the narrative, you can start the flashback with the first couple of sentences in the past perfect, switch to the simple past for most of it, and the last few sentences are (once again) in the past perfect.
The change from the simple past to past perfect tense in the beginning and the end clarifies that your story is going back in time, and the bulk of the flashback being in the simple past makes it less cumbersome to read (and, honestly, write too).
Whichever method you choose, here are some things you need to remember:
- Think about when you want to write in a flashback during your story. Ask yourself: is it absolutely necessary? What is the purpose of this flashback? How does it fit in and enhance the story?
- Be crystal clear in making the distinction between the dominant narrative and the flashback. It can get confusing since both of them are in the past tense.
- If the flashback is too long, you risk losing focus on the dominant narrative. If it’s too short, then it doesn’t get registered as a flashback.
We hope you now have the guidance to get you started on your story. Obviously, these are general guidelines, and there is no one way to write a story. As you write and experiment, you will find your ground and see what kind of narrative structure works best for you.
4.5 out of 5 on Google reviews and 4.6 out of 5 on Reviews.co.uk.
I was happy to receive both a tracked and a clean version of the edited document.
I will happily recommend PaperTrue to my friends, and I will myself come back on a later occasion.
Amazing service and a welcoming chat on the website! I love the detailed comments and feedback on the tracked document :) They really did a good job at making my debut novel a lot better while still keeping my style of writing!
Much love from Denmark <3