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Any story can become more gripping and nuanced if the author is conscious of how they use language and syntax. Having a brilliant story is not enough; you need to use the right words. It starts with selecting the correct narrative tense. Is your story more suited to the present tense or the past?
In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know while writing a novel in the past tense.
The purpose of paying attention to the narrative tense is to maintain consistency in your language. If your grammar is off, chances are that your reader will have a poor impression of your novel.
However, the narrative tense also serves a larger purpose in a novel: it establishes the time period of your narrative.
Writing a novel in the past tense was a norm for the past two centuries, and there’s a reason for that. Those who are well-versed in fiction usually tend to come up with stories in the past tense. The logic is, we usually tell stories after they have occurred. So when we write them down, we use the tense that best conveys these past actions: the past tense.
You can find this reflected in the history of novel writing. Writing a novel in the past tense is the earliest (and most common) way of writing novels!
Let’s take a look at how the earliest novel writers told a story in the past tense.
Here’s a paragraph from the first page of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre:
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.
As you can observe, the verbs underlined above are all in the simple past tense. This tells you that Jane is narrating these events after they have happened. She doesn’t narrate them as they happen, which would make it a present tense narrative.
Similar to the example above, we usually write our past tense narratives in the simple past tense. But can you observe in the paragraph how there are verbs other than the ones underlined?
What type of actions do they depict?
In case you’ve forgotten or didn’t know (and we won’t judge you for it), there are four types of tenses in the past tense itself.
Represents something that has already happened, or a general state of being.
Pamela showed great interest in the specimens on display.
Pamela was heartbroken at the tragedy.
Stands for actions that have been completed before a certain point of time. On a general note, actions in the past perfect tense occur before the ones in the simple past tense.
The teacher noticed that Lang had finished writing.
Lang had finished writing before the teacher noticed. The past perfect action (had finished) occurs before the simple past action (noticed).
Represents an action in the past that was incomplete at the time of mention.
Mariah was eating when the doctor called.
Depicts an action that started at some point in the past and has continued until another point.
Jordan had been watching a show for an hour before the TV malfunctioned.
Each of the above tenses is unique in their ability to tell us when things happened in the past. Based on how they relate to the simple tense, they tell us whether an action was complete, ongoing, or prolonged when it was mentioned in the past.
With this in mind, let’s see what you need to know.
In every story, all action takes place in a particular order. While writing a novel in the past tense, you need to make sure that you’re perfectly translating this order into text. Using the four past tenses properly helps you arrange the chronology of your action in the reader’s mind.
For example, take a look at this sentence from the earlier paragraph:
I was gathering up my feet as I mounted the window-seat, like a Turk; and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement.
Based on the tense used for each verb, one can figure out the chronology of action. The reader’s mind can do this without conscious thought. Let’s see how this process occurs:
Your use of the tenses needs to make this process as smooth for the reader as possible.
Now we know that you can use the four past tenses to establish chronology of action in your novel. Let’s take a look at the second most important aspect of writing in the past tense.
When we use the word ‘flashback’ in a literary context, we are referring to two ways of revealing the past in a novel:
1. Insert a new section in the narrative, so the reader feels as if they have jumped into the past directly. An omniscient narrator is the easiest way to do this. Sometimes, writers have a character witness past events or travel back into time. So, the time jump is achieved through the character’s point of view.
2. Have a character recollect or narrate incidents that have happened before the time of the storyline. The technical term for this, used by literature students and literary critics, is ‘analepsis’.
One of the most effective ways to let your reader know that you have jumped through time is a clear change in your narrative tense. For a story in the past tense that features a short flashback, you can simply switch from the simple past to the past perfect tense.
Now, if your flashback is fairly lengthy, then this gets tricky. Too many consecutive sentences in the past perfect tense are distracting and off-putting to the reader.
You have two options to add a longer flashback to a story in the past tense:
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 continue your flashback in the simple past tense, so long as you give clear clues of what time you are writing about.
Start the flashback with the past perfect tense and switch to the simple past after the first few sentences. Write most of it in the simple past, which is easier to read. End the flashback with the last few sentences in the past perfect tense, once again.
This double switch in the beginning and end clarifies that your story is shifting its timeline. The readers will note the change in time while also not finding it cumbersome to read.
A novel is a long read. Now that you’re familiar with how past tenses work on the reader’s perception of action, you can craft better sentences and paragraphs. Ultimately, this leads to a more engaging novel.
There is no one right way to write a story in the past tense. With more reading, you’ll find many variations to the tips we’ve mentioned. Keep experimenting, and you’ll soon work out a narrative structure that is perfect for your novel.
Who knows, you’ll be hunting for a manuscript editor by this time next year!
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