On Being Tense About Tense: What Verb Tense To Write Your Novel In
Time in a story is something we all, readers and writers alike, take for granted. Until we have to deal with it. How often do you actually sit down and think about what verb tense an author writes in?
We don’t, right? Not usually. We instinctively know that a story is written in the past, or at least about the past: we are reading a story after it has happened. This has remained the general trend in literary history.
To believably draw a reader into fictional events is a difficult task as it is. Therefore, the importance of maintaining tense is much more than maintaining consistency in language. The tense you write in also determines how you tackle time in your narrative. Is your story definitely set before it was written? Is your story ‘happening’ as the reader is reading it? All this can be established through the tense you write in.
We’ve already told you that there are two ways you could go about this: historical present tense vs. past tense. But, if the understanding is that stories, regardless of variation in narrative tense, has been written after they have occurred (that is, the story is in the past), then what is the difference?
This is an ongoing debate between writers, linguists and literary critics. Each perspective has its pros and cons, which are what we will be examining in this article.
Past Tense Narratives:
Pro: It’s Easier To Manipulate Time
Since this is a story told in the past tense, you can easily stretch or condense the time frame of the story. This allows you a lot of advantages – you control the pace of the novel, and you can jump back and forth in your timeline easily.
Pro: It’s Easier to Read, Generally Speaking
Since past tense narratives are more common, as readers, we are more used to reading in the past tense. It can be jarring, and almost unbelievable at times, to read a story in the present tense. So, if you’re a novice writer who’s not quite confident about what to do, perhaps it’s best to stick to tried and tested methods.
Con: Everyone Knows There’s an End, So What’s the Suspense?
So if you write a novel in the past tense, there are at least two things your readers are likely to know: the story has an end, and the narrator is alive by the end of the book. Convention says that this might make your book predictable (especially if you’re in genre fiction), making it difficult for you to use suspense.
(On the other hand, you could take advantage of it. Since everyone knows that there is an end to a story allows a writer to use foreshadowing and dramatic irony effectively. Moreover, you can always choose to subvert conventional storytelling.)
Present Tense Narrative
Pro: It’s Considered Easier to Write
In a novel anchored in the present tense. you’re most likely to use the simple present and the simple continuous tense, and a bit of simple past and future if you want to jump back and forth in time. Whereas, in a narrative anchored in the past tense, you would probably have to use most of the 12 tenses in the English language.
We’re only laying down the facts, but it’s clear which sounds like less of a hassle, right?
Con: It’s Harder to Pull Off
Since writing stories in the present tense is a fairly recent trend and is often considered an ‘unnatural’ way of storytelling, there is a risk involved. Chances are, your story could sound awry really quickly. So, it’s best to stick to conventional wisdom and write in the past tense.
Con: It’s Harder to Read, Maybe Even Unbelievable
Like we said, it’s not that your story is happening in the present, it’s just that the reader has to believe it is. But if it’s not done well, your story will sound artificial and unbelievable, not to mention hard to read.
Pro: It Brings and Urgency and Suspense to Your Writing
A present-tense narrative, when done right, gives your reader the feeling of experiencing the narrative at the same time your characters do. This allows for a kind urgency and immediacy in your novel, which can make it powerful. Since your reader and your characters are also on the sam page (pun intended) about time, it’s easier to create an air of suspense about what’s going to happen next.
Historic Present: Legit, or Just a Passing Trend?
Now, that’s some food for thought. As we mentioned before, the verb tense debate is quite vibrant. And many (established) writers have really strong feelings about this. For instance, Philip Pullman and Philip Hensher point out that a change in verb tense doesn’t necessarily guarantee powerful prose. Honestly, they have a point there. As Hensher points out, “vivid writing is vivid, regardless of tense.”
But, then again, like we’ve said before, there is no right answer. The choice is for you to make. The choice is what makes your story better. You can write your novel in any verb tense or multiple verb tenses, but that’s for you to try and test now.
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