Episode 84: Tense Density – When did the story happen?

On February 29, 2020, Kasie and Rex took on the “tense” conversation around choosing where in time the story happens. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day:

The Right “Tense”


  • What is “tense” in storytelling
  • How does “tense” change the impact of the story
  • How to choose the right tense for your story
  • News from the SC Writerverse
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Photo by Luizmedeirosph on Pexels.com

Segment 1

So this blog gives a great discussion of the topic but I’d edit the early on about “make the reader giddy” to “annoy the shit out of the reader.” Just sayin.

The basics (from that site):

  • Past (simple) tense: Sarah ran to the store.
  • Present (simple) tense: Sarah runs to the store.
  • Future (simple) tense: Sarah will run to the store
  • Past perfect: Sarah had run to the store.
  • Present perfect: Sarah has run to the store.
  • Future perfect: Sarah will have run to the store.

The very first advice this blog gives is, “Decide which tense works best for your story” but that’s the crux of it, right? How do you decide?

We’re not here to teach basic grammar, so we’re going to talk about tense in two ways:

  1. What the purpose of each is — meaning when to use it and why
  2. What the effect of each is — meaning whether it works or not to do what you want it to.

So let’s go back to the Sarah examples and work on each:

  • Past (simple) tense: Sarah ran to the store. — you have a narrator that is looking back on events that have already occurred, which means your narrator also knows how things will work out; this gives the Omniscient narrator the “god-like” quality of knowing better than the characters 
  • Present (simple) tense: Sarah runs to the store. — you have a narrator who is experiencing the action as it happens, with no knowledge of how it will turn out; it’s a trick, of course, because the writer knows how it will turn out. Or she should. 
  • Future (simple) tense: Sarah will run to the store — you have a narrator predicting how things will be, we’re not actually seeing the action here, because the action hasn’t yet occurred. We’re seeing what could happen. The predictive is a cool tool to invoke when the narrator is trying to explain the impact of decisions happening currently; it’s also a great trick when the narrator gets it wrong and the predictions made don’t come true.
  • Past perfect: Sarah had run to the store. — now the narrator is delivering exposition, providing the circumstances that made something that’s happening now possible; because Sarah had run to the store, she missed a crucial conversation, we had a needed provision, she overhead some outside conversation, there are endless possibilities here because the past perfect tense creates a concurrent reality, it widens the existence of the story.
  • Present perfect: Sarah has run to the store. — here the narrator is telling the reader that something happening now is concurrent with another thing (Sarah at the store) which changes or impacts the results of the events happening right now. When Sarah is absent, she is having a parallel experience to the narrator’s and that experience, or her missing from ours, will be crucial to the story.
  • Future perfect: Sarah will have run to the store. — Less immediate, less relevant, this is a result of what’s happening now and suggests what will happen later. This can be a way of delivering exposition without having

Segment 2 & 3

So it’s cool to play with verb tenses — it’s kind of like actors playing with characters and set designers playing with lighting and materials. Here’s a link about making sure you get it right. 

Why are novels written in present tense? For this we go to Writer’s Digest who never fails to have a list available: 

  1. It adds immediacy to the story — we can also show the character’s change in real-time, as it’s happening, as opposed to after-the-fact
  2. It can show the character’s values as well — if the character is “living in the present” disregarding the consequences of his actions, the present tense is a way of showing that.
  3. It can reflect the theme of the novel — if the novel itself is about how the past is irrelevant, or the present matters most, then the use of the present tense can demonstrate that. (this makes me think of using the present tense for the 1816 sections of the vampire novel — for the reader 1816 is in the past, but for the time traveling vampire, it’s the present day)
  4. Present tense is easier — it simplifies the handling of other tenses; we can shift into the simple past for a flashback and return easily, not as complex as the time relationships of exposition in a past tense story.

But the experimentation has some implications.

  1. The narrator cannot look back on or editorialize what’s happening right now, so we lose the ability to let the narrator put things into context as most people do not contextualize in the present tense.
  2. Without the ability to manipulate time, we cannot create complex characters. We lose the tools of time and context to explain motivations so characters become one dimensional.
  3. We cannot create suspense because the present tense narrator doesn’t know what will happen. (Do we agree with this? Girl on the Train had suspense and it was present tense.)
  4. We’re forced to tell the story chronologically which means we include trivial events because they happen in sequence.

The present tense has been maligned as fashionable and a way for writers to avoid the challenges of working with the history that might exist in a past-tense story. This article explains the literary viewpoint. Suffice it to say, it’s trendy.

Are authors learning it at school? In MFA programs? Or are they learning it from one another? You read a novel in present tense and decide to adopt it yourself?

One of the reasons it’s being booed is because it tends to exist in novice writing.

Does present tense give the illusion that the writer is hands off? Just tracking the story like a movie camera might? (Source)

Does the story tell you what tense is should be in? Does the shift from one to the other change how you feel about it? (Source)

Segment 4

Does the presence of some very successful novels in present tense mean it has become an accepted strategy? The Hunger Games, for example.

Does the choice of tense belong to the writer? Or the narrator? (Source)

Some news in the SC Writerverse:

The SCWA is hosting its annual conference this spring in Columbia and it’s the 30th birthday for the organization so there’s a lot of celebrating going on. Plan to join the group? Register with the Early Bird rate. You can pay 50% now and the remainder on April 15th which is cool and if you’re an author and pay the full rate, you can exhibit your books for free. Also, referring a friend will get you a free critique of 10 pages of your work. So lots to gain from registering now.

Today is our Local Authors Book Club meeting at Sunrise Artisan in Five Points. Come on down to Tzima’s store to meet with James D. McCallister, author of Dixiana. We have some good questions for him around verb tense but also around narrator selection and telling a story with a group of POVs.

Ready to support Write On SC? Go to Patreon.com/WriteOnSC to become a patron!


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