Verb tense in fiction
October 19, 2005 7:04 PM   Subscribe

Verb tense in fiction

I'm taking an intro. level creative writing course and I'm confused about when to use what verb tense. A man walks in a room and sits down with a woman at a table and starts talking. Are the tags says or said? Are his observations and actions past or present? Perhaps it depends on point of view? I might be thinking too much, appreciate any help.
posted by larry_darrell to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The vast majority of fiction is written in the past tense.
posted by clarahamster at 7:16 PM on October 19, 2005

Tense generally depends on how you want to tell the story, just watch that you are consistent in your usage. If you want to convey a story unfolding as it's told, then use present: "A man walks into a room." But the tense would move from present to past if he later "remembers that he sat at this table before." Or if you want to place the events in the past then "A man walked into a room and sat at a table...remembered that he had sat at this table before." Play with it and see which feels more natural for the story you are trying to tell. Often either can work. Are you leading up to the present or moving into the future? Then pay attention to where the characters are in time and stick to it. It's very confusing and annoying to read a story that forgets to be consistent in tense.
posted by smartypanties at 7:17 PM on October 19, 2005

Seeing as how you started by telling us about your story in the present tense, maybe that will come more naturally to you. Just pick one of the two and stick with it.

If you're inside his head, that stuff is going to be present.
posted by johngoren at 7:28 PM on October 19, 2005

This is largely a stylistic choice -- you can put a story in the past or present (or [warning: advanced! (and at high risk of being gimmicky)] future tense, as you please. It's important to be consistent, though, so
A man walks into a room and sits down with a woman, the one he met years ago in Madrid. "Mary!" he says. "I didn't expect to see you here."
A man walked into a room and sat down with a woman, the one he had met a year before in Madrid. "Mary!" he said. "I didn't expect to see you here."
The choice will of course have an effect on how the story reads, and does indeed depend partly on the point of view you want to tell the story from. For example, using the present tense can feel more immediate or urgent but also less invisible to the reader. It can feel more stylized, because it's quite uncommon, especially for third-person narratives. But if you're writing in the first person and colloquially, it can feel quite natural. A useful exercise, in fact, is to write a scene and play around with these things. Write it in the third person omniscient and the past tense and see how it sounds, then change it to the present tense -- what changes for you? What details and other choices you made in how to describe the scene come out differently after the revision? Et cetera.

The question of what tense to put a character's observations in is a bit more complicated. If you want to treat the observations as direct quotes, then they'll be in the present tense (unless, say, the character is reminiscing about the past). And if the character in question is the narrator, then the observations are like anything else in the narrative, so past tense for observations about things going on just then if you've chosen that stance, or present tense for the same things if you've chosen the other. But there is also a common literary device that is often called "free indirect style" where the point-of-view character in a 3rd person narrative gets incorporated into the tense and person of the narration, like this:
The car pulled up to the curb. Lizzie looked out into the rain. Christ, what a hideous night it was, and Christ, did she ever want a drink.
I hope I haven't made things even more confusing. In the end, I think that really, your best bet with this as with so many other things in writing is to pick up some books that you like and read them with an eye towards whatever element of the craft you've realized you're curious about.
posted by redfoxtail at 7:28 PM on October 19, 2005

What redfoxtail said. It's up to you, but remember to be consistent.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:34 PM on October 19, 2005

Literature is timeless and therefore is always (sometimes) written in the past tense.

That was the mnemonic that my 12th grade English teacher taught us.
posted by bshort at 7:47 PM on October 19, 2005

Personally, reading present-tense prose bugs me. Steve Martin used it in Shopgirl, and I kept thinking, "This guy's spent too much time in Hollywood reading scripts."
posted by cribcage at 8:09 PM on October 19, 2005

Present-tense is a kind of device sometimes used to either convey a certain character (cf. Shopgirl) or possibly put the reader off-balance. I would only use it if it really feels natural for the story.

A different example is the issue of writing in third-person (usual), first-person (common), or second-person (rare). Bright Lights, Big City is in second-person present-tense and you either like it or hate it.

You are not the kind of guy who would be in a place like this at this time in the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder.
posted by dhartung at 8:16 PM on October 19, 2005

A writer always writes in the present tense, she has good odds of sounding like Damon Runyon. I am a big fan of Damon Runyon and he is always using the present tense like there is no other, present progressive where possible, but many other people have a hard time getting away with this, and I'm thinking you will too.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:56 PM on October 19, 2005

One possibility is the historical present.

Ludwig has a good point about tense consistency though. I didn't really grok it until I started taking Latin. then the whole future perfect, future, present, imperfect, perfect, pluperfect spectrum crystallized (slightly different depending on your language, but still).

In terms of consistency, it is usually relative to when "now" is. If you are talking about something in the past, and the event is was in the past, use the same tense (past). If it happened before, use the pluperfect ("had happened").
posted by misterbrandt at 9:06 PM on October 19, 2005

Why not keep it simple for now, and just don't ever ever use present tense? Of course, this is a totally personal and indefensible position, but to me, the present tense is disgusting. The accompanying theory: only ever use "said" to denote someone talking. No "recounted," no "related," no "uttered," no "stated," no "expressed."
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:32 PM on October 19, 2005

The accompanying theory: only ever use "said" to denote someone talking. No "recounted," no "related," no "uttered," no "stated," no "expressed."

Come on now. What if they gasp, sputter, blurt, mutter, mumble, moan, groan, cough, wheeze, shout, scream, sigh, or laugh, or stutter?
posted by ludwig_van at 9:59 PM on October 19, 2005

When I write, I stick to past tense unless a character is speaking. It's very difficult to revise a story when the tense changes at (seemingly) random points.

Pick a tense and stick to it.
posted by dking at 10:50 PM on October 19, 2005

I kinda like using the present tense in writing, but only when it comes out naturally that way. Most writers use past tense, if you want to read something that doesn't follow these guidelines I'd recommend (if memory serves me correctly) Julia Alverez. You'll notice the different tones that the tenses create.
posted by hopeless romantique at 11:15 PM on October 19, 2005

redfoxtail has said it above. When you write about what happens in the story, you probably want to do it in past tense because you are setting the story in the past. That's when stories take place. You can get immediacy by using present tense, but that's a tool you absolutely don't need.

Imagine yourself giving a calm, cold description to a police officer:
The man walked into the bar. He sat down next to a woman. Her hair was the brightest shade of red that he had ever seen. And he'd seen lots of hair in his time. "I'll tell you something. Your hair is the brightest shade of red I've ever seen," he said.
Note the descriptions of what happened are past tense because you're saying what happened. But what goes in quotation marks matches what the characters actually say, as if recorded on tape. The characters are saying what they said, and by reporting it in whatever tense it was said, you're still reporting what happened in the past.
posted by fleacircus at 11:40 PM on October 19, 2005

Even news writers will occasionally argue over this (though most places mandate a certain style). There are arguments for using both the active voice (present tense) and the passive voice (past tense). The former tends to pull readers into a narrative more forcefully through the implication of events occuring as they read, while the latter distances the reader from the action and feels more "objective."

Seems to me that in fiction, you can use either so long as you have a reason to do so. The rule is probably to stick with past tense, though, for several reasons (easier to deal with huge jumps in time between scenes; reading long passages set in the passive tense can be confusing; it's what everyone else does). But by no means is the active voice off-limits.
posted by chrominance at 12:58 AM on October 20, 2005

Argh! chrominance, you don't know what you are talking about, mate.

Active voice and passive voice have nothing to do with tense.

Traditionally, verbs have tense, voice, mood and aspect (although that's really applying Latin terminology to English, it's the old school way of looking at it).

Tense refers to time of action relative to the present: thus we have past, present, future.

Voice: whether the verb is applied to the subject or object. Eg: I threw the ball (active). The ball was thrown by me (passive).

Mood: barely marked in English any more. We still have traces of a subjunctive mood, indicating an unreal or hypothetical condition. Eg: If I were to throw the ball. These days you might just as well write "If I was to throw the ball".

Aspect: whether actions are continuous, discrete, etc. Eg I run vs I am running. I ran (past simple) vs I have run (perfect) vs I had run (pluperfect).

It irritates me no end when you mix these things up. As noted above, this is probably not the best way to describe English verbs - I'd be interested to know how people learning English are taught this, or what terms are used in a modern English descriptive grammar. But if you are going to use the old ones, get them right.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:26 AM on October 20, 2005

I only read novels in past perfect continuous.
posted by zardoz at 6:54 AM on October 20, 2005

Chrominance's advice is bizarre. Active/passive voice are unrelated to past/present tense. i_am_joe's_spleen covers the difference. Disregard Chrominance's advice.

My advice if you have trouble with tense is to take a basic grammar course. There's no shame in it, especially if you're having trouble. In fact, there's more shame in continuing to write confused than in taking a remedial course to get things sorted out. Heck — for the most part, I know what I'm doing with words, yet I've taken a basic writing course before, just to keep refreshed. (And I read grammar texts all the frickiin' time.)
posted by jdroth at 7:10 AM on October 20, 2005

Just write in Chinese. No tenses to worry about.

But yeah, you can use whatever tense you want as long as you're consistent. If you use past tense it will be a lot easier, as everything will be in the same tense.

For example, here's a short paragraph in present tense that discusses some past events, thus mixed verb tense:

Jane's hand is on Michael's neck. She's kissing him, and it does not make her feel the way she used to feel when she kissed Ann.

On the other hand, this paragraph all uses the same tense.

Jane's hand was on Michael's neck. She was kissing him, and it did not make her feel the way she used to feel when she kissed Ann.

So everything has the same verb tense.
posted by delmoi at 7:28 AM on October 20, 2005

Most fiction use the past tense. You should use whatever you want, and be consistent if that suits you. Or not. It's all a stylistic choice, regardless of current publishing trends.
Few people, however, can pull of writing in the future tense.

A man will walk into a room and sit down with a woman, the one he is meeting years ago in Madrid. "Mary!" he will say. "I didn't expect to see you here."
posted by signal at 10:38 AM on October 20, 2005

I'd like to put in a vote for past tense. Other respondents have already made clear why this works—and as I noted in a critique in a writing workshop last week (on a story written entirely in present tense), the present tense altogether too often smacks of that "I'm a writer who's been to too many workshops" feeling. It's too self-conscious—it takes the reader out of the story and makes them think about the mechanics of what they're reading. While that self-reflexivity is appealing in some contexts, I think it should be used sparingly.

This is certainly akin to the use of "said," as RJ Reynolds points out above—anywhere you want to keep people in the story, rather than thinking about it (how it's put together, how they're reading it, etc.), don't break from past tense + "said" too often.

Another thing to think about is how you'd tell a story in person. Sometimes, the best way to tell the story is the way that would make it clearest (and most salient) to a friend standing there asking you what happened. Then again, a lot of times, I hear stories told like so, with accompanying hand gestures:

"So I'm looking at this guy, right? And I'm thinking, My God, does he not realize that his pants have that gaping hole in the front? I mean, really. I just couldn't believe it. So I go and tap the guy on the shoulder..."

What do we say of a snippet like that? You probably wouldn't want to write an entire story in that tone/tense—you wouldn't have the hand gestures to back it up. But it does go back to the past tense to indicate that you're referring to a past train of thought/feeling. Main idea: people think and speak in a mix of tenses, and your writing should incorporate that complexity.

Something to avoid with present-tense focused characters is this trancelike, bleary mode of narrating:

"I look down the street. There she is. She's near me now. She floats into my arms. She is evanescent and sorrowful."

Present tense, if used, shouldn't be this bleary stream-of-moments experience where you feel like the camera (if there were one) is panning all over the place and only catching hints of what's going on. My advice for using present tense: stay focused on what you're trying to show the reader.
posted by limeonaire at 12:07 PM on October 20, 2005

A man will walk into a room and sit down with a woman, the one he is meeting years ago in Madrid. "Mary!" he will say. "I didn't expect to see you here."

"The one he will have met years ago in Madrid." Yep, hard to pull off unless you're, say, Italo Calvino.
posted by redfoxtail at 3:33 PM on October 20, 2005

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