Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Be Tense!

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All right, I realize that the title of today’s post is a cheap pun – and I used it a few weeks back – but I just couldn’t resist. I think it’s funny, so it must be, amirite? Huh? Anybody?

Okay, since I can practically hear the eyes rolling, I’ll get to the point.

As you may have surmised, today’s post is about verb tense in narrative. As a quick review, tense is the timeframe in which a verb is being used. There are three basic tenses in English: future, present, and past.  Another one that you need to know about for storytelling is a subcategory of past: pluperfect, or, as it’s more commonly known, past perfect.

“Pluperfect” is a fancy term I learned in my Latin class. It’s what people call past perfect when they want to sound fancy, as if they are wearing top hats and monocles.

Now you too can be fancy. Go impress your English teachers.

So anyway, future tense, indicated with a ‘will’ or ‘shall’ construction (“I shall go” or “you will leave”), is almost never used as a main tense in narrative storytelling. Certainly, your narrator might say, “I will get to that in a minute,” or something similar, but I have yet to see an entire narrative in future tense. It just plain doesn’t work.

Present tense, on the other hand, indicated by an -s suffix or no suffix construction (she walks, I eat), is often used in narrative.  A good example of this is in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. If you haven’t read them, they are a fairly easy read, so check them out for the example. If you have read them, go back and give it a quick glance. You’ll see that most of the verbs are in present tense – unless Katniss is reminiscing (looking back) or planning ahead.

Present tense is a great choice in storytelling because it gives the reader a sense of immediacy.  It gives the impression that what’s going on in the story is happening RIGHT NOW. The reader feels that they are living the story along with the characters, rather than reading about something that happened.  This isn’t to say that past tense, which we’ll get to in a minute, can’t also be exciting, but something about that present tense makes it seem urgent.

Side note: outside of narrative, present tense should always be used in the synopsis (summary) of a story or other writing. This is especially important in writing essays and book reports. Even if the original writing is in the past tense, discuss it using present tense verbs. For example: “Harry tells Hermione that they need to find the invisibility cloak.” If you’re talking about another type of writing, do the same thing: “Vossler says that synopses always use the present tense.”

Now go impress your English teachers.

Anyway, past tense, usually indicated with an -ed suffix (I jumped, he talked), is probably the most common main tense in narrative. Keep in mind that past tense is where the most verb irregularities occur, so keep an eye out for that (ate, went, swam, and hung, just to name a few). Past tense is the most natural-feeling way to tell a story. We typically think of stories as something that have already happened: “Hey, let me tell you this story about my childhood!” This is especially true if the story is set in a past era. In fact, we practically live in the past tense. I don’t mean that we live in the past, I mean that we use and think of things in terms of the past tense. The present happens so briefly that it barely has time to register.  Something that happened mere seconds ago has already become past, so we think of it in those terms.

Even when we think about what we are currently doing, we don’t typically use a simple present tense. You don’t really think “I walk to the post office,” on your way to the post office. You think “I am walking to the post office,” which is the present participle of ‘to walk.’ Now, you might think of generalities in present tense, such as “I don’t drive to the post office, I walk to the post office,” but if you pay much attention to your personal verb use, you’ll notice a surprising amount of past tense.

This is what makes past tense such a natural choice for narrative. It clicks with the way that we typically think of the world, so when we read a story in past tense, it still feels like it’s happening at the moment – albeit without the same urgency that present tense offers.  For this reason, it’s also easier to write in past than in present.  Don’t confuse ‘easier’ with poorer quality, or even better quality.  The story you are telling will determine what the best tense choice is.

Present tense and past tense are your two choices for a main tense in storytelling.  One of these will be your reference point, and all of your other verb tenses will be chosen with one of these in mind.

So, if past and present are you choices for storytelling, what’s up with that pluperfect thingy I was talking about?

Pluperfect (I love sounding fancy, since I don’t have a top hat or monocle) is indicated by a ‘had’ construction (I had danced, he had cried). It is a really important thing in storytelling, particularly if your main tense is past, because it is what you will use for flashbacks and references to things that have happened already. 

So let’s kind of break down what past perfect really is. Why ‘perfect’?

You’re probably thinking, “Oh, no...she’s going to pull out the Latin again, isn’t she?”

Why yes, yes I am.

The root of ‘perfect’ is fect, which comes from the Latin verb facere. Facere means ‘to make,’ and you’ll see it in a ton of our words: manufacture (originally meaning to make with your hands), deface (to ruin or ‘unmake’ something).  In English, we typically think that perfect means “without flaw.”  But in Latin, it means completely made, or finished.  The ‘making’ part of it has already taken place. So, when you see ‘perfect’ as part of a verb tense, it is referring the fact that the verb is already completed.

Think of ‘past perfect’ as ‘past completed’ or ‘past something that has already happened.’  The past tense of present tense verbs is the past tense. The past tense of past tense verbs is the past perfect tense.

Are you confused yet?

Think of it this way. When you’re writing in the present tense and you want to talk about something that already happened, you just switch to the past tense. Imagine your narrative goes something like this:

I walk to the store, thinking about how I walked to the store last week, too.

But, if you’re writing in the past tense as your main tense, you switch to past perfect when you’re talking about something that already happened.

I walked to the store, thinking about how I had walked to the store last week, too.

Hopefully that makes a little more sense. Next week, I’ll delve into the nitty-gritty of how to write flashbacks.

So, to recap: past and present are your two choices for the main tense in storytelling. You’ll still use a lot of them in your overall piece, but which ones you choose at any given moment depends on whether past or present is your main tense.

Share any thoughts or questions in the comments!

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