Monday, February 21, 2011

Mixing Past and Present Tense

If you’re writing in present tense, it makes sense to mix in some past tense as you provide back story to your reader. But what about when you’re writing in past tense? Can you mix in some present tense?

I hear this off and on: if you’re writing past tense, you can’t mix in present tense because that violates the rules of past tense. As in, you’re telling a story that happened in the past, so you can’t talk about what’s happening in the present. That statement is logically sound, so it makes sense. But I still disagree with it.

When a story is told in past tense, the main character has had some time to reflect and perhaps understand what happened on a deeper level. Sometimes it changes the way she currently thinks, and sometimes it doesn’t. And it’s perfectly fine to include her current feelings on things that happened in her story.

Basically, you can follow this rule of thumb: if it’s still true in your character’s present, then you can write it in present tense even if your story is in past tense.

For example, if your character has a medical condition that still exists after the story is concluded, then she can talk about it in the present tense. Or, if your character’s family member has a medical condition that still exists, she can talk about that in the present tense. If she has a dog with quirky habits, that can be referred to in present tense (as long as the dog and the habits are still there after the story’s conclusion). Things like this.

The next question, of course, is why would we want to mix present tense with past tense? What purpose does it serve other than to confuse the author, possibly the reader as well?

Well, if you’re not careful, you do run the risk of confusing the reader. So pay close attention to how you mix the tenses. But, if done well, then it adds an immediacy to your story, similar to what you get when writing in present tense.

The big advantage of writing in present tense is that it makes the story feel immediate, like it’s happening right as we’re reading, and we get to watch things unfold at the same time the characters do. But that’s hard to pull off, and it can easily come across as a gimmick. Writing completely in past tense can make the story sound old, like it’s been stuffed in a box for a while and the characters have finally decided to take it down and dust it off. But it’s often a more effective way of telling the story, because we get to add the character’s reflections and gained wisdom. So, each has a strength and a weakness.

But if we mix the two, we get the best of both worlds. We get the reflection and the wisdom that comes with it, plus the immediacy of how the character is feeling at the time she’s telling the story. A definite win-win for both reader and writer. :)

Have you ever mixed the two tenses? Has it worked, or did it leave you banging your head against your keyboard?

36 comments:

salarsenッ said...

I haven't mixed the two but I've thought about it. I pretty much write past tense. For my new MS, I've been thinking about giving present tense a try. I love how you describe the 'immediacy' it creates. I think that's a great strength. I wonder how these difference would affect let's say writing a picture book as apposed to a YA or MG book? I'll have to explore that.

Thanks for making me think.

kellyhashway said...

I follow the rule you mentioned about if it's still true in the present then you can write it in the present. I don't think that disrupts the flow of the writing.

Tabitha said...

salarsen - I pretty much write in past tense, too, but that's because I don't have a story that *needs* to be told in present tense. Maybe some day. :)
I hope you'll share what you find if you explore the PB vs. YA/MG present tense thing. I don't write picture books (because I don't have that skill set) so I'd be interesting to hear more!

Kelly - I completely agree. Mixing in some present tense can really spice things up and make it feel like the present, doesn't it? I think it's the best of both worlds. :)

mercwriter said...

I'm currently working on a novella that, while in past tense, has snippets in present that express the MC's mental state. (Severe PTSD and psychotic breaks.)

It's a very small amount of narrative (present) overall, and there are some other narrative kinks used as well--so far I like the effect.

(I've seen this technique used fantastically--namely Genevieve Valentine has a tendency to use lots of parentheses and mixed tense for effect. I adore her work, so I'm well aware there's an influence. ;))

I think as long as you're aware what you're doing, and use mixed tense deliberately and understand how it works and what effect it will bring and that is what you are aiming for, it can work so well.

A lack of understanding or attention to detail that results in just sloppy tense is entirely different. (So I guess this is partly a case of knowing the rules before you manipulate them, so you can do it right.)

--Merc

LM Preston said...

When I wrote my first MG I tried it in present tense and mixed some past with it, but it didn't go over well with betas so I switched it all back to past tense. Now it's just easier for me to write in past tense so that's where I'm sticking for now.

Christine L. Arnold said...

My current WIP is a mix of past and present. The story and all the actions are written in past, with the MC's inner dialogue written in present. Basically, anything she could say out loud but is choosing to keep to herself. I'm using it like dialogue, only without the quotes.
So far, most of my readers haven't really noticed it. But I still worry that it might be "wrong" or confusing.

Tabitha said...

Merc - your story sounds *awesome*! And you're absolutely right that doing things deliberately with full understanding of what you're doing is what makes it work. Without that, you'll likely end up with a big ol' mess. :)

LM - my second book started coming out as present tense, but it felt *wrong*. I didn't know why, and it took me forever to figure out that the present tense was coming from me, the author, as I was discovering the characters and story, but the story itself didn't need or want it. So now I write in past tense, but I mix in present tense here and there to make it feel more immediate.

Christine - that's how I do it, too. Not all of her thoughts, but some of them. It feels natural to me, because I almost always think in present tense, so it makes sense that my characters would, too. If your readers haven't noticed, then it's clearly working. :)

T.D. McFrost said...

This is referring to first person, right? 'Cause I can't see this working in Third Person. Also, I think it wise to adhere to the writing rules when you're a debut author (give them less reasons to reject you); when you're published you can do whatever you want.

Yes, I know rules are meant to be broken, but I say this from experience, because when I tried this in a short story (in first person, no less) every darn editor commented on the tense issue. :(

I doubt I did it wrong--I actually wrote it somewhat like your theory--and it still got red pens.

I hate to be the bummer (bad Tyson!) but this technique is very risky for a debut author.

I love your blog, btw. Its very well done.

Tabitha said...

Wise words of caution. :)

I was referring to first person, but this could also work in third person. It would be harder to do, but still possible. The key, really, is to know more than the rules. You have to know your characters better than you know yourself, how they think and how they react to anything and everything. You also need to know your story inside and out: where it needs to go and how it needs to get there. Plus, you need to know exactly the kind of effect you want to get by breaking the rules. If you don't know what effect you want, then you'll likely end up with something you don't want.

If you know all that *and* the rules of past vs. present tense, then it's possible to pull off mixing the two tenses. But it's still really difficult, and can go wrong any number of ways.

Writing is such an exact art, and I sometimes feel like I'm performing surgery on my story when I'm revising--a misstep can unravel plot threads or spin characters out of control. But it's also some of the most fun I've ever had. :)

T.D. McFrost said...

Oh lord, you called writing fun. Someone call Dr. Phil, this lady has lost her mind! :D

Writing is work. It takes skill, and some chocolate or wine to find the fun in it. And don't get me started on revision. That beast needs to die!

It is a very important process, but can't someone hurry up and make a word processor that automatically fixes the story? They're gonna wait 'till after I die to make one, and that's when I'll come back and haunt them.

I see your point, but is it wrong that I feel bad 'cause I tried it and failed? Thanks for making me feel like crap Tabitha. I hope you're happy. :D

Tabitha said...

LOL! Well, sorry for making you feel like crap. :) But if it makes you feel better, think of it as coming from the crazy lady who thinks writing is fun and likes...no, *loves* revision. I apparently cracked long ago, so anything and everything I say can be considered questionable. :)

Actually, even more so because of what I'm going to say next... Ready? :)

The fact that you tried and failed is a good thing. It means you're working outside your comfort zone, and really amazing stuff can come out of that. Of course, since you're outside your comfort zone, you don't know what you're doing yet and you kind of flail around. Well, I did, anyway. :) But, if you keep trying, you'll get it. And it'll end up being fantastic.

Hmm...there's probably a 50-50 chance I just made you feel like crap again. Sorry about that, but, you know, consider the source and all that. :)

T.D. McFrost said...

0_0 So now I don't know what I'm doing?

Can someone tell me if this crazy lady is sane enough to give advice, please? --_--

I'll take all this in stride and go back to *flailing around*.

Thanks for sinking my esteem Tabitha. Now I feel tempted to call the penitentiary and have you admitted. :D

Catherine Stine said...

Yes, past tense is okay in a flashback, or used consistently throughout. But the less switching back and forth, the better.
I've written MG in present tense. The voice is close, fresh and engaging.

Plotspider said...

For me, when I'm writing in any perspective, in past tense, I do not mix in present tense. That being said, I tried, and liked a present/past mix in a novella I wrote recently. It was stream of consciousness though, and I think this is the most appropriate break from these rules, where you have a person thinking about his past (or future) while trying to live in life at the moment. Sooner or later I'll get this novella published (or not) and see what people think. Don't know.

Legacy said...

I love this post. I struggle so much with tense. When your writing thoughts its okay to write in present but then switch back to past with dialgue. This confuses me, but it is okay right? I mean its someones thoughts. I know as a rule you're suppose to stick to one tense and its a constant switch back and forth for me I struggle with. I'm still figuring out which tense I write best in.
Great post.

Tabitha said...

TD - you crack me up, which is dangerous since I am apparently cracked already! Though I *do* have to tease you about putting me in a penitentiary. As far as I know, I haven't broken any laws. :)

Catherine - that is the biggest benefit of present tense. And using a flashback in past tense makes perfect sense. I do agree that this switching back and forth should be used sparingly, especially when writing in past tense and mixing in present tense. A little bit can go a long way.

Plot spider - this kind of mixing isn't for everyone, or for every story. I agree that stream of consciousness is probably the easiest way to utilize this style, bur it could also be used in other ways. It all depends on the story and the writer.

Legacy - yes, I think so. Spontaneous thoughts are almost always in present tense, so it makes sense that characters would think that way too. If it confuses you, i'd suggest trying out a bunch of scenes with varying levels of mixed tenses, and then get some feedback on what works and what doesn't. With enough practice, your knack will emerge.

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

I've never written in present tense, but do enjoy reading it.

Legacy said...

Thanks tabitha.

T.D. McFrost said...

Oh but you did, Tabitha, killing someone's confidence is a crime.

You're lucky you're fun to chat with, so I'll spare you.

For now. :D

Natalie Aguirre said...

I haven't mixed it. Because I've written in third person limited, I thought it should be in past tense unless it's her thoughts. Isn't that right?

Tabitha said...

Beverly - I do, too, depending on the story. If it's done well, then I love it. If not, well... But I guess that goes for everything. :)

Legacy - you're welcome!

TD - *hangs head in shame* Your mercy knows no limits. :)

Natalie - yes, pretty much. But, in third person limited, there is still only one main character, and therefore the whole story is basically her thoughts. So you could still use the present tense for things that are true in the present, at the time the story is being told. It all depends on the story, the characters, and what effect you want to have on the reader.

Plotspider said...

I have recently read in a book called "Set the Scene" (author not remembered) where he says a writer should not change perspectives or tenses in one single scene, so whatever one picks, stick with it until the scene changing. Sometimes, that can be a really important or obvious indicator the scene is changing. To change tenses mid-scene tends to be looked at as amateurish, particularly by publishers.

Tabitha said...

I completely agree with the author of that book. It's not possible to tell a story both in past and present tense. Either it happened in the past, or it's happening now. But it is possible to include things that are true now, even if the story happened in the past.

For example:

Past Tense Only--
I drove myself to the swimming pool in Mom's car. My friends were going to meet me there, and we'd have a great time ogling the cute boys like we always did.
My phone rang. It was Mom.
"Where are you? We're supposed to go to the Jensens' house for lunch in ten minutes!"
I sighed. "Mom, I made these plans last week. You said I could go."
She'd always forget my plans if they suddenly interfered with her own. But she'd also never bother to straighten things out ahead of time.

Mixed Tenses--
I drove myself to the swimming pool in Mom's car. My friends were going to meet me there, and we'd have a great time ogling the cute boys like we always did.
My phone rang. It was Mom.
"Where are you? We're supposed to go to the Jensens' house for lunch in ten minutes!"
I sighed. "Mom, I made these plans last week. You said I could go."
She always forgot my plans if they suddenly interfered with her own. But she also never bothered to straighten things out ahead of time.

The only difference is the last two lines, which refer to Mom in the present tense. Mom's personality hasn't changed even though the story is over by the time the MC tells it to us, so we can refer to Mom's behavior in present tense. What we can't do is change the unfolding of events from past to present, because that conflicts with the timeline. I think that's probably what the author of Set The Scene was referring to.

Michelle A. Kobayashi said...

I enjoyed the post, but what I enjoyed more was the discussion in comments. It really helped me understand the ideas - especially the example about the pool trip. Thanks!

Tabitha said...

Very glad it was helpful. :)

Beth said...

I really agree with this post! Unfortunately, when I submit work to be looked at it seems as if most people don't.
bethfred.com

Plotspider said...

Some publishers want avant gard (spelling) stuff and some don't. Regardless, what matters is intent. If you know exactly what you are doing and you make it obvious that you know what you are doing, then your audience applauds pretty much whatever. If, on the other hand, you look like a sneezing dentist who drops his tools, wipes his mouth with his gloved hand and says "let's have a look," well...I know what I would do. Does that make sense?

Zainab said...

I’m dead. My life is over. To tell it in simple words is: it started 10 minutes ago, when Ms. Stacy gave me my parts of speech test, and it ends with one of my dad’s world famous lectures.

Ms. Stacy, the English teacher, had given me my parts of speech test. Ms. Stacy had asked why I had done so poorly. As I had thought about it, I tried not to cry. I got a D! My parents would SO kill me.
“I didn’t really pay attention to the details that you gave out in class. I thought I already knew parts of speech. I’ve been studying them since 2nd grade,” I had given my teacher a reasonable answer.
“Chelsea, I know you’ve been studying parts of speech since 2nd grade, but in seventh grade, we do parts of speech, and all other subjects, differently. It’s a little more difficult.” Ms. Stacy said.
Now, you may be thinking, ‘What! Parts of Speech are so EASY!’ But it isn’t like that at Johnston Middle School
I was silent. Sensing the silence, Ms. Stacy let me go to lunch, saying that she would talk to my parents about this matter.

I clutched my books to my chest. I felt like crying. I wondered about what my mom would say and more importantly, what my dad would say. My dad is like, the strictest dad EVER about grades. He always says, “One should make effort to try hard. I they don’t, a slap here and there shouldn't hurt.”

That's the beginning of my story. I want to switch between the past and the present from "Ms. Stacy.." and "I clutched my books.."

Zainab said...

I’m dead. My life is over. To tell it in simple words is: it started 10 minutes ago, when Ms. Stacy gave me my parts of speech test, and it ends with one of my dad’s world famous lectures.

Ms. Stacy, the English teacher, had given me my parts of speech test. Ms. Stacy had asked why I had done so poorly. As I had thought about it, I tried not to cry. I got a D! My parents would SO kill me.
“I didn’t really pay attention to the details that you gave out in class. I thought I already knew parts of speech. I’ve been studying them since 2nd grade,” I had given my teacher a reasonable answer.
“Chelsea, I know you’ve been studying parts of speech since 2nd grade, but in seventh grade, we do parts of speech, and all other subjects, differently. It’s a little more difficult.” Ms. Stacy said.
Now, you may be thinking, ‘What! Parts of Speech are so EASY!’ But it isn’t like that at Johnston Middle School
I was silent. Sensing the silence, Ms. Stacy let me go to lunch, saying that she would talk to my parents about this matter.

I clutched my books to my chest. I felt like crying. I wondered about what my mom would say and more importantly, what my dad would say. My dad is like, the strictest dad EVER about grades. He always says, “One should make effort to try hard. I they don’t, a slap here ”




Here is the beginning of my story. I want to switch between past and present respectively, "Ms. Stacy..." and "I clutched..."



Thank you.

Tabitha Olson said...

I think you're off to a fairly solid start, tense-wise. Your first line mixes past and present well.

In your second paragraph, you switch to past perfect:
'had given'
'had done'
'had thought'
etc

I actually think you can stick with regular past tense after that first sentence. For example:
"Ms. Stacy, the English teacher, had given me my parts of speech test. She asked why I did so poorly. As I thought about it, I tried not to cry. I got a D! My parents would SO kill me."

I don't see a good opportunity to use present tense, but I think switching from past perfect to past tense will liven things up.

Does that help?

Naman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Naman said...

Hi,
I found your post really helpful. But can you give me some advice.
I am writing an article in which I have described my childhood. A large chunk of this is dedicated to my father. Now, when I write about the activities my father and I did together, I have written them in past tense. But when I write about his qualities like his nature, should I write it in the past tense.
Eg. He was a loving father. He was also very knowledgeable and helped me in my studies.
Or should I use present tense because my father is still living.
Eg. He is a loving father. He is also very knowledgeable and helped me in my studies.

I am not sure how to use the present tense because the article is in past tense.

Tabitha Olson said...

If your father is still alive (and still has the trait you want to talk about), then you can definitely talk about this in the present tense. It's all a about what is still true when the story is over--these things can be shown to the reader in present tense.

Does that help?

Eduardo Suastegui said...

If you want to see this done and done well, read some John Le Carre fiction. He even switches into present tense in his flash backs while telling the main of the story (e.g., "the present") in past tense.
Eduardo Suastegui
Story-telling that captures the heart.

Eduardo Suastegui said...

One other thing... it's all about voice. Watch someone get interviewed about something (a fire, a tornado, ...) that happened to them a week ago. Sometimes it's annoying if they tell you about the past in present tense or sometimes I found annoying when they told me about what happened in past tense. When I dig deeper, or when I dug deeper, it comes down or came down to their voice, not the tense they use or used. ;

Tabitha Olson said...

Yes, of course, voice is in everything. So is show-don't-tell, and pacing, and character development, and plot, etc. All aspects of writing are so intertwined that it's impossible to pull one out completely. The best we can do is try to improve one aspect while keeping the others in the back of our minds.

As for telling a story verbally and telling a story on paper, those are two different kettles of fish...and I think that's going to be my next blog post. :)