From Time to Time Part 1: Present Tense and Past Tense Narratives

18 Aug

big ben


TIME now, that’s something worth considering. But where to start? Clearly, there’s the PRESENT, the PAST and the FUTURE. Simple …

Just ask an amoeba.          amoeba 3


You see, amoeba can only experience NOW … that infinitesimally tiny slither of time that marks our awareness. The PRESENT.

And those distinctions of PAST and FUTURE are all just constructs of the mind – which amoeba doesn’t have.

But, you might disagree, you might argue that we remember the PAST and we anticipate the FUTURE.

Haa, I reply, but you remember the PAST right NOW in the PRESENT … and you anticipate the FUTURE right NOW in the PRESENT.

Of course I am not the first person to point this out. St Augustine (354 – 430 AD) believed that PAST and FUTURE are mere components of the PRESENT, so he referred to the PAST as the EXPERENTIAL PRESENT and the FUTURE as the PRESENT OF FUTURE THINGS:

st augustine2

And, years later, Terry Pratchett agreed with him:


But what use is this metaphysical rambling when you are trying to tell a story?

None whatsoever … apart from the fact that, when we write, we write NOW. And, more importantly, the reader reads what we have written in his or her personal NOW. So, having realized this, how does one decide how to present a story to this anticipated reader? How do you choose whether to pitch a tale as happening in the narrative PAST or in the narrative PRESENT? Or indeed, can you imagine writing a whole narrative about things that are going to happen? Basically, it is a choice between PRESENT, PAST and FUTURE TENSE NARRATIVES … and there is no end to the advice and cautions regarding this choice.


The standard practice (and advice) is to write in the PAST TENSE, a commitment that has occasionally spilled over into the very titles of major works:

The Girl Who Played with Fire (Larsson, 2006/9)
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (Lee, 1969)
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (le Carré, 1963)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Kessey, 1962)
England Made Me (Greene, 1937)
What Katy Did Next (Coolidge, 1872)

The bottom line with a PAST TENSE NARRATIVE is that the events of the story are over by the time the text is written, and the reader is reading an account, fictional or not, of things that have already happened. It’s the PAST TENSE that we use when we talk about our day’s experiences, write in diaries, share our memories. And it is the PAST TENSE that readers read without even thinking about it. Because they are so familiar with it. But the PAST TENSE NARRATIVE does not completely abandon the PRESENT: direct dialogue within a PAST TENSE NARRATIVE is always in the PRESENT. And despite this particular PRESENT being a PRESENT IN THE PAST, it is nevertheless a taste of the characters’ PRESENT in what is otherwise a PAST TENSE NARRATIVE.

Here are two well-known opening paragraphs that declare a commitment to the PAST TENSE that persists throughout the entire texts:

HP and NL

 The PAST TENSE is a long accepted way of presenting a story, from traditional folk tales that began Once upon a time there lived … to the writings of Rowling and Pullman above. However, those narratives are written in the SIMPLE PAST.

And time is never as simple as that

For instance, having decided to place one’s characters in the PAST and obviously their actions in the PAST, it might be necessary to describe something that happened even longer ago than that, something that happened further into the PAST than the time the characters occupy. So the PAST PERFECT TENSE is used to talk about things in the more distant PAST. For instance, the reason Harry Potter lived with the Dursleys is because many years earlier, Voldemort had killed his parents. This ‘had killed’ PAST PERFECT TENSE construction used to be called the PLUPERFECT (but everything changes including the names of TENSES). And in non-grammarian circles you may hear this more distant PAST referred to as the SUPERPAST. Some tutors, who prefer a steady obedience to a single continuous series of actions, do not recommend the use of the PAST PERFECT. But, in my view, that is tantamount to writing with one hand tied behind your back … possible but restrictive.


So, one can place actions into the PAST and further into the PAST and even further into the PAST by using the PAST and the PAST PERFECT TENSES combined with some interesting clause work. For example:

Jack won a million pounds with one of the lottery tickets that he had bought with the money that his granny had given him just before she emigrated to Australia.

Four moments in time are represented in that rather awkward sentence. But you get my point.

However, time is never as simple as that.

There is another PAST TENSE, a kind of hybrid PAST-PRESENT TENSE that it is only fair to mention, and that is the PRESENT PERFECT:

I have left my wallet in the Post Office.

 Clearly this leaving of the purse in the Post Office is an event which occurred in the PAST but, the grammar pedants say, it is an event which has more relevance to the PRESENT than the SIMPLE PAST, which would be:

I left my wallet in the Post Office

because that could have happened years ago.


So, essentially, we have three PAST TENSES to use when writing about the PAST.

I have left (PRESENT PERFECT) my wallet in the post office and it was (SIMPLE PAST) full of cash because I had just visited (PAST PERFECT) the bank.

Now, clearly, that sentence is not truly appropriate to a PAST TENSE NARRATIVE. It would actually be part of a PRESENT TENSE NARRATIVE that was referring to the PAST. So, with the PRESENT PERFECT TENSE, we are moving closer to the PRESENT.


Obviously, we speak about NOW using the PRESENT TENSE …

I’m really hungry … I need a new car … the sun is shining at last.

But what about writing PRESENT TENSE NARRATIVES? There is much debate about their worth. Some commentators advise against the PRESENT TENSE. It is certainly far less common in literature and it is generally assumed that, while a reader will not notice the use of the PAST TENSE, a PRESENT TENSE NARRATIVE will be NOTICEABLE, and the reader will have to suffer a period of adjustment to an unfamiliar mode of presentation. Personally, I think the PRESENT TENSE provides greater immediacy. In the fictional world of a PRESENT TENSE NARRATIVE, the plot outcome is unknown. The events are unfurling as the pages turn, and that can be used to great advantage when writing a high-action or suspenseful plot. For instance the action-filled and highly successful Hunger Games (Collins, 2008/10) was written in the PRESENT TENSE.

Hunger     Grey

In a similar way, a detective novel written in the PRESENT TENSE has that added mystery about it. The reader discovers as the protagonist/detective discovers.

Occasionally the PRESENT TENSE is essential, for instance, when presenting a character’s stream of consciousness. And despite the writing gurus berating the use of the PRESENT TENSE, James (2011) achieved great success with her sometimes stream of consciousness, PRESENT TENSE novel, Fifty Shades of Grey … it was almost as if you could share the action as it was happening …

There are instances where an author has chosen to insert a PRESENT TENSE NARRATIVE within a PAST TENSE NARRATIVE in order to emphasise that that section is different. So for instance Crais in LA Requiem begins Chapter 20 in the PRESENT TENSE although the major part of the novel is in the PAST TENSE.

There are criticisms. Some say that the use of the PRESENT TENSE limits reference to time, so that the narrative becomes fixed in a particular time frame. But this is not the case, a PRESENT TENSE NARRATIVE does not exclude the PAST or the distant PAST; the author just has to use various means of referring to them from the PRESENT as with the above sentence about the wallet and the Post Office.

The only problem I see with time in a PRESENT TENSE NARRATIVE is that the progression of, and ellipses within, time are more difficult to handle, so that phrases such as five days later, the following year, later and until cannot be readily employed. Here are the opening words of five consecutive chapters from Pride and Prejudice (Austen, 1813):

XVII Elizabeth related to Jane the next day …
XVIII Till Elizabeth entered the drawing-room …
XIX The next day opened a new scene …
XX Mr Collins was not left long …
XXI The discussion … was now nearly at an end …

Such pauses and leaps in time and, indeed, changes in pace, are not so easy with the PRESENT TENSE. A development of this criticism is that a character, stuck in this restrictive and contiguous time frame, also becomes restricted by a lack of PAST experience. However, I would suggest that a protagonist’s actions and thoughts, including retrospective thoughts, define character and the narrator’s presentation of these should be sufficient.

And it is worth remembering that some things are expected to be in the PRESENT TENSE even if they describe things that have already happened (HISTORIC PRESENT), for instance:

ObamaWinsNewpaper moon1

 OR things that have not yet happened (SCHEDULED PRESENT)

He arrives next week

 And, don’t forget, a synopsis should always be written in the PRESENT TENSE.


And then there are the FUTURE TENSES that can be used to refer to at least two points in the FUTURE. Obviously there isn’t just one FUTURE TENSE:

I will arrive (FUTURE TENSE) next Tuesday, and hopefully my luggage will have arrived (FUTURE PERFECT TENSE) before me.

But what of writing FUTURE TENSE NARRATIVES? It can be done and has been done. But I do not recommend it as anything other than a novelty, or perhaps the choice for a short story.

So enough about TENSES, other than to say that, to understand these major TENSES and how to use them provides great opportunities to tell a story within a complex time frame, to break away from a pedestrian series of one thing after another. There are, of course, more TENSES than those mentioned above, but rather than launching into a pointless appreciation of the PUNCTAL and GNOMIC PRESENT or the HABITUAL PAST, it would be more useful to talk next about the benefits of different ASPECT-TENSE combinations, because these reveal the duration, recurrence and regularity of actions (He walked as opposed to he was walking … I walk as opposed to I am walking).

So enjoy the above and watch this space for more about TIME in narrative.



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