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Exploring the art of fiction

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Switching Tenses

Most writers, it seems, prefer one tense over another. Many of us use the past tense as our default, as it allows for foreshadowing, and, conversely, it allows reflection from the present “telling” moment.  We’re telling a story of which we know the narrative arc and, therefore, it happened in the past. The past tense just feels right.

The present tense, while lacking the ability to use reflection, often carries with it a level of energy precisely because the reader and the narrator are in the moment together.  I know nothing more than you, the writer is implicitly saying to the reader, let’s go through this adventure together. There’s a reason that many young adult novels are written in the present tense. They put the reader right into the action of the story.

What can happen to your fiction if you change the tense of a piece? If instead of writing the piece in the past, you write it in the present? What can you learn about your characters or their situation or the way your fiction works by changing the tense? This can be a great thing to play with, if only for a writing session or two. How do things change when we move to the present or the past?

Exercises

  1. If your piece is written in the past tense, rewrite the first paragraph or two in the present tense. Look at the paragraphs side by side. Notice how the verbs carry more energy. What have you lost? What have you gained? How do the sentences work differently?
  2. If your piece is written in the present tense, rewrite the first paragraph or two in the past tense. Look at the paragraphs side by side. How has this changed the tenor of the paragraph? How does it impact the way a reader is introduced to the fiction? Does this affect the point-of-view?
  3. For both 1) and 2), rewrite the paragraph in its original tense, but try to hold onto anything that you liked when you changed the tense. If present tense gave the paragraph more energy, think of other ways to tighten up your language. If past tense gave you the opportunity to look back from afar, consider opening with a retrospective and then segueing into present tense.
  4. If you like the energy of the present tense but want to write in the past tense, consider using more literary devices that allow you to stay in the present moment. Dialogue is one of those. While the tags belong to the past or the present tense, the dialogue itself is always in the moment. Letters and other documents work in a similar fashion.

by Laura Spence-Ash