The Art of Fiction: The Mind of Your Story, Part 4 Playing With Tenses

April 1, 2005
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Coyote Morning by Lisa Lenard-CookThe Art of Fiction: The Mind of Your Story, Part 4
Playing With Tenses

by Lisa Lenard-Cook

April, 2005

Coyote Morning, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook Buy This Book via Amazon.com

Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.

I'm not here to teach you the difference between past, present, and future tenses (or all the subjunctive, imperative, and auxiliary tenses in between). For that, I recommend a good grammar book. My favorite is Strunk & White's The Elements of Style.

That said, two things about tense are worth mentioning as we conclude our discussion of pacing:

1. Pick one tense and stick with it.

2. Think of tense in terms of kairos – holy time – rather than chronos – clock time.

 

"No decicion you make in your writing is arbitrary. . ." —Lenard-Cook

 

Tense and Tension

True or false? Deciding whether to use past or present tense throughout a fiction is an arbitrary choice. If you've been reading my columns regularly, you already know my answer: No decision you make in your writing is arbitrary, and the same holds true for the tense you use to tell your tale. Whether you're using past or present tense, there are advantages and disadvantages, so the choice you make will either aid your fiction or make your job more difficult..

Present tense offers a sense of immediacy. Within its no-nonsense, journalistic recitation of events, the reader feels in the moment, learns each eventuality along with the point-of-view character, and never knows what's coming next until it happens. There's a Hemingway-esque terseness to present tense, a "just the facts, ma'am" minimalism that hasn't time to get beneath the surface.

Present tense is limited by these advantages, however: There's never a moment to get behind or ahead of the story because we're moving in time with it, and so we can't get deeper, to a story's heart. A number of contemporary writers disdain present tense narratives for this very reason: Lynne Sharon Schwartz, for example, calls it a device that allows the writer to skirt what really matters in a fiction.

Past tense offers you space in which to explore both your characters and story more closely. It's understood that what's being told now has already happened, so you can employ both flashback and flash-forward (characters' imaginings and musings) without taking the reader out of the story. At the same time, however, the reader is a step removed from the story.

 

". . .it's clear the narrator is no longer doing these things or living in this place. Part of this is voice, of course. But it's mostly tense." —Lenard-Cook

 

From Present to Past

Nothing shows how the use of tense works better than examples, so here's a paragraph from my novel Dissonance. The first example is the way the text appears, in present tense:

I am a piano teacher. Monday through Friday afternoons, from three-thirty until six, I entertain children in various stages of their movement toward adulthood with the mysteries of the instrument. My Steinway Grand sits in a plant-filled room with good, filtered southern light, and in winter as the shadows lengthen, the plants etch mottled patterns across both the keys and the faces of the young students. The keys are white and black; the students are white—Anglo, as we call them here—and the shadows are a translucent grey that border on an illusion. When the shadows surrender to the dark, I turn on the single focused light above the music stand, its glare causing momentary blinking in the student. "Again," I say, as if I have not noticed the darkness, as if I have not noticed the way a sudden spotlight can startle a living creature into stillness. [from Dissonance, University of New Mexico Press, 2003]

Now, I've taken the same paragraph and changed it into past tense.

I was a piano teacher. Monday through Friday afternoons, from three-thirty until six, I entertained children in various stages of their movement toward adulthood with the mysteries of the instrument. My Steinway Grand sat in a plant-filled room with good, filtered southern light, and in winter as the shadows lengthened, the plants etched mottled patterns across both the keys and the faces of the young students. The keys were white and black; the students were white …

There's no need to go on: From the first sentence in the second example, everything changes. There's a sense of reminiscent narrator, for one thing, and it's clear the narrator is no longer doing these things or living in this place. Part of this is voice, of course. But it's mostly tense. The kairos of the first paragraph's immediacy is lost when the tense is switched from present to past.

 

". . .the additional information provided at the end of the first paragraph and throughout the second feels oddly out of step with the narrative." —Lenard-Cook

 

From Past to Present

Of course, the opposite holds true as well, and turning a past tense narrative into a present tense one will do it a similar disservice. Here's another example from Dissonance:

While my father showed Paul his roses, I walked down the path to the canyon's edge. It was June, a hot month, but a coolness seemed to rise from the chasm, and a pair of hawks floated lazily at the level of my eyes. On the far side of the canyon, new houses were sprouting in a subdivision—aluminum-sided ranches surrounded by the stumps of the ponderosas razed to make room for them.

This was during the uranium boom, when enterprising businessmen grouped together and leased land from the Indian tribes, then hired cheap Indian labor to dig the ore out. Uranium was everywhere in the four states region, a coincidence whose providence was not lost on my father, who was one of the men getting rich.

Now, that same passage, rewritten in present tense:

While my father shows Paul his roses, I walk down the path to the canyon's edge. It is June, a hot month, but a coolness seems to rise from the chasm, and a pair of hawks floats lazily at the level of my eyes. On the far side of the canyon, new houses are sprouting in a subdivision— aluminum-sided ranches surrounded by the stumps of the ponderosas razed to make room for them.

This is during the uranium boom, when enterprising businessmen group together and lease land from the Indian tribes, then hire cheap Indian labor to dig the ore out. Uranium is everywhere in the four states region, a coincidence whose providence is not lost on my father, who is one of the men getting rich.

When these two paragraphs are switched to present tense, the additional information provided at the end of the first paragraph and throughout the second feels oddly out of step with the narrative. The information floats (like those hawks) rather than being grounded in the narrative as it is when I use past tense.

 

"Dissonance is a multi-threaded narrative, and I used tense very intentionally throughout to achieve and maintain tension. "
—Lenard-Cook

 

Room to Work (and Play)

You may have noted that I broke my first rule when I was writing Dissonance: I didn't pick one tense and stick with it. Dissonance is a multi-threaded narrative, and I used tense very intentionally throughout to achieve and maintain tension. I learned how to do this by studying a number of masters: Katherine Anne Porter, Alice Munro, Carol Shields, and Ian McEwan, to name but four. If you want to use tense to achieve tension, learning from your own masters is the best teacher I know.

But there's a difference between working (and playing) with tense and sloppy writing that slips back and forth between tenses. Editors and readers can spot this difference immediately, and so should you, the craftsperson. As with all aspects of fiction writing, mastering the basics will allow you to use them in new and exciting ways.

About Lisa Lenard-Cook Lisa Lenard-Cook's novel Dissonance (University of New Mexico Press, 2003) won the Jim Sagel Award for the Novel and was a 2004 selection of both NPR Performance Today's Summer Reading Series and the Durango-La Plata Reads countywide reading program. Her latest novel, Coyote Morning (UNM Press, 2004), has been compared to work of Carol Shields and Sue Miller. Visit Lisa's website, www.lisalenardcook.com, for information about her books and more writing inspiration.

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