Tense about tense…

I don’t know about you, but when I grew up and learned to write all my stories were in the third person past tense. Perhaps that’s the easiest way to teach children English. Later, as we become more sophisticated and get a greater sense of self, we move on to first person narrative – but again in the past tense. Everything has already happened; that’s what makes it easier to re-tell – right?

It was only very recently – with my novel “At Maunston Quay” – that I decided to try writing something of scale in the present tense.

It was difficult at first, and I found I would lapse back into the blue blanket of the past tense.  Somehow you felt safe there. But soon – and surprisingly quickly – I warmed to the first person; it gave the story something of an immediacy, the characters life. I actually enjoyed it enormously.

But now I have a problem; the opposite one I had when I started “Maunston”. Now, when I try and write in the past tense, the present slips in under the covers. It has become my natural voice.

“But”, you may say, “isn’t that all fine and dandy? Just write in the present all the time.”

If only it were that easy.

My current endeavour spans a number of years, and multiple characters. Although all of the story is set in ‘the past’/has happened, for one particular character I’m keen to generate that degree of immediacy the present tense gives so am writing the sections seen from his perspective in that way, using the rest of the narrative giving the context of time, that his ‘present’ experiences have already happened.

Does that make sense?

The problem – I discover – comes where there is a chain of events, chronologically and immediately sequential: a first chapter told from the perspective of a ‘past tense character’ immediately followed by a related second from the viewpoint of ‘present tense character’. Past tense followed by present for what is essentially a single event? I’m not sure that really works. But then switching my present tense character to the past for that particular event – well, I’m not sure about that either…

There are options. Leave it as it is and rely on the Reader to sort it out. Make it all past tense. Make it all present tense. (At the moment, the first of these is probably the front-runner.)

Not looking for suggestions (though if you have one, great!) just trying to think things through ‘on paper’…

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