Tag Archives: engaging an audience

The Reason Stories are Written in Past Tense

One of the first things any decent creative writing class will teach an aspiring author is the importance of maintaining consistency throughout the text, and it’s something I’ve definitely mentioned before on this blog.  Although this often refers to the importance of maintaining plot consistencies, grammatical consistencies (and functional consistencies), are equally crucial parts in creating a legible narrative.

Anyone who reads fiction novels regularly will have noticed that the overwhelming majority of these stories are written in past tense; e.g. “It was the best of times…”, “She figured it was all over…”, “He loved her like no other, but also saw no way to show it…” etc.  But why is this?  What makes a past tense narrative more grammatically correct, then a past or future tense syntax structure?  To answer that question, one needs to first dispel the phrasing of it.  There is nothing inherently more grammatically correct about using past tense, as opposed to any other tense, as long as the narrative voice remains consistent in its use throughout the story (or there is a damn good reason why it doesn’t need to do so).  Hence, the reason past tense is seen as the default has less do to with grammar, and more to do with functionality.  It shouldn’t be forgotten that writers by definition are also readers, meaning that they carry with them decades’ worth of literary conditioning, just like the audience they are trying to reach.  Most of the books a writer has read will have been written in past tense narrative, and like every other reader, it is understandable if this structure naturally seeps into one’s own writings.  Thus, one also shouldn’t underestimate the sheer amount of concentration it will take to catch the potential for inconsistent writings when attempting to do experimental works that run counter to the norm, and how the potential of creating an inconsistent prose goes up substantially when trying do to something out of the ordinary.  Therefore, defaulting to the more common past tense narrative is an easy way to ensure consistency throughout one’s plot, since it will feel the most natural; for writers and readers, alike.

Alternatively, rarely do you see whole plot narratives written as future tense; e.g.  “I will go see her tomorrow, after which we’ll talk…”, “They are going to take care of it later…” etc.  This sort of writing is reserved more for character dialogues, as they are more in line with casual conversations (not to mention people’s internal dialogues) wherein the discourse centers on planned actions (i.e. things yet to be done, spoken about by character’s whose overall knowledge of events is limited).  In contrast, narrator voices—whether they are written in first person, or third person; whether they are limited, or omniscient—are instinctively read by the audience in a bird’s eye view perspective, detailing the happenings to them as an observer of events.  It wouldn’t be impossible to write a whole narrative in the future tense, but the risk you run is to possibly frustrate your readers because, in many ways, such choice of phrasing stands so deeply in contrast with how most of us are attuned to differentiating between plot narrative and character dialogue that it may have the unfortunate affect of making the story too confusing and tiresome for most to bother following along with to the end.  And while challenging readers through provocative prose can be laudable, given them a headache through cumbersome verb usage is anything but useful.

Lastly, there is present tense; e.g.  “She creates the world as she sees it…”, “He says what he thinks, and he thinks what he knows…”  It’s a very impactful form of narrative, which immediately frames the plot into an action mode—things are happening, and they are happening right freaking now!  It’s unique, and in the hands of a skilled writer, has the potential to serve as a creative alternative to its more common past tense counterpart.  On the other hand, in unseasoned hands, it has the potentially to also wear out the reader; think sensory overload brought about by too much intensity.  There is a reason most stories follow the general set up of: introduction -> rising action -> climax -> falling action -> conclusion/resolution. If the whole story is written in a narrative that denotes action all throughout these distinct steps in the narrative, then the writer will have to work doubly hard to make the impact of the climax (and the rising action that leads up to it) standout to the reader’s attention.  I’m not saying that it’s an impossible task to accomplish, but it is harder, and takes considering talent to get it right.

I outlined why looking at the prevalence of past tense narratives in fiction isn’t really an issue of grammar, but an issue of ease of writing and what reader’s are simply accustomed to.  In an obvious way, the situation is very much a Catch-22:  Readers are used to reading narratives because most authors write in past tense narratives; authors write in past tense narratives because most readers are used to reading in past tense narratives. And a prevailing orthodoxy is therefore sustained.  Now, I will never say not to attempt a heterodox approach that deviates from the norm, on the grounds that one never knows for certain what works until it’s tried (every new situation carries with it the prospect for new discovery, and all that).  I simply want to make the point that no reader expects you to re-invent the written word to be seen as a great storyteller, and it’s perfectly fine to stick with what has been tried-and-tested to work, and what will make it easier for you to write your story, rather than fret over the structural details when you really don’t have to.

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The Importance of Consistency in Fiction

The appealing thing about writing fiction as opposed to nonfiction is having the ability to create one’s own reality in the prose.  Be it gravity, atmosphere, characters’ sensory perception, human anatomy and mortality, none of these things need to be bound to the limitations we ourselves feel in our daily lives.  This is a powerful tool that allows authors to explore and describe the worlds they create with interesting insights without having to worry about being in line with the minutiae details of modern physics, and let’s them appeal to the reader’s wonder about the infinite realm of possibilities concerning reality as it can be challenged by her/his imagination.

Science fiction is an excellent example of this, both in book and movie form, where entire alternate universes can be conjured up with their own set of logical rules and physical laws that characters have to abide by.  There is a pitfall in this whole formula, however, that’s easy to fall into if an author is not careful.  While it is true that the sole limitation to the worlds you create is the depth of your own imagination, it needs to be remembered that what makes even a fantasy world realistic and believable to the audience is that–once its rules and laws are laid out–it remains consistent to its own reality.

If characters in a story generally cannot fly, having a character suddenly appear in chapter ten who inexplicable flies is an example of inconsistency.  If the monsters of the story are initially described as slow moving and clumsy, having them give chase in the middle of the story to create suspense is an example of inconsistency.  Speech patterns are a similar issue, where if a character’s accent quirks are sometimes emphasized in text and other times they are not, this is an example of inconsistency.

Generally, in epic sagas like Lord of the Rings it is understood that occasional logical flaws will occur for the sake of keeping the plot going (i.e. why didn’t the Eagles just take Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom at the start of the books?–Because then the story would be resolved in one book, rather than a trilogy).  Small-scale errors most readers can forgive for the sake of the narrative.  It’s when bigger, more obvious gaps in logic occur that many start to raise their eyebrows suspiciously.  For example, why do the vampires in Twilight go to school?  They’re over a hundred years old in the story, what reason do they have to keep attending high school?  And since they don’t age, do they have to keep changing schools so as not to have to explain why they spent the last ten decades in the same exact grade?  Since they do have regular contact with humans via having to go to school, why aren’t more people suspicious about the fact that none of them have aged, ever?

Science fiction films tend to be even worse offenders to this rule of consistency.  The now forgotten 1994 time traveling movie Timecop, sets up a reality in which time travel exists.  Within this reality they make the explicit mention that you can only travel to the past, never to the future; essentially making this the one and only “time travel rule” the characters need to follow.  Yet, the plot goes on to break this rule almost immediately by having characters who have traveled back to the past return back to their former present; even though, technically, when they travel to the past that past becomes their present, so returning to their original timeline means they are traveling to the future, which is the one thing the plot explicitly states you cannot do in this time traveling reality.  And it’s never explained how this is possible, even in a halfhearted way.  The viewer is simply expected not to notice.  But we do, and we are naturally put off by it, even if we can’t fully articulate why at first viewing.

If you are setting out to write fiction, and epic fantasy fiction at that, by all means let your only limits be the depth of your own creativity.  But please, for the sake of all our collective rational senses (as well as the senses of the characters you have so painstakingly born onto the page), don’t cheapen the experience by failing to have your worlds adhere to the rules and laws of the realities you yourself saw fit to give life to on the page.  Your future legion of devoted readers and admirers will thank you for it.