Tag Archives: fiction

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.

The Problem with The Walking Dead: A Case of Bad Storytelling

The Walking Dead TV show (henceforth to be referred to as TWD in this post for the sake of preserving valuable time and endangered cybertrees) has been going on for eight seasons now, with potentially many more seasons to follow in the years to come.  The original source material, The Walking Dead graphic novels, have also been in publication for close to fifteen years, so there’s little reason to think that the show’s writers will run out of material or story arcs anytime soon.  I’m aware that writing this criticism of the show will be seen as somewhat pointless by some readers as an ever greater portion of TWD’s fan base has steadily been voicing their displeasure with the direction, pacing, and overall content that the show has been putting out for the better part of (at least) the last four seasons or so.

Usual complaints range from too many boring filler episodes that are hardly necessary for the amount of time spent on them (i.e. we really don’t need to see flashbacks of secondary characters wandering through the woods before they met up with the main cast, especially if we already got the jist of it through previous dialogues exchanged between the characters; we have imaginations with which we can piece spoken/written narratives together, it’s one reason why books still exist, after all).  Contrived moral dilemmas that seem out of place in the reality of the world the characters inhabit (i.e. Morgan’s infuriatingly laughable pacifist stance when it comes to even killing literal undead monsters that feed on the flesh of the very people he considers his friends and loved ones; it is not a noble position to be respected, it is just stupid, even for a guy that went–still is[?]–crazy).  The introduction of characters that had no great impact in the overall plot despite heavy buildup (i.e. the Terminus crew of anally-retentive cannibals), or whose presence/nature defy belief (i.e. the Trash People of season seven, who in the mere 2-3 years since the zombie apocalypse have forgotten how to speak in complete sentences, despite being fully grown adults who presumably went through a school system and had some semblance of a regular life prior to the relatively recent fall of civilization).  And, of course, the fact that the show is hardly even about walkers/zombies anymore, who serve largely as a background piece to all the issues discussed above.

I see all these complaints, and largely agree with them.  Many more invested writers have done a great job giving full analyses on these issues (and many more), and I see no point in harping on them further than I already have.  What I want to discuss here is a criticism that I personally haven’t come across all that much, and that is that TWD suffers, and will continue to suffer, from a key flaw repeated in most bad storytelling: lack of optimistic direction for the characters/story itself.

The dystopian concept of a hopeless world isn’t new, and has been used for a longtime in fiction.  However, what separates a well-written dystopian story from a bad one is that even in a hopeless environment the reader/viewer is given some notion that the protagonists can have some kind of ultimate triumph over the hopelessness that plagues them.  That doesn’t mean that a happy ending has to be delivered at the story’s resolution (in many powerful cases, it’s not), but if there is no semblance of any kind of optimism that readers/viewers can get emotionally invested in during the progression of the plot, what exactly is the point to continue to care about where the character/story is heading?

Within the reality of TWD, everyone–and I do mean, every single person on the planet–is infected with the zombie virus that will be triggered once s/he dies, regardless of whether s/he came in contact with a zombie.  As of the moment of this writing, the plot has given no indication that there’s any chance of a cure to this ultimate fate for the characters (the first’s season hinted that there isn’t).  Nor is there any attempt by the characters to investigate the possibility of such a cure (notwithstanding Eugene’s scientist charade, which the main cast was never really dedicated in pursuing besides very briefly, and then mostly as a means of moving the plot setting out of Georgia).  So, the original dilemma of the show were the zombies, and since we do not, and seemingly cannot, resolve that dilemma, ever, the next dilemma for us (the viewers) to be invested in is the protagonists’ continued survival in this hopeless world.  The problem is that, if the dilemma is learning to survive in a world where “zombie-state” is the inevitable fate for everyone, we’ve already seen the fully extend of how the characters would cope with this reality, and one would argue repeatedly so in the course of the last seven seasons.  So what’s left to see?  What is the ultimate payoff that they deliver to the viewer from here?  Are they going to learn how to fortify themselves from the undead threat better than we have already seen them do in Alexandria?  Seems unlikely.

The repeated attempts to introduce new villainous characters to serve as antagonists to the main characters each and every season is also redundant in the grand scheme of things.  At the moment, the main villain is Negan.  I’m supposed to care if Negan’s group (the antagonists) defeats Rick’s group (the protagonists).  But let’s say the so-called unthinkable happens, and Negan does win the war against Rick’s group.  In the end, Negan is still human, and Negan will eventually die (even if just from old age), and then Negan will be just another mindless zombie in a world littered with equally mindless zombies.  Again I ask, what ultimately is the point?  What is the payoff for us to get emotionally invested in as viewers?  Because I really don’t see one.  Furthermore, I would argue the writers of the show (and, yes, I’d put the graphic novels in this same boat) have failed to give us much to really care about anymore at this point.

I know there are fan theories online about how maybe those born after the zombie outbreak (like Rick’s daughter Judith) might be immune to its effects, but short of the show/plot actually confirming this it remains mere fan speculation.  Maybe it will be the note that the show finally ends on to give us a bit of needed optimism for this world’s fate of humanity, but at this point, given how there has been no buildup to any such dramatic revelation, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a plot point was met with a resounding “meh” from the viewers that haven’t already moved on by then.

As much as I hate admitting it given how much I enjoyed this show at one point, I have to be honest that The Walking Dead has given me no real reason to care about what happens from here on out, no reason to be emotionally invested in its continued plot development, and therefore no reason to continue to invest my time in it.