Tag Archives: good storytelling

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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Forcing the Narrative

So you’ve decided to write a story.  Before you begin, you put together a pretty coherent outline.  You have your protagonists and antagonists all clearly panned out.  You might not know exactly how long it will be, or all the minor details that will pull the whole plot together, but if there’s one thing you do know it’s exactly how the major parts of this story will progress from beginning, to climax, to finish.  There’s just one itsy-bitsy problem–your characters aren’t behaving like they should.

It’s hard to pinpoint what it is, really.  The dialogue is crisp and clean; without too many overly excessive and cumbersome adjectives repetitively cluttering up the prose.  All the different personalities are well laid out, and totally not cliche or one-dimensional.  There’s a deep subtext noticeable throughout the work, though not of the rambling variant [yeah, suck on that, David Foster Wallace].  But there’s something that just is not working, and it’s driving you crazy trying to figure out why your narrative is not behaving as it should–as you have so clearly planned it out from beginning, to middle, to end.

What the hell is going on?!

Well, you’re in luck, because I may just have the solution to your problem.  The problem probably isn’t that the story you’ve set out to write is unmanageable, or that the characters you’re eager to create aren’t as capable of being the greatest heroes and villains in fiction as you’ve imagined them to be.  More than likely, the problem is you.  By which I mean, the problem is that rather than letting your story unfold, and your characters respond and adapt to their surroundings, you have allowed yourself to get stuck in one of the easiest pitfalls for an author to find her or himself in: you have forced the narrative.

Forcing the narrative can happen in many different ways, but the most common occurs when authors stubbornly refuse to follow the natural progression of the story they have set out to create, for no other reason than that doing so may deviate from the original blueprint they have arbitrarily committed themselves to in their minds.  And, of course, stagnant character progression is often the first victim to suffer as a result of this stubbornness.

Say, for example, that you’re writing a story that has two characters that you know you intent to have fall in love halfway through the plot.  You introduce them separately to the reader, so each can have distinct personalities that your potential audience will relate to.  They spent all these pages developing identities that are unique and self-sustaining (as they very well should be), but the moment you finally have them interact with each other–the moment the entirety of your whole plot hitherto was supposed to be leading up to–and…there’s nothing.

Where you thought the dialogue would flow smoothly between these two people you crafted to be perfect for one another, all their exchanges instead sound too contrived to be authentic.  You can force them to say all the things you think are necessary to convey the message that they are love-bound soulmates, but every time you do just that everything that comes out of their mouths starts to read like a rejected script for a corny made-for-TV movie of the week.

So what gives?  Are you such a lousy writer you can’t even get a genuine romance plot right?  Maybe…or maybe you’re working to hard to wedge a square peg trope into a heart-shaped prose.  By which I mean, maybe the characters that seemed perfect for each other before you put pen to paper…err…I mean, fingertip to keyboard?… whatever, the point I’m making is that a plot idea can seem perfect before you set out to write it, but once you get going it can become downright impossible to stay true to said idea without sacrificing the integrity of the narrative you have created up to that point.

As already mentioned, this dilemma can show itself in the most basic of details.  Including the very issue of whose story it’s going to be.  You might have a main character in mind from the start, but the more time you spend with him the more you start feeling like writing intriguing dialogue for him is a strenuous task taking up way too much of your creative concentration than it should.  Perhaps you even find yourself preferring to spend time with secondary characters that have taken on more interesting lives compared to your once-great-now-bland protagonist.

“Well, what’s to be done in this case?”  Good question, hypothetical reader!  When you are in the thick of this frustrating bit of a writer’s conundrum, it’s easy to miss the simplest of solutions staring back right in your sleep-deprived, bloodshot eyes.  That is to say:  Screw your preliminary outline.  Tear up your rough draft notes (it’s called a rough draft for a reason, after all).  Go with what your instincts tell you as a reader first, and ignore the self-righteous indignation of your inner-writer unwilling to deviate from an unworkable premise.

Are two characters not hitting it off as well as you thought they would?  Fine, try having them hate each other instead.  Or even try pairing them up with side characters that showed more prospect in the plot, and see where that goes.  Is your main character too wooden to lead the story the way you hoped?  Then why not sideline him, and shift the perspective onto a different character whose personality and dialogue carries your narrative forward with so much more ease than you ever thought possible?

All these options are readily available to you, because, no matter what, it is your world–it can only exist as you wish it to.  But you need to trust your instincts, not just as a writer, but also as a reader on what makes for compelling storytelling.  And you are allowed to change your mind about the details of the happenings in your fictional world, if these changes help bring about the greater narrative you set out to breathe life into.  Treat the initial bits of ideas that inspired you to start on your journey as just that–a cursory launching point to something better.  Nothing you write down–be it at the beginning, the middle, or the end–is sacred scripture.  It is not absolute, or inadaptable to subsequent burst of creativity that may strike you once you have already begun to feverishly churn out the bulk of your prose.

It’s important to be aware that if something doesn’t feel right about your story to you as you are barely writing it, it will definitely not seem right to your readers as they are reading it.  Even if they might not know how to articulate what’s so off-putting about it when they notice a belabored prose, the audience can definitely sense when something isn’t working as well as it could be.  And forcing a narrative, in an otherwise great story, is a perfect way to ensure that it won’t be working for anyone; neither you, nor your characters–but, above all else, not the reading public.

In Defense of Mary Sue

There are two distinct ways in which the term Mary Sue gets used in literary works (as well as any other fictional medium, really).  The most common usage today is in the context of the perfect protagonist.  This could mean a character that has a seemingly limitless aptitude for displaying/learning skills that go well beyond the realm of reason even within the reality of the fanciful narrative in which s/he exists.

Think of characters that are described as flawless physically, and around whom all the other characters gravitate towards, whether the plot necessitates it or not.  Obvious examples are characters brought to life within the pages of fan-fiction, but I would say that such writings are somewhat of a given on account that they are meant to be tributes to existing characters, thus overemphasizing said characters attributes might be unavoidable in this genre.  More worthwhile examples of Mary Sues are characters that are actually successful, and one could say well-respected, within literature.

Characters like James Bond and Nancy Drew in their original literary inceptions could very easily be argued to fit this description.  James Bond speaks every language of every country he steps foot in, can fight (and always win) in every fighting style confronted with, and can (and will) seduce any woman he desires because every woman he meets just naturally lusts after him without hesitation.  Likewise, Nancy Drew effortlessly picks up any activity she tries, is seemingly liked by everyone and often complimented on just how great she is by the other characters, and of course understands investigative deduction and forensic science well beyond what ought to be plausible for a person her age.

A word needs to be said about not going overboard and pinning the Mary Sue label on any character that just happens to be either capable, or powerful.  For example, although Superman is essentially a god-like character in many regards, he’s not really a Mary Sue as the term is commonly used.  Notwithstanding the fact that he has a fatal weakness in kryptonite, a lot of the narrative around Superman centers on the way his immense power keeps him on some scale separate–even isolated–from the very people he is dedicated to protect.  No matter how humane he is, he is never going to be human, and will always be an outsider in that regard in the only world he knows as home (especially since his birth planet no longer exists).  In this sense, there is a genuinely ongoing tragedy underlying the Superman saga, whether it is explicitly stated or not, in a way Mary Sues don’t really have to deal with.

There is a secondary definition to a Mary Sue, and it involves authors who essentially write themselves into the plot of their stories as a means of wish-fulfillment.  To put it simply, when the main character in a story is written as a idealized version of the author her/himself, and is written in a way to fulfill the perfect protagonist archetypes described above, then we have a Mary Sue on our hands.

I can see why people dislike either incarnation of the Mary Sue trope sneaking into the pages of a story.  Perfect character can get stale very quickly, because they are largely unrelatable to the vast majority of readers.  Moreover, the overreaching plot of a story will become very boring if we can tell from the start that the main character will always save the day, get the love, or that every obstacle encountered is just a superficial plot piece that offers no real danger in the long run.  However, despite all this reasonable criticism on why not to write characters in this way, the fact is that Mary Sues can actually resonate with readers if they find the story engaging enough–compelling writing just have a way of trumping all tropes.  The two examples of James Bond and Nancy Drew can attest to this just by how prolific both characters have been through the decades.  (It should be noted that I am aware how Bond has been greatly “de-Sued” in his cinematic portrayal over the years, in particular in the most recent Daniel Craig films, which show him as a far more vulnerable and broken person than he ever was in print.)

What this tells me is that people don’t mind Mary Sues so much as they like to use Mary Sues as a convenient way to write off a work of fiction they probably disliked to begin with.  And I get that, too.  Sometimes, characters in a book can just rub you the wrong way.  I for one absolutely loathed Holden Caulfield when I first read The Catcher in the Rye, and am still not too found of the little shit to this day.  (I’ve mellowed out about him because I’ve come to terms with the possibility that he’s a character I’m not meant to like.)  If I discovered that Holden was written to serve as an idealized stand-in for J.D. Salinger my opinion would not be swayed one way or the other.  This brings me to the final point I want to make on this topic, and it deals with the issue people have of authors writing themselves into the characters.  As anyone who has ever written fiction can confirm, it is unavoidable that some part of you will come through, in some way, in every character you will ever create.  I’ll even go as far as to say that I have never written a character that didn’t reflect some aspect of my personality, morbid curiosities, lived experiences, faced dilemmas, overcome setbacks, learned failures, and hard fought successes.  And I know that people will object that I’m shamefully stirring away from the genuine opposition leveled against Mary Sues (i.e. an author’s perfect protagonist wish-fulfillment), but I would argue that the fear of not wanting to create a Mary Sue-type character may be holding some writers back from exploring the full depth they can push themselves to because they are too paranoid about falling into this trope.  What I would urge instead is for a different approach.

You shouldn’t just see yourself as the author of the story, but remember that you are also its first reader.  You are the first one who will look through the characters’ eyes and see the world as it is written for them to see.  Regardless of whether you are a novice or been doing this for years, it is no easy feat to create an entire world from whole cloth, and then give to it a pair of eyes (several pairs, if we are being honest) for others to share in the experience.  It can be a rather frustrating task to even know where to start.  My take on the matter is simply to realize that, as you’re struggling to give sight to your story’s narrators, it is perfectly fine to first start with the pair of eyes ready made in your head, and expand from there without fear of breaking some unwritten rules of storytelling.