A Tense Topic

I’m editing a young adult novel and the author tells the story from two points of view in one character – one from the character’s diary (present tense), and one from the character’s interactions within the world (past tense). This adds depth to the character development because the reader gets to see the ‘self-view’ and the ‘world view’.

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My world view

One of the discussions we had concerns the difference between past and present tense. This author felt she struggled to understand tense because she had some passages where the tense overlapped. I believe she’s actually struggling with transition between tenses. As in, writing in one voice and then transitioning to the second voice, while managing at the same time to stay true to the point-of-view character’s voice. Sound overwhelming? It can be, but this author is doing a much better job than she thinks she is.

The process has me thinking about tense, obviously. Past tense as in ‘I sat’ and present as in ‘I sit’. I’m not going to get into all the sub-categories of tense here.

Few people can write in present tense and do it so well that the reader isn’t aware of it. Author Ellie Griffiths is one.

So why is present tense so difficult to write, and a lot of times, difficult to read?

Past tense is invisible to a reader. This might be because it’s so common in everything we read, but I think it’s more than that. It’s how we tell stories. By the time we’re telling someone about something that happened, the event is past. We’re not narrating our story as it happens. Well, with social media, some people do. ‘I’m walking through the freezer section!’ ‘I’m eating pasta!’ But I’m sure you get what I’m saying here.

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I’m crocheting!

Past tense also, oddly, feels more ‘present’ and more intimate to a reader. This, again, is probably because it’s so familiar. Readers don’t have to adjust; they simply become immediately immersed in the story.

Present tense does take some adjustment on the part of the reader, who has to be convinced that the action is happening right now, right in front of them. That can be a stretch. And present tense is difficult to write, I think, simply because it isn’t as familiar. Additionally, having that action happen right in front of you is like watching a movie, not reading a book. There’s distance between a movie and a viewer, while a reader loses himself in the story world and becomes part of what is happening.

As with all rules of writing craft though, it comes down to neither way being right or wrong. A writer finds the voice of the story and that’s the right voice to tell it in. After all, aren’t rules made for breaking? Just be sure you know the reasons why you choose your tense, that you’ve thought about intimacy between the reader and the story, and that you feel it’s the right style for the type of story you’re telling.

And now I’m off to sit in my chair and drink tea. Which, by the way, isn’t present tense in spite of ‘sit’ and ‘drink’. Confused? It’s because I’m saying something that hasn’t yet happened. The phrase ‘now I’m off’ implies something yet to come. For present tense, the kettle has just boiled and…

I sit in my chair and drink tea.

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A Vietnam Vet

My sister-in-law is dealing with Hurricane Harvey and the flooding. While nowhere near as devastating, I was reminded of the first flood I went through after moving to the woods. Which reminded me of the first Vietnam vet I met.

Flooding in this area hits hard and fast. Whitewater rivers are forced between canyons and boulders and drop steeply, unlike the farming area where I grew up. There, the water rises slowly and spreads out, and sticks around. A whitewater flood takes trees and houses and roads, and then drops fast.

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Someone’s trailer a couple days after a flood

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Our road after a flood widened it

This first one flooded the road I lived on. The road is two lanes through the forest with no shoulders and just big trees up to the edges. It was night as I came home and out there it’s pitch black at night. No streetlights or house lights. Just my headlights in the little Subaru Justy, reflecting off moving water.

I got out of the car to see if I could tell how deep the water was, or if I could make it across. There were tree branches floating in the reflected light. As I stood there in the dark, a big man came out of the trees and stepped up beside me.

“I don’t think you’re going to make it,” he said.

I seem to remember being frozen, probably not even breathing.

“But I’ll go across and check for you.”

And off he went, wading through the moving water, followed by a dog that also came out of the trees.

On the other side, he raised a flashlight, waving me forward, and disappeared back into the trees. I drove across slowly, with water sloshing up high on the car, knees shaking, wondering if that had really just happened.

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The river on a calm summer day. See those rocks in the back? They’re underwater in a flood.

He lived rough somewhere in the woods during those years. I regularly came across him, with his dog Katie, when I’d be out walking old logging roads or trails. He’d materialize from the trees, share my company for a bit, and then fade away.

Most times he was in this world. But occasionally something would send him back there, back into that war. One time it was a small airplane flying over. He told me not to be worried, that it wouldn’t stand up against his anti-aircraft missiles, and pulled out this huge old revolver.

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The logging road where the revolver was pulled.

Living off-grid at the time, we had an outhouse. Since I was the only one living there, and the views of mountains and ridge were beautiful, I rarely shut the door.

Until the day, out walking with him, and he told me he’d found an old trail that crossed the ridge above my place, and how he could see our whole place from up there.

I closed the door after that.

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The ridge. The outhouse was on the other side of the cabin.

 

Eventually, someone got Veteran’s Affairs involved, and he was set up with counseling and resources, and even a little house in a nearby town. I missed him stepping out of the woods and walking with me.

One day, a couple years later, I was ‘down below’ at a grocery store and here he was, still big and bushy-bearded, pushing a cart. I saw people looking sideways at this man. I saw how they sidled away from him when he came right up to me and said ‘do you know me?’.

Of course I knew him. I gave him a big hug, asked after Katie, who was elderly and waiting in his friend’s car. I asked about his little house, which he thought was okay most of the time. But some days, he said, he had to get out into the woods.

I left, wondering if he’d found someone else to walk with out there, or if he remained in solitude with his past.

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