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’.


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.


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.



Novels and Scotch

My son came up for dinner this evening, and wandered around with me afterwards while I watered roses.


He talked about a short story he wrote, that he would like to turn into a novel. But he doesn’t think there’s enough to make a novel-length story, even though he has a fully developed world, lots of characters, and an extensive plot outline.

We talked about what he doesn’t have, to flesh out something that would translate to a novel.

First, there’s not enough sub-plots. The major plot line, like I said, is done well. But without sub-plots to hold it up, the main plot will sag, most likely about mid-way through. The lack of sub-plots is almost always the reason a first draft dies about halfway in.

Second, there’s no conflicts between the characters. Either external, or internal. He realized that these characters all get along too well.

And third, in a short story it’s okay for the good guys to win the battle. In a novel, it won’t work to have the good guys winning every single battle as they make their way forward to the final scenes. So they need to lose, and there has to be reasons for them to lose, and ways for them to learn and continue.

Arthur Luke 3

A boy and his dog, many years ago.

While we talked, I remembered one of my favorite mysteries, that I never did anything with. I loved the premise, loved the characters, really loved the setting. I finished it, beta readers loved it. But there were lots of problems.

Not enough characters, so the antagonist was obvious. Not enough sub-plots to carry the novel. Predictable battles. Sound familiar? Sure did to me, even if the genres were completely different.

I’d like to go back and edit that story, but it needs more than just editing. It needs serious revision work. I’ve tried that a couple times but wow, what a task. It might be simpler to just take the premise, hang on to a few characters, and rewrite the whole thing.

Thinking about that story also reminds me of a funny conversation. The foundation of that mystery is a cask of Highland Park single malt scotch. I’m partial to Highland Park even though I don’t like scotch, because the distillery is on the Orkney Islands and I have friends in northern Scotland. That’s the main reason I chose that scotch.

My husband collects single malt scotch. So as I wrote the mystery, I would go to him and say, ‘I need a whisky with a peat flavor’ or ‘I need something that’s fruity’ and he would supply me with way more information on scotch then what ended up in the story. Plus he’d have to extensively sample, to find just the right one to meet my needs.

miscellaneous 080

Also from several years ago.

When it came time to do our taxes that year, our accountant told me we could write off the scotch my husband bought as research for the story. I thought that was a bit farfetched and didn’t believe the CPA.

My husband, on the other hand, decided the mystery needed to become a series. Set in different distilleries that we would have to visit for research.

I guess one of these days I’ll have to rewrite that mystery and create that series. Just to keep the scotch flowing and the husband happy.