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April 2, 2020

Storytelling Verb Tenses: Past, Present, and “Literary” Past Tense

Stack of very old books with text: What Is "Literary Past Tense"?

Last time, I shared that one of the questions we can ask ourselves to determine when we should italicize our characters’ thoughts was:

  • What verb tense do we want to use? Although some authors like to write in present tense, most stories are still written in literary past tense. That means for a direct quote, the verb tense would change to present tense.

My mention of “literary past tense” prompted Anne Kaelber to ask for more information, especially as her Google search didn’t result in easy answers. Surprised that her search didn’t reveal anything, I did several searches as well to try to point her to a good resource. Nothing. Huh.

Alrighty then! Let’s dig into the term. *smile* What does literary past tense mean, and how is it different from normal past tense?

Past Tense: The Default for Storytelling

As writers, we should all be familiar with the basics of verb tenses. The default tense choices for storytelling are:

  • The narrative of most stories is written in past tense:
    She ignored the knock on the door. In these days of social distancing, she didn’t want to take any chances.
  • Dialogue (including direct internal dialogue) is written in present tense:
    “I need some chocolate to get me through this day. Stat.”
  • Backstory (events that occurred before the story present) is written in past perfect tense:
    She had eaten all the snacks in the house already.

All the Rest: Verb Tenses

The English language actually has 12 tenses, but the three tenses above cover the majority of our writing needs for most stories. For more about the other tenses, check out these charts from this grammar lesson.

12 Verb Tense Chart (simple, continuous, perfect, perfect continuous for past, present, and future)

The 12 verb tenses and how each are constructed with a Subject Verb Object sentence

The 12 Tenses - Usage

How each of the 12 tenses are used and what they’re each meant to explain or indicate

What about the Exceptions to the Default?

As I mentioned above, the “default” tense for storytelling is past tense. We’ve all seen past-tense storytelling our whole life, so it’s the easiest tense for us to use correctly.

In addition, we all use past tense every day as we share our personal stories. Think of how we answer questions like “How was your day?” or “How was the movie?”

Past tense feels normal to us, so it’s easy for us to get it right. Past tense is so normal that it’s “invisible” to readers—not calling attention to itself—so readers focus only on the story. But it’s also not the only tense we can use for our story’s narrative.

Present Tense

Some stories, particularly in certain genres, use present tense for the narrative (and simple past for earlier events like backstory). For example, Hunger Games uses present tense, which many readers said made the story feel more immediate or emotional. Some also think present tense can make a story feel more like a movie.

What choices do we have for the verb tense to use in our stories? Click To TweetPresent tense tends to work better with deep point of view stories, as the character gives a play-by-play of their experiences. That makes it hard to say how many of those advantages above are actually due to the tense or just a benefit of the deep POV. (So don’t feel pressured to write in present tense if you’re already comfortable in deep POV.)

Also keep in mind that many readers say they dislike present tense, especially as writers often struggle to get present tense right. The bad examples out there make it hard to say how many who claim they don’t like present tense are actually fine if the story uses it so well that they don’t notice its usage. *smile*

However, due to the risk, if we want to write our story in present tense, we should read a lot of present tense stories to see how it’s done and help the tense feel more natural to us. If we find ourselves noticing the use of present tense, we can try to figure out why it stands out.

Did the author use it incorrectly? Do some types of narrative flow better with present tense than others? (For example, narration and time shifts are often tricky in present tense, which works best with action and real-time experiences. The cost of immediacy is that present tense is more limiting.)

What about Other Exceptions?

A few stories, often those of an experimental literary style, use an even more unusual tense: future tense. This choice is so uncommon that I couldn’t even find examples to share, but I know they’re out there somewhere…*cough*…being pretentious.

Also, some styles of storytelling use past tense but tense-shift to present tense for reasons beyond dialogue (or direct internalizations). For example, if we break the fourth wall in our past-tense story to speak directly to the reader, those passages could be in present tense.

To tense-shift in a way that doesn’t just feel like a mistake to readers, however, the shift should occur only with and during a break in narrative style, such as breaking the fourth wall or being in a dream, etc. That break in narrative style provides a transition from one tense to the other—and back again.

Some new writers try to tense-shift during action scenes, thinking it speeds up the pace. (And honestly, we do sometimes verbally make this shift when telling exciting parts of our day. “So I told him to just go back to his car. And then he hits the guy!”)

But in our written stories, these shifts are sloppy, especially as there’s no good way to transition back to past tense at the end. Consistency is key for creating good writing. (An alternative is to instead use tenseless noun phrases to create a sense of action: A quick jump, a fast sprint, a hard punch, and the guy he was chasing went down for the count.)

What Is Literary Past Tense?

All that brings us back to our original question. Literary past tense describes how most of us use past tense in our stories.

That is, most past-tense stories are written as though the events are happening now. Even though we’re using the past tense forms of verbs, within the story itself, events are happening in the present.

Not all past-tense stories are written in literary past tense, however. Some are written in a normal past tense. So let’s do a few comparisons to show the difference…

Normal Past Tense vs. Literary Past Tense

Normal Past Tense

In a normal past tense story, the events have already happened within the story itself. In other words, the story experiences normal past tense just like how we experience our own past.

What is literary past tense and how does it differ from normal past tense? Click To TweetWhatever POV we use, the narrator already knows how everything turned out. This means that the story could be told by a narrator sharing a story from their past or an omniscient POV could give a preview of events yet to come because the story’s future already exists.

For example, stories told with a framing device might start and end in literary past or present tense while the main story is told in normal past tense. The narrator might even interject with “I didn’t know it yet but…” insights during the story.

Normal past tense adds distance to our storytelling. A normal past tense story is automatically more retrospective, as the narrator already knows what happened, so there’s less suspense and tension.

That’s one reason why “if she’d only known” type of lines don’t usually belong in deep POV stories. Those lines pull readers out of the immediacy from the story, remind them that they are reading a story, and make the POV shallower.

Literary Past Tense

In a literary past tense story, the events have not yet happened within the story itself. The viewpoint character doesn’t know how things are going to turn out, as events are happening for the first time right in front of them (and in front of the reader).

Have you heard of literary past tense? Do you know what it means? Click To TweetIn other words, even though literary past tense uses the past tense forms of verbs, the narrative unfolds like it’s in the present. There’s no bigger perspective that knows the future, as the story’s future doesn’t exist yet.

Not surprisingly, that means literary past tense stories are filled with more suspense and tension than normal past tense stories. The characters don’t know what’s going to happen any more than the reader does. In addition, the verb choice doesn’t add distance between the story and the audience, as readers experience events right along with the characters.

It’s counter-intuitive that a story written in literary past tense should feel so much like it’s happening in the present to readers, but it does. In fact, a literary past tense story, especially one in deep POV, can often feel more tied to the “here and now” than present tense stories.

(Need examples of what makes normal past tense and literary past tense different? Check out my replies to Pamela’s question and Cynthia-Reyes’s question below. *smile*)

Can Understanding the Difference Help Our Writing?

All of this means that literary past tense stories, especially combined with deep POV, feel immediate to readers. So while some stories are in present tense or normal past tense, there’s a reason the most common tense—the default tense—is literary past tense.

Chances are, we’ve been writing in literary past tense this whole time and had just never heard the term before to describe our approach. So why was it important for us to understand the actual meaning?

The benefit of knowing the term is that now we better understand our choices. We can consciously decide what tense works best for our story, and we’ll know if some techniques we’ve seen others use (such as one of those if she’d only known lines) might not be good for our story. *smile*

Had you heard the term literary past tense before, and if so, did you know what it meant? What are your preferences as a reader for the tense of the story? Does the explanation for literary past tense make sense? Do you understand what makes it different from normal past tense? Can you think of other pros or cons to using any of the tenses?

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Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber

Thank you for making that a little clearer to me. When I’m devouring another author’s book(s), I love first-person, deep-POV, present tense. For me, a story told in past tense removes some of the tension — it reassures me the narrator will live through the events about to unfold. (For fun present-tense, first-person, deep-POV, check out Lauren Blakely’s Big Rock, especially if you need a good dose of humor. *grin*)

While I sometimes question whether a project would be stronger in literary past tense, I want the reader to feel they are right there as the action happens. So I tend to use present tense with deep-POV first-person narrator(s). I would love some reader recommendations of romance novels written in literary past-tense, yet still in first-person, deep-POV.

Now back to banging my Emotional Wound Thesaurus against my head, even though I know impact-osmosis isn’t going to work.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks Jami and I hope you are staying well.
American authors often don’t use past perfect, which makes the story confusing.

Dawn

This is another topic I wish I had learned years ago. In the beginning, I went back and forth between past tense and present tense. Fortunately, I realized my mistake. My next challenge was deciding whether to write the entire story in past tense or present tense, then with being consistent. Now I’m pretty good at writing consistently in past tense deep PoV. Isn’t it strange how we still feel like we’re in the moment of a story written in past tense?

PAMELA
PAMELA

I need to see examples of literary past tense compared to regular past tense. Can you provide some?

Cynthia-Reyes

Jami, I was with you the whole time but I still don’t know what Literary Past Tense looks like. Could you please add an example in the relevant section? Your post is a gem otherwise and Useful.

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