Comedy · Opinion · Writing

Me, Dying in Past Tense

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay user Silentpilot, public domain

I know I’ve talked about tenses before. I’ve said lots about how much I love present tense, and why you should give it a chance. But today, I’m taking a different track.

I’m talking about how past tense might actually be trying to kill me.

This seems excessive, I know. “Past tense is a construct of modern thought. It can no more kill you than a bagel can.”

This is obviously said by people who have no idea how many people went to the hospital last year with bagel-slicing related injuries. Which is a lot more than you would think, because you would think maybe two, right? Wrong. Over 2,000 in the year 2011 alone, which is astonishing, because you’d think I’d have learned by now that people are idiots, but there you have it.

Back to past tense.

You know how I know it’s trying to murder me? Because today I started a new project. This is a brilliant project, one I dreamed up on the airplane to Scotland and actually jotted down notes outlining it on my phone for. I know, unheard of for me, right? Anyway, I put it down and spent a week absolutely itching to get started. Looking at castles? New book! Walking down pretty streets? Book! Getting mildly queasy on a ferry crossing? Booooooooook.

Just today, I finally got started on it, and I was ready. Had a glass of water by my side, music on the stereo, blank document. Ready!

Five and a half hours later, I’d written 2,300 words, read half a romance novel, checked Twitter twelve times, played around with the formatting on my last book, read four Kboards threads, and was utterly bored.

Not to hand out any spoilers here, but I was in the middle of writing the lead up to a down-and-dirty sex scene. Boredom should have been far from my mind, yet there it was, goggling at me from my laptop screen, taunting me with the story I wanted to write, but didn’t seem capable of.

Gentle readers, this is the stuff murders are made from. Not the kind of freaky-ass premeditated horrors that mystery novels and the national news are made from, but the wife standing in the street wide-eyed holding a frying pan, gibbering that her husband had criticized her fried chicken one too many times. A snap.

Because the words wouldn’t. Freaking. Come.

Oh, not like that. 2,300 words is nothing to sneeze at, and I’d gotten that much down. Chapter one, by the quotas I’d decided on, was nearly finished. But I wasn’t feeling it. The story that had been so vibrant and exciting and brimming with tension was a dead fish that I was beating at with leaden fingers. Oh boy. They are on an airplane. They are talking. Airplane food. Yay.

Murder, I tell you.

In my restlessness, I began reading through a thread on a writing forum, where someone said they hate past tense and everyone went “H-WHAT?” in horror so genuine you’d think OP had said they ate their own placenta.

(Oh Jesus, that might be most horrifying metaphor I’ve come up with in a while. I just shuddered. I’m so sorry.)

And that was when I realized the problem.

I can write in past tense. Look at me, I’ve related several anecdotes here in past tense. This post is riddled in past tense!

But that’s me, the storyteller who lives in present, relating it to you in past. Breathing my life and opinions and giddy enthusiasm into it. You can feel the vibrancy of my words. I am here! I am present! Even if you read this in twenty years, I will still be present in this moment!

Past tense? Not so much. Past tense first person is me talking about what happened twenty years ago–stuff which does not relate to right now–and trying to make it urgent again.

Gentle reader, I’m not a person for memories. I don’t keep a diary, or mementos. I barely remember to take photos. I think that filling out a points card in a scrapbooking store should be rewarded with psychological help. I can’t put much vibrancy in stuff that happened last week, let alone years ago. It’s done. It’s gone. I can give you the gist of it, I can tell you why it matters to me now, but conjuring up the exact look on someone’s face, or their smell, or why I found them that sexy right the flipping moment so much so that I just wanted to jump their bones right then?

Not gonna happen.

I’ve written stories in past tense. The freebie you get after reading The Mercy of Men, “All God’s Children Say,” is written in past tense third person, for crying out loud! (Did you know there’s a freebie? Newsletter, babes, sign up for it and I send it to you. That easy.) But that’s just it, it’s third person and the voice has a charm of its own.

In “The Foreigner’s Loneliness,” Brian is compelling because he’s literally unraveling in his head as he relates these past events.

“Do you want me?” he asked every night, his words so fragile I could’ve crushed them in my hand.

Want, no, I didn’t want him. What I felt wasn’t want, it was obsession, a deep pit of terror telling me this was the night he wouldn’t be there, he’d be gone because he was so fragile. So delicate, in a way I can’t describe. A snow-blossom, used to harsh conditions, isolated and perilous but anchored for now, only for now.

That right there, gentle reader, is the past through a filter. And I can do that, if I know where the story is going. So basically, I can do it in a short story. Novel?

Hahahahahahahahahahahaha no.

And trying, I’m finding, just might actually kill all the joy of this for me.

So I gave up. 2,300 words in, I made a duplicate document and began at the beginning. At first, I changed was to is, had to have.

And then it took off, on sparrow wings so fleek. A breath of fresh air, as if I’d been in an airplane cabin all along. I was free.

Some authors swear by past tense. They love it, they live it.

I don’t. I live in the moment, and that’s where I write. I am in my character’s heads, and that’s where I bring you. It’s what I do.

Whenever I hear someone say that they loathe present tense beyond anything, I assume they’ve never read it done right. Gentle reader, allow me the conceit that I do it the way it should be done, and so, negative opinions be damned, I’m sticking with it.

If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Past tense or present? Can you switch? Do you switch? Readers, do you have a preference one way or another? A burning hatred for one? What does it for you, and why? Tell us in the comments below!


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I’m S. Hunter Nisbet, writer of post-apocalyptic dystopian novels of the dark and gritty type. When I’m not exploring castles in Britain I’m at my desk in Southeast Ohio, conjuring nightmares and occasionally winning at Pikmin.


Want to read some lovely examples of first person present tense? Click the covers and check them out!

cover The Mercy of Men eBook Cover

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6 thoughts on “Me, Dying in Past Tense

  1. Past tense is my default. I think it pairs nicely with the limited third-person narrator/p.o.v. character, which is my preference. Maybe if I wrote in first person, I’d be tempted to go into the present tense, but to be honest I find present tense distracting. It makes more sense to me, as a reader, for a person to be telling me about what happened to them in the past…not what is happening to them now, exactly as it is happening to them. That’s not how people tell stories in real life, anyway.

    In my current sci-fi series, The Soul Sleep Cycle, I alternate between tenses, which can cause problems when I need to transition back to past tense for “normal” scenes. (Present tense indicates a dream where the character is not lucid and/or reliving a memory…which I realize is counter-intuitive.)

    What can I say? I like taking risks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very interesting. I can see alternating present and past like that, though I find it intriguing that you use present to indicate the past. That’s a good way to make certain of indicating an altered mood. In my books, all present tense first person, my characters often relate a past event, but they do just that, launch into story-telling mode and talk about way back then and how it relates to now.

      I would argue that past tense as it’s used in books isn’t how people tell stories in real life either. Real life tends to sound rather like my blog post, jumping from past to present. “You remember Cathy I worked with at the supermarket? Well, I ran into her yesterday at the post office and she just loved that bag you gave me. You know, I always get compliments on it.”

      Mind, I tend to tell stories present tense. “So I’m driving along 33 and this total maniac comes out of nowhere. Like, eighty miles an hour, streaks past me!” I admit, it works best with a Brooklyn accent.

      Like

  2. I write in past tense most of the time, but have played around with present tense. If I want to tell a reader a character’s story, then (to me) it has to be past tense, because it’s a story, it’s already happened, it’s ended, and the character has moved on from that particular conflict. A past tense story gives off echoes of a connection in the form of the character being relatable, but you’re not in the moment.

    If I want to follow a character, I use present tense. I’m following that character around, looking at what they’re looking at, feeling what they’re feeling, and their story isn’t finished. They haven’t moved on. It’s still an open ending and the conflict is still on-going. You’re in the moment, in the now for that character and you’re waiting for that trainwreck to happen. There’s a deeper sense of connection with a present tense story. There’s something grittier and more visceral in writing and reading present tense.

    Neither of them are wrong, and neither of them are right. It’s how you use those tenses and what message or feeling you want to convey to the reader.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said. I agree, it’s a story-telling choice rather than a matter of aesthetics. I get very frustrated when people say they changed an entire past tense novel to present by going through and just fiddling with the verbs, because it’s so much more than that. You relate past, live present.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I never noticed this before, but after reading your post, I realized that while I write in both past and present tense, this does not work for me if I’m writing a novel. I’ve tried to write a few in past tense, and by the time I’m through writing one or two chapters, I have switched to present tense. There’s something about trying to tell a long story, and writing it as events unfold, that cannot happen for me in the past tense. It doesn’t work. This is the first time I’ve really thought about it, but yeah, novels always come out in the present tense for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Or it could be you’re so used to reading my stuff in present…

      Actually, I think what we consume has a huge impact. For so many writers, all they’ve ever consumed is past tense; it’s what they know. Present is an enormous switch not only in the reflexive–what you automatically default to–but in how you tell a story. If you’ve never seen it, or only seen it done poorly, which is vast majority, why would you think to do it yourself?

      Meh, though, what do I know?

      Like

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