THIS PIECE ON THE TENSES OF VERBS IS PUBLISHED IN
NEWSWRITE (March 2017), the newsletter of the New South Wales Writers' Centre
One: It’s the middle of winter, and snowflakes are falling like feathers from the sky. A queen is sitting by her window; she’s sewing.
Two: Once in the middle of winter, when snowflakes were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat by her window and sewed.
The tone of first one resembles directions for a play or a movie, or a summary of a story; the tone of the second resembles the opening of a traditional tale. They are both valid ways of beginning to tell a story or an anecdote. However, unless the Jack the Writer is skilled and practised, it will be more difficult for him to manipulate order and duration with clarity and elegance if he sticks to the present tense. To tell you the truth, the second one really should begin with the phrase: ‘Once upon a time.’ This phrase is of course a traditional English introduction to a fairytale, an introduction that places the narrative, in a strangely specific (once) yet airily vague historical time. And the tenses of the verbs used in language are indicators not only of the era in which events took place, but also of the minutes, days, years between one action and another.
Time is one of the key subjects of narrative. This happened and then that happened, and then the other – a sequence of events across time, until the end of the story or the end of time. Tempus fugit – for along with sex, the other key subject matter of fiction is death, the marker of earthly finality.
When you write in an eternal present, you have the luxury of denying the inevitability of death, and this can be a comfort to you as the writer and also to your reader. In 1939 Joyce Cary published Mister Johnson, a novel written in the present tense. The novel was seen as experimental, and Cary explained he wanted readers to be ‘carried unreflecting on the stream of events’ as the character ‘swims gaily on the surface of life.’ He wanted the reader to ‘swim, as all of us swim, with more or less courage and skill, for our lives.’
As I write this it is 2016 – and by the time you read it, it will be 2017 – and nowadays a novel written in the present tense is not only unremarkable for its tense, but even fashionable. Perhaps this fashion, which as far as I can tell began to gather momentum in Australia in the 1980s, is fading out, but much fiction and non-fiction, is still being written in the present tense. With more or less skill.
One: It rains so heavily throughout the spring, that by early summer the leaves on the ivy are the size of dinner plates.
Two: It rained so heavily throughout the spring, that now in early summer the leaves on the ivy are the size of dinner plates.
There are moves you can’t make without the use of a past tense, but maybe you don’t want to make them. Because the present tense gives you an eternal ‘now’, you can’t shift from ‘then’ to ‘now’. As I say, perhaps you don’t wish to shift, although in the first one, if you think about it for a minute, you don’t really know when ‘now’ would be. Not that ‘now’ is invoked. ‘Now’ is inserted in the second one, affording this one an opportunity to draw attention to the rhythm of the time shift, and also allowing a lilt in the music of the prose. It is all a matter of you as the writer taking charge of the effects you want. My examples so far have placed a certain reliance on mention of the seasons, for the seasons are useful pinpointers of time. By putting a season of the year in the narrative, I draw attention to the passage of time, however slightly.
In Book One of My Struggle Karl Ove Kknausgaard sometimes writes in what I call the Ecstatic and Eternal Present: ‘I stare at the surface of the sea without listening to what the reporter says, and suddenly the outline of a face emerges’. This is just one example of a skilled and practised author whose work can glow with the light of recollected truth, defying time, while deep within the fabric of the work, facing the reality of death. David Malouf does this brilliantly in 12 Edmondstone Street, as does Hal Porter in The Watcher on the Cast Iron Balcony. In my book Writing the Story of Your Life you will find discussion of ten English tenses, and a detailed analysis of seven different kinds of present tense.
As you read and as you write, try always to be alert to the ways you and other writers are using tenses, and why.