Wednesday, March 17, 2010


In the interests of getting the balance of this blog just right (‘...all things Scottish, all things Australian and all things literary...) I’d like to talk today about something related to ‘writing’, and there’s nowhere better to start than at the beginning of the writing process.

Choosing the tense you use to craft your essay, poem, narrative prose, etc is one of the biggest decisions a writer has to make. It’s also one of the first. Get it wrong and your piece can fall flat. Worse, you could turn readers off your writing for good. But if you get it right, you can add tension, win reader empathy and really make your work stand out from the crowd.

Let me start by clarifying what I mean by the word ‘tense’. Tense is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as ‘a set of forms of a verb that indicate the time or completeness of the action expressed by the verb.’

Take the simple verb, ‘walk’. I
walked to my office this morning. I like walking in the morning. I’ll walk again just as soon as I’ve finished this piece - to the coffee pot, perhaps.

Those are the three tenses: past (I walked); present (I like walking); future (I’ll walk).

Choosing the most appropriate tense for the article you’re writing is crucial. Although you can write in one tense and edit for another at some later stage, that kind of edit can be huge and almost always involves a complete rethink followed by a complete rewrite followed by divorce and litigation. Making the right decision early on saves that rework (and all those ugly legal fees).

The question is, which tense is right for your project? Well, that depends entirely on what you’re writing.

Let’s look at narrative prose. As an example, I’ll use the opening sentence of my crime thriller Brogan’s Crossing to illustrate the obvious differences between tenses. (Forget viewpoint at this stage – I’ll discuss that in a later post.)

Sam Brogan let the doors swing shut and flicked a glance at every conceivable hidey-hole as he limped into the thickening stench of beer and vomit.

The handling of the verbs ‘flick’ and ‘limp’ are the clues that this is written in past tense. Past is the writers’ favourite and almost always works best for fiction. If you consider that most stories are told after the event, it makes sense to relate those stories in the past tense. Brogan’s story unfolds as we read, and there’s a certain feeling of comfort and security that comes from knowing that these events have already happened. It’s a safe bet, too, because many publishers prefer novels written in this tense.

But I could have written it differently, using present tense, for example.

Sam Brogan lets the doors swing shut and flicks a glance at every conceivable hidey-hole as he limps into the thickening stench of beer and vomit.

Straight away you can see there’s much more immediacy, and more intimacy between the reader and the character. We’re with Sam as things happen to him, and that often works well for action-based fiction.

So, why didn’t I choose this tense to write Brogan’s Crossing? There are a few reasons, but it really comes down to wanting this story to have as much credibility as possible. Many readers, when confronted with present tense narration, find it difficult to ignore the fact that a character is relating story when he/she should be minding events as they unfold.

Now let's look at future tense.

He’ll let the doors swing shut and flick a glance at every conceivable hidey-hole, then limp into the thickening stench of beer and vomit.

This mode of writing can certainly make your work stand out from the crowd, mainly because not many writers use it. But be warned: it takes a great deal of skill to master future tense, and a great deal of discipline to stay focused. You may also be limiting your audience because it reads so differently from the norm.

That’s a quick and relatively simple overview of the differences between the three tenses, (with an absolute body swerve around the topic of pluperfects, past progressives and past perfect progressives. Maybe, one day...)

Past and present are more commonly used than future. It’s not illegal to mix past, present and future together, as long as you do it consistently and with care (e.g. when combining past tense action with present or future tense interior monologue – ‘She sat and watched him drink another beer. I’ll show him, she thought. One day I’ll teach him, and he’ll never talk to me like that again.’)

Choosing the right tense can be a tough decision for a writer to make, often because it’s made in conjunction with a decision concerning point of view. And viewpoint is the next subject I’ll tackle.

For now, though, I’m about to walk to the coffee pot.

Update 20100319 -

Remember I said you could turn readers off your writing for good if you pick the wrong tense? Well, here's an example of what I mean, from a newspaper I was reading this morning:

'Once Ului crossed the coast, it was forecast to weaken quickly into a rain depression.'

The reporter is telling us about an event which is yet to happen, but has incorrectly chosen to use the past tense ('crossed the coast' and 'was forecast'). If you're talking about events that might come to pass at some future date, use future tense.

'Once Ului crosses the coast, it is forecast to weaken quickly into a rain depression.'

See the difference? Readers instinctively know that what you're talking about is yet to happen. And that means you've achieved clarity in your writing.


  1. Lo! There I was, wandering perfectly happy in the distant past, roaming right into the present, and Behold! I am gazing straight into the future. There I'll stay, if I may, I surely will.
    Good wit, Ramsay. Where were you when my poor little deer was wobbling on its flimsy legs in mires of time? (that's rhetorical)

  2. I don't think 'Deer' has ever been flimsy. It's sturdier now, MM, but it was sturdy to start with.

    Thanks for dropping by :)

  3. Just one of the herd who heard. Thank you, gracious sir.:)