Present and Correct

Do you tell your story using past tenses? If so, don’t think you can’t also use the present tense. Sometimes it’s the right tool for the job.

Be Your Own Copy Editor #11

When copy-editing novels narrated using past tenses, I frequently find that an author hasn’t got to grips with how to use the present tense within their past-tense pages. Either it’s used tentatively or it’s not employed at all when it could be, perhaps because the author thinks using the present tense would be a mistake. I’m not talking here about using the present tense – specifically, the present simple – in dialogue, where of course it’s natural to see it, or in direct-thought inner monologue (if you don’t know what that is, read this blog), but in narration. The passage below makes clear what I mean. Imagine it’s a chapter opening.

The AK-47 has a rate of fire of six hundred rounds a minute.

        DC Josh Kavanagh was thinking about that fact as he drove to the lock-up in South London where an AK had been found carefully hidden behind packing cases. If, as seemed likely, jihadis coming back from Syria had smuggled this and other weapons back into the UK, the consequences could be horrific. He tried to push visions of a Mumbai-style massacre on the concourse of Victoria Station out of his mind.

Notice how the present simple is used (‘has’) in the first sentence, and then there’s a switch to past tenses (‘was thinking’, ‘drove’, ‘had been found’). There’s nothing wrong with using the present tense side by side with the past like this. A feature of English is that we use the present simple to talk about general truths, such as the rate of fire of an AK-47, and we can do it in a past-tense novel if we wish. Here are a few more examples of the kind of general truths we use the present simple for:

The moon orbits the earth.

One in every four climbers who attempt to reach the summit of K2 dies trying.

Brighton has a lot of seagulls.

Let’s return to that chapter opening and now write the first line in the past simple, since that’s what a lot of authors do, perhaps because they think they’d be making an error if they strayed from using past tenses in narration.

The AK-47 had a rate of fire of six hundred rounds a minute.

        DC Josh Kavanagh was thinking about that fact as he drove to the lock-up in South London where an AK had been found carefully hidden behind packing cases.

That opening line reads okay to me. It’s unlikely readers are going to think that, because the past simple is used (‘had’), AK-47s once had a rate of fire of six hundred rounds a minute, but something has changed and they don’t any more. However, this opening sentence is not as powerful as the original. The original line, written in the present simple, makes a bigger and bolder statement. Here it is again:

The AK-47 has a rate of fire of six hundred rounds a minute.

That statement is reaching out to you, the reader. It’s more involving and in-your-face. This line is saying AK-47s have a rate of fire of six hundred rounds a minute in the world you live in as you read the book, and they always have done and always will.

So, not only is there nothing wrong with using the present simple in this way, but also there can be a lot right with it. However, there’s a ‘but’ coming, which is this: when you use the present simple to talk about general truths, the statements made can come across as strong interventions by the narrator, and that might not be an effect you want. If, as a novelist, you’re trying to maintain narrative intimacy with a viewpoint character (the character from whose viewpoint a scene is written), you need to handle lines like the one above with care.

I had the issue of maintaining narrative intimacy with my viewpoint character in mind when I composed the example chapter opening. You’ll notice that though it’s the narrator who tells the reader the rate of fire of an AK-47, the information is quickly owned by the protagonist, DC Josh Kavanagh, who we learn is thinking about the damage that could be done with the weapon. If you use the present simple to give a general truth in narration, you might want to find a way to quickly re-establish narrative intimacy with your viewpoint character too.

Self-Editing Tips

1. See if you’ve used the present simple in the way outlined above in your novel, since you may well have done without realising. If you have, don’t think that there’s anything wrong with using it per se, and check that you’ve consistently used the present tense. (I often see novels in which an author sometimes uses the present simple to give a general truth, but at other times switches to the past simple to do the same thing, without apparently noticing they are being inconsistent.)

2. If you discover that you’ve made statements giving general truths using the past simple, try converting the sentences to the present simple. Are the statements made more powerful and resonant as a result?

3. But be careful with using the present simple in this way. You might not like having the narrator speak so directly to the reader.

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About Marcus Trower

I'm a book editor, writer and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu addict.

Posted on August 31, 2014, in Be Your Own Copy Editor and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. good to see you posting again Marcus! I’ve missed your blog.

  2. What do you do in a first-person, past-tense story if the narrator intersperses his opinions? They’re not statements of general fact, but they’re something he believed then and still believes. Something like:

    I opened the bottle of wine and passed it around. Everything tastes better when you’re with friends. We laughed and drank all night long.

    If it’s third person I could add “he thought” to justify the present tense, but I’m not sure about first person.

    • When you write using first person, the tense dynamics are a little different. You don’t need to add ‘he thought’. Since it’s understood that the narrator is telling the story in the present, you can use the present tense freely to talk about how the narrator feels and what he thinks and so on now. If he says ‘Everything tastes better when you’re with friends’, that means that’s what he believes to be a general truth now. Basically, there are two temporal tracks when using first person: one, using present tenses, relates to the now in which the narrator is writing or telling the story; the other, using past tenses, is the one in which the story itself is related.

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