The Past and the Present, William McTaggart / Public domain

Terms of the Trade: Past and Present Tense Narratives

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Terms of the Trade

I am puzzled by how imprecise writers sometimes are when they talk about their craft. If any craft should be precise and lucid in the description of what it does, it should be writing. But it’s not. A case in point: the distinction between “present tense” and “past tense” narratives.

Let’s be clear from the start: novels are not written in the past tense or the present tense. Only verbs have tenses, and you can have verbs in different tenses in the same sentence.

I am sad to say that Tom has informed us that he will leave tomorrow.

The tense of an individual verb indicates the relationship of the event it describes to the time it is uttered. A single sentence, let alone a single paragraph, chapter, or novel, can refer to events occurring at different times relative to the time the verb is uttered. None of them have a tense. Only the verb does.


What people mean when they say that a novel is written in present tense is that the narrative is immediate, rather than reflective — that it is told as if it is happening now rather than as if the events are being recalled later.

The Past and the Present, William McTaggart / Public domain
McTaggart, William; The Past and the Present; National Galleries of Scotland;

If you write an immediate narrative, you will use a lot of verbs in the present tense because you will be describing things as if they were happening as you wrote. Nevertheless, your novel will also include verbs that anticipate events in the future and verbs that recall events from the past, and these will be written using future and past tenses respectively. You will also likely have cause to use verbs is several of the many exotic tenses that can arise in English prose. All tenses are available and appropriate in context, you will simply use more present tense verbs because you are describing events as if they were happening as you write.

In a reflective narrative, correspondingly, you will use a lot of verbs in the past tense because you will be describing things that happened in the past, which you are now reflecting on. Nevertheless, your novel will also include verbs that anticipate events in the future and verbs that recall events from the past, and these will be written using future and past tenses just the same, and the whole  wonderful panoply of tenses will be available for use as well.

There is no linguistic difference between an immediate and reflective narrative at all. The only difference is whether they deal with either past or present events.

But even though immediate and reflective narratives differ in dealing principally with present events rather than past events, they actually have the same definition of “now”. For both, now is the moment when the narrative is being spoken or written.

To see that the now of a narrative is always the narrator’s now, consider what happens when you have an authorial intrusion into a reflective narrative. CS Lewis begins The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with these lines:

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.

Though the story itself is told reflectively — it happened in the past, as signaled by the word “Once”, the narrator says that this story “is” about something. That is a direct reference to the narrative he is telling and it is present tense in the now of the narrator. The same thing occurs in Chapter Five:

And now we come to one of the nastiest things in this story. Up to that moment, Edmund had been feeling…

“And now we come” — present tense, because again this is a direct reference to the narrative itself and therefore in present tense. All narratives are tacitly told in the moment of narration. That is what fixes the “now” from which tenses are calculated. In most narratives, however, no reference is made to the time of the narrative itself. Most reflective narratives, therefore, contain present tense verbs only where present tense is used to indicate a persistent truth (the Earth is round) or occurs relative to a relative “now,” such as in a character’s dialogue (“I am hungry,” said Jim.)

If your conceit is that the events of the story are occurring as they are narrated, then the events of the story are also in the present of the narrative and thus present tense is used according to the ordinary rules of grammar. The rules of tenses are entirely unchanged, only the relationship between the event and its narration are different.

In short, the difference between a reflective and immediate narrative has nothing to do with tenses at all. It is purely about the difference between the time in which the events occur and the time in which the narrative is spoken. Tenses work the same and follow the same rules in both cases. It would be a service to mankind, therefore, to banish all talk of tenses from the discussion of reflective vs. immediate narratives.

Why the confusion?

This is the first in a planned series of posts about the terms of the writing trade, focusing mostly on those that are confusing or downright misleading. Why do I think this is important? Simply because writing forums are full of people asking questions about these misleading terms.

You really do not have to hang out in any online writing forum for very long before you will see a post from someone trying to write an immediate narrative, which they have been told to think of as a present tense narrative. As soon as they realize that they have typed a past tense verb in their manuscript, they get worried and confused. They replace it with present tense, but that looks odd, so they put it back to past, but it worries them, because they have been told that they are writing in present tense, so what is that past tense verb doing there?

And then they post their question.

So, clearly, the language that we are using to communicate this idea is not working well for a number of readers. And as good writers we should be concerned about that. We should ask ourselves what we are doing wrong, and why we are doing it.

Every trade develops its own shorthand — brief words or phrases that stand for complex ideas. We need such terms to communicate quickly among ourselves. It doesn’t matter how imprecise or even arbitrary a term is if everyone in the industry uses it and understands it in the same way. The problem arises when the insiders and those trying to get inside don’t understand the term in the same way.

Perhaps this is the case with the terms of many trades, but it seems particularly problematic with the terms of the writing trade. Perhaps this is because we have no formal education or certification program like, for example, surgeons and airline pilots. Or perhaps I just think it so because it is my profession and I see the problems the terms cause most frequently.

But while the terms of any trade will always be arbitrary, and often obscure to the outsider, they should at least avoid being actively misleading and factually incorrect. Calling immediate narratives “present tense” is both actively misleading and factually incorrect. I don’t hold out much hope of getting the profession to change at this point, but I hope at least to dispel some of the confusion.

But we should be able to do better than this in coining the terms of our trade. We are writers, after all. Precision should be our métier.

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