I approached a number of authors who teach or have taught writing to students at a variety of levels and asked how they taught the present tense. Regardless, here are a few approaches and theories on usage. The experience of a movie is that you, and the movie, exist in the present tense, and that you are observing what is happening moment-to-moment. Related: what seems to be the writer hanging back and not judging, because there is no time for that if something appears to be happening in the instant. The writer, for better or for worse, is always present in the material whether you want to call the writer an invisible—or sometimes quite visible—character, or not but can appear to be just casually noticing what is unfolding, how things are proceeding.
Present tense gives the illusion of being hands-off: just tracking, like a camera. Or: De-emphasizing drama. I think a lot of writers choose the present tense as a form of cowardice. They think the present tense is really entirely about the present moment, as though the past and future do not actually exist.
But a good present tense is really about texture, not time, and should be as rich and complicated and full of possibilities as the past tense. All narrative decisions are more interesting when you think about the mobility they grant you instead of the mobility they restrict.
Present tense allows us to pretend that action and thought are immediate and concomitant. So present tense can relieve a writer of that burden, if it feels burdensome. But I like my present tenses full of the past, if possible. Not as a flashback, mind you—I like my present tenses to acknowledge that the person in the present tense did not come into existence in this moment, and that a whole world of time exists behind them and props them up, even if it is never directly mentioned.
What I focus on is less present vs. But I also use the present tense as a way of talking about the past, even though the speaker is really telling the story from the present.
Writing About Your Research: Verb Tense
Swati Khurana, an emerging writer, had something closer to data to report from her recent experience as an MFA graduate student teaching an introduction to creative writing class to undergraduates—these courses, increasingly common, give students an introduction to writing poetry, the personal essay and fiction in one semester. I found that almost all in-class prompt-inspired shared writing was in the present, and sometimes if they continued working on it, it would then shift into the past. Do they know the difference between the will future and the going-to future, for example?
Do they know when to use the simple past and the past perfect, and how to handle that transition? Are they still struggling with things like subject-verb agreement? If they understand what the present tense is for, and what its strengths are just on the grammatical level, then that can better inform their choices as fiction writers. Or at least, it can.
At sunrise the small expedition meets beneath a giant fig. How do the sentences work differently? If your piece is written in the present tense, rewrite the first paragraph or two in the past tense. How has this changed the tenor of the paragraph? How does it impact the way a reader is introduced to the fiction? Does this affect the point-of-view?
For both 1 and 2 , rewrite the paragraph in its original tense, but try to hold onto anything that you liked when you changed the tense. If present tense gave the paragraph more energy, think of other ways to tighten up your language.
What Is the Subjunctive Mood?
If past tense gave you the opportunity to look back from afar, consider opening with a retrospective and then segueing into present tense. If you like the energy of the present tense but want to write in the past tense, consider using more literary devices that allow you to stay in the present moment. I have several options. I can write my paper in the past tense, which is the style most people are used to reading in novels or short stories, as follows:. However, I may choose to make my essay more immediate by placing the action in the present. This is also an acceptable writing style, especially for an essay:.
Sometimes it is necessary to change tense. For example, if the time frame of the action changes from past to present, the tense should change to indicate this:.
Looking back, I think my feelings may have been influenced by stereotypes of the Old South. I think my feelings may have been influenced by stereotypes of the Old South. The reason for this tense change is that I am thinking now—in the present time.
Switching Tenses - CRAFT
Notice how putting that sentence in the past tense changes the time frame and ameaning of the action. Now it sounds as though I was reflecting during the car ride, but I wanted to imply that it was only later that I had this thought. There are other times, though, when a tense shift is not correct.
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For example, if the action all happened in the same time—past, present, or future—then the verbs should be consistent in tense. However, from a grammatical viewpoint, this type of unnecessary shift in tense should be avoided in more formal such as academic writing. There are other uses of tense that a college student should be aware of. English majors and others who write analysis papers will often write in the literary present. This allows a writer to write about fictional or nonfictional information from a literary work in the present tense.
In one scene, he disguises sexual references as sword-fighting terms. Although Shakespeare wrote many years ago, his work can still be talked about in the present because it still exists.
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Again, though, there is no hard and fast rule about tense. If you wanted to stress that this happened in the past, perhaps as part of a biography of Shakespeare which was describing how he used to write, you may choose to write it in past tense instead of the literary present:.
In one scene, he disguised sexual references as sword-fighting terms. This is also grammatically correct, but it changes the focus of the sentence slightly. Now it reads more like a narrative than an analysis. In a situation like this, when both styles are equally grammatically correct, it becomes a choice of deciding which is better for your purposes.
Are you analyzing or narrating?
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