I often do feel tense, but that’s not the type of tense I’m referring to now. I thought I’d spend some time talking about verb tenses today. Hang on…before you click to another page, read on. This might give you something to think about.
Okay, let’s first do a short grammar lesson just so we all understand one other. There are three basic verb tenses—present, past and future. Other perfect and progressive tenses are often used—some say as many as thirty-six tenses exist—but for our purposes today, we’ll stick with what is called the simple past, present and future tenses.
A verb’s tense tells the time the action took place. It is going on right now, happened in the past or will happen in the future.
- I eat boiled crawfish. (Every chance I get.)
- I ate boiled crawfish on Saturday. (I really did, good ones, too.)
- I will eat boiled crawfish again soon. (You betcha!)
By its nature, personal and family history is typically written in the past tense because the events we’re detailing occurred at an earlier time, but it doesn’t always have to be done that way. Instead of automatically defaulting to the past tense, think about using the present tense sometimes. We make use of the future tense at times when writing our life stories, but for now, let’s focus just on the present and past.
There are benefits and drawbacks to both past and present tenses. Here are a few:
• Gives you the option of reflecting on the event from a current viewpoint
• Ease of reading, people accustomed to stories written in the past tense
• Tends to be narrated or reported rather than acted out on the page
• Can lack the sense of immediacy and connection to the reader
• Allows the reader to see the event unfolding right in front of him
• Works well when the story has a great deal of action
• Gives a sense of immediacy to the action
• Does not promote understanding gained through hindsight
• Does not permit background information
Combining the tenses in a story, paragraph or sentence is generally frowned upon. You hear that all the time, don’t switch tenses, and for good reason. It makes it difficult for the reader to stay with you when you jump around from present to past and back again.
I remember a time when we ate boiled crawfish every weekend.
Here I’ve combined both the past and present in the same sentence. Doing this won’t have the grammar police knocking on your door, but try to keep the same tense in your sentences. Why couldn’t you simply say it this way?
We ate boiled crawfish every weekend.
You still communicate the same information, and if you are the one writing a personal history story, it’s understood that the incident is coming from your memory. If you recount someone else’s memory, you’d state that in the story. Make sense?
There are times when combining the tenses in the same story works. One is during a flashback. In a flashback, the author takes the reader out of the current action and conveys background information that sheds light on the present-day activity. When writing flashbacks, just make sure you don’t lose your reader. Make it obvious when you leave the main storyline and when you return to it. There is nothing worse than a lost, confused reader.
You can also see a combination of tenses used successfully in the same story when the writer is recounting an incident that happened in the past but then stops to play the moment out in scene. The telling of the story is usually in the past tense, but when we begin to hear the characters speak, the dialogue is written in the present tense. We see their actions unfold right in front of us, playing out like a little movie. To do that requires the present tense.
Take one small incident from your past—something you can cover in a couple of paragraphs—and write it first using the past tense. When you finish, go back through and circle all the verbs. Make sure they are all past tense.
Now try this…write the incident completely in present tense. Make it sound like the action is taking place right now.
How was that experience? Which version was easier for you to write? What problems did you encounter attempting to stay entirely in the past or in the present tense? Share your experience with me and other readers in the comments section down below.