Student Question

Which books demonstrate how to use both past and present tense in writing?

Quick answer:

Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a good book that moves between the past and the present tense. Haddon’s simple sentences and compact chapters provide a beginning writer with a great model to follow when it comes to clearly and thoughtfully switching up tenses and time periods.

Expert Answers

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There is a difference between moving between the past and the present and moving between the past and present tense. In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, Smith moves between the past and the present. To tell the story of an unnamed narrator and her friend Tracey, Smith goes back and forth in time. She talks about the present day, and she talks about how they grew up in the 1970s and ’80s.

Despite the flashbacks, the novel is written in the past tense. Even the scenes that take place in the present are written in the past tense. Past tense is a way of expressing action that has happened. Many authors use the past tense to describe both the past and the present because the past tense tends to be more stable and less jarring.

Swing Time begins with “It was the first day of my humiliation.” The “was” indicates past tense. Despite the fact that this scene is happening in the present, Smith sticks with the past tense. The tense doesn’t necessarily reflect the period.

One great book that employs both flashbacks and different tenses is Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This book is about a boy who’s trying to figure out who killed his neighbor’s dog. The boy, whose name is Christopher John Francis Boone, uses the past tense to talk about what happened with the dog and the present tense to talk about what he’s doing right now—writing the book.

In chapter 7, Christopher writes, “This is a murder mystery novel.” The “is” alerts the reader that this is happening now. Christopher is telling his story this very moment. The “is” indicates present tense.

In chapter 11, things get a tad tricky. Christopher says, “Then the police arrived. I like the police.” The first sentence is in the past tense: Christopher uses “arrived” and not “arrive.” The second sentence then switches to the present tense, with Christopher using “like” and not “liked.” Yet Christopher manages to keeps things clear with short sentences.

Indeed, Haddon’s novel provides a solid blueprint for beginning writers seeking to understand how to best move between the past and the present, as well as the past and present tense. Basically, try and keep the sentences small and the chapters tight and organized. As a writer begins to get a firmer grasp on tenses and time periods, their sentences and chapters can gradually expand.

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Explain how to move between past and present tense. Which authors do this well?

The literary technique you're describing here is called the historical present. Sometimes the author of a work of fiction (or even some nonfiction texts like biographies, autobiographies, or histories) will talk about a past event as if it were occurring in the present and will use a set of present tense verbs to do so. This technique is often for emphasis. The author wants to involve the reader intimately in the story and make the reader feel as if they are directly experiencing it.

If you want to incorporate this historical present into your writing, the first thing to remember is to use it sparingly. This technique is for emphasis, so it should be used mostly in especially important scenes that you want the reader to experience almost first hand. You might use it at the very beginning of a story, for instance, as you are introducing your plot and conflict, for it draws the reader in and increases interest. But after that first scene, switch back to the regular past as you develop your plot.

Another good place for the historical present is at the climax of your story. Again, select one scene in which to use it in order to place your readers directly into that scene. It is, after all, the high point of the action, the place toward which the whole plot has been moving. Extra emphasis would be appropriate.

You might also use the historical present for a flashback scene to differentiate it from the surrounding scenes and make it stand out. Then switch back to the regular past tense as you return to the regular storyline.

There are quite a few authors who successfully use the historical present. Charles Dickens uses it in Bleak House and David Copperfield, as does Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre. Margaret Atwood goes even further with her use of the historical present and writes her entire novel The Handmaid's Tale in it.

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