Tense in narrative

In this resource we will practise using tense consistently and think about the effect of using past tense versus present tense in a story.

Goals

Lesson Plan

Background

Writers sometimes choose to tell a story in the past tense and sometimes in the present tense. You might see either of these:

Whichever is chosen, it is important to be consistent in the use of tense. Notice that the first example all the verbs have past tense, while in the second example all the verbs have present tense.

It wouldn’t work if we mixed up the tenses in this story:

In the first example we have a change from past to present tense, and in the second example a change from present to past tense. This is confusing and incorrect, because we don’t want to change from one time to another at this point. We want the story to continue in the same timeframe.

Of course, we can change the tense when we do intend to show a shift in time frame, e.g. I love the jumper you made for me. Here we have love (present tense) and made (past tense). This is correct, because it refers to a present-time state (I now love the jumper) and a past-time completed action (you made it for me before now).

Change of tense is only a problem when we lose track of the tense we are using and accidentally change to another tense without meaning to change the timeframe.

Activity 1: Tense consistency

Ask students to look at the short passages on the first slide. For each one, ask them to identify where the tense changes incorrectly, and then write a correct version which continues with the tense used at the start of the passage. When they finish, they can check their answers on the following slide.

Activity 2: Past to present

Ask students to read the extract on the slide, which uses past tense narration. They should rewrite the extract, changing to present tense narration throughout. Their version should read:

The dread comes from nowhere. Without warning, my flesh begins to crawl. I feel the hairs on my scalp prickle and rise. I can't see anything except the bear post and its cairn of stones, but my body braces itself. It knows.

Ask students to compare the two versions and answer the questions on the slide.

Activity 3: Present to past

Now ask students to reverse the process. They should read the extract on the slide, which uses present tense narration, and rewrite it using past tense narration. Their version should read:

Panting, I fought my way out of the sleeping bag. The torch slipped from my fingers and blinked out. Whimpering, I fell to my knees and groped for it. I couldn't find it. Couldn't see my hands in front of my face.

Again, ask students to compare the two versions and answer the question on the slide.

Discussion topics

In written stories, past tense narration is more traditional and has been used more frequently than present tense narration. However, present tense narration has become much more common in recent decades. It has been used by some prominent novelists, for instance by Hilary Mantel in her prize-winning novel Wolf Hall.

There are different opinions about present tense narration. Some dislike it in writing because it is associated with informal spoken use such as in joke-telling: ‘A man walks into a bar and says to the bartender ...’. Others like it because they feel it makes the writing vivid.

Some writers feel that present tense narration is being overused. For example, Philip Pullman has described it as a ‘wretched fad’ and a ‘silly affectation’. Another writer, Philip Hensher, has commented that ‘What was once a rare, interesting effect is starting to become utterly conventional.’

What do you think? Look at a few passages in books that you like. What tense has each author chosen to use? What do you think of their choice for the particular story they are telling?

Extension activity

Summaries of plots of films, plays or novels are conventionally written in the present tense (for example, in reviews). Try your hand at this:

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Tense in narrative: Activity 1

Activity 1: Tense consistency

Look at the following short passages. For each one, identify where the tense changes incorrectly, and then write a correct version which continues with the tense used at the start of the passage.

  1. Thousands of heads turned to stare at Mark. Everyone was waiting for his answer. His palms are sweaty and his heart is thumping. He opens his mouth but can't get a word out.
  2. The sun is low in the sky and the shadows are long. A chill breeze is blowing. The children shivered in their light clothes. They were a long way from home.
  3. Nina jumped off the bus and ran all the way to Kate’s house. When she gets there, Kate is waiting for her in the garden. They both start to talk at once.

Answers

This passage starts in the past tense, with turned (a simple past) and was waiting (a past progressive). Then it suddenly changes to present tense with are and continues in the present tense:

The corrected version of the passage should read as follows:

Notice that, in a sentence that has tense with more than one verb, it is always the first verb that is marked for tense. For example, we can have was thumping (past progressive) or is thumping (present progressive). The change of tense is marked on the first verb (was/is).

Here are the corrected versions of the second and third examples:

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Tense in narrative: Activity 2

Activity 2: Past to present

The following extract uses past tense narration. Rewrite the extract, changing to present tense narration throughout. Take care to be consistent.

The dread came from nowhere. Without warning, my flesh began to crawl. I felt the hairs on my scalp prickle and rise. I couldn't see anything except the bear post and its cairn of stones, but my body braced itself. It knew.

Compare the two versions. Does changing the tense make a difference to the way the story comes across? Which version do you prefer, and why?

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Tense in narrative: Activity 3

Activity 3: Present to past

Now try reversing the process. This extract uses present tense narration, so rewrite it using past tense narration.

Panting, I fight my way out of the sleeping bag. The torch slips from my fingers and blinks out. Whimpering, I fall to my knees and grope for it. I can't find it. Can't see my hands in front of my face.

Again, compare the two versions. Does the change of tense have an effect?

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This is a full preview of this page. You can view one page a day like this without registering. But if you wish to use it in your classroom, please register your details on Englicious (for free) and then log in!