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

  • Identify past tense and present tense forms.
  • Practise changing tense and using tense consistently.
  • Consider the effect of changing tense in a story.

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:

  • Tara lost her balance and slid down the rocky slope. Cursing, she picked herself up and rubbed her grazed leg.
  • Tara loses her balance and slides down the rocky slope. Cursing, she picks herself up and rubs her grazed leg.

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:

  • Tara lost her balance and slid down the rocky slope. Cursing, she picks herself up and rubs her grazed leg.
  • Tara loses her balance and slides down the rocky slope. Cursing, she picked herself up and rubbed her grazed leg.

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:

  • Write a paragraph summarising the plot of a film you have seen, using the present tense.
  • Check over what you have written to make sure you have been consistent in your use of tense.

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