Tense Narration: Future

A series looking at the choice of tense, and how it affects first, second and third-person narration. This essay covers future tense.

Image Credit: 
Epytome / Used With Permission

Follows: Present Narration

Future tense is a way of delivering a story that is yet to occur; the narrator, whether first, second, or third-person, is offering a tale before it happens. It is fairly uncommon in fiction, as it feels speculative to the reader and is difficult to write in effectively, and so tends to be used for sections, extracts, or dialogue, rather than an entire narrative. There have been a small selection of books written in the future tense, but often they are not as commercially successful as past or present.

First-Person

The immediacy and intimacy of first-person lends future tense a wistful quality that can lead to what-if? thoughts and mental exploration of potential futures. This is an interesting and often disregarded way of further developing a character, allowing the narrator to plan and foresee, instead of simply reacting to the present or considering the past.

The telephonist will ask what about and cut off my reply then come back and say hold on and I’ll hold on but what to, then I’ll have to repeat what about anyway when I’ll get through to the wrong man, creating a false opposition as to the rightness of the right one and a false impression of relief when I finally get to him.

Amelgamemnon by Christine Brooke-Rose

Brooke-Rose uses future tense throughout this novel and by doing so creates a sense of uncertainty as to what is happening, capitalising on her own unreliable narrator. The opinions and hypothetical soliloquies, combined with projected events and potential outcomes, create a stream-of-consciousness that is, in effect, an evaluation of how things may turn out. This is a delicate balance to maintain and, through a thought-like style of prose, Brooke-Rose delivers an intriguing character study.

Second-Person

Writing in second-person is a challenge in itself, so adding future tense to it can make it appear, at least initially, to be an absolute impossibility. For some inexplicable reason, however, the two work quite well together. Whilst it could be regarded as a gimmick, future tense second-person allows the reader to potentially experience what the writer wishes, as they become a surrogate for the character in question and their as-yet-incomplete next steps; it will resonate with you in a way that other writing could not.

The advertisement should have two more words, in bigger, blacker type: Felipe Montero. Wanted, Felipe Montero, formerly on scholarship at the Sorbonne, historian full of useless facts, accustomed to digging among yellowed documents, part-time teacher in private schools, nine hundred pesos a month. But if you read that, you’d be suspicious, and take it as a joke. “Address, Donceles 815.” No telephone. Come in person.

Aura by Carlos Fuentes, translated by Lysander Kemp

By inviting the reader to become part of the story and play the role of protagonist, Fuentes begins to weave a complex web that begins here, as the reader’s character – Felipe Montero – notices an advertisement that is taken as a personal instruction. The increased immediacy and empathy that second-person perspective brings, along with the subtle future tense, creates a more speculative story than is usual, allowing the reader to imaging becoming part of it and what they might do, rather than what they are doing. Interestingly, the English translation loses a lot of the future tense elements (as there is a definitive future tense in Spanish, whilst English only possesses present continuous with future projection), and so does not read as dreamlike as the original text.

Third-Person

With the obvious benefit of third-person being distance from the characters, the drawback for future tense is it becomes obvious what the writer is aiming for and therefore the narrative voice is broken as the reader loses their suspension of disbelief. Instead, authors often employ future tense in dialogue and conversation, or even inner monologue through third-person limited, allowing for the foresight and premonition that future tense allows, yet not limiting the narrative to entirely hypothetical.

‘Ah! my dear,’ said the admiral, ‘when he has got a wife, he will sing a different tune. When he is married, if we have the good luck to live to another way, we shall see him do as you and I, and a great many others have done. We shall have him very thankful to any body that will bring him his wife.’

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Although Persuasion is written in past tense, a large portion of the dialogue is in future tense, and explores first, second and third-person points of view. As such, there is a constant sense of impending tension, as the conversations are influencing the future decisions the characters are yet to make. Whilst the narrative voice outside of dialogue is relatively passive, Austen uses the characters to pre-empt the reader’s assumptions as to what will happen later in the story whilst sometimes driving the narrative in a different direction, creating conflict through speech.

 

Future tense brings a potential to the narrative, rather than the definite experienced in past and present. It is more surreal, in a way, and encourages speculation. Whilst being an interesting exercise to test your writing ability, it is not the most practical choice for the everyday tale, and is difficult to master. Like past and present, it has its place, and should be consistent and correct if used.

Tense is an integral part of the story being told, and how it is used can alter the very fabric of what is being written. By choosing a different tense, a narrator’s voice can take on a whole different feel, and so the right tense must be adopted from the outset.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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