Tense Narration: Past

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

Image Credit: 
Epytome / Used With Permission

When deciding a narrative voice, a key element to consider is what tense you will write in. Has the story already happened? Is it happening now? Is it going to happen in the future? The choice of tense, and how it is used, can dramatically change the dynamic of what is being written, and so it must be suitable for the story.

Past tense is a way of delivering a story that has already occurred; the narrator, whether first, second, or third-person, is recounting a tale. It is the most popular tense for fiction, as it follows the natural tendency of retelling a story.

First-Person

With first-person perspective, past tense narration becomes a character literally telling their story. They share whatever details and insights they deem necessary whilst propelling the tale forward, as it appeared from their personal point of view. As such, it can be an immersive and natural way of delivering a story.

I waited, expecting more banter, more indignation, maybe another shot across the bow, but that was all she said. I decided that getting more out of her on the case was a lost cause. I changed the subject.

The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

Here Connelly uses the voice of his narrator – a lawyer – to almost coldly comment on the facts, whilst also imparting subtle opinions and almost subconscious judgements on the situation. The balance of objective observation – as per the character’s profession, which has shaped his worldview and attitude – and personal insight is well-maintained, showing a lot more about the narrator as he tells his story in an almost witness-statement-like fashion.

Second-Person

By telling a story that has happened using second-person, the temptation for the reader to argue with the character’s choices is lowered as these are facts: this has happened, you can’t change it, you must accept it and move on. It makes for a more personal tale, but – as with all second-person stories – it is limiting on the amount of complex character depth you can impart upon the reader without them rebelling against it.

It was always you. When you gathered nuts in the forest with the other coltish boys, I liked your smiles and jokes the best. I swelled with pride when your slingshot brought down a big tom-turkey.

All the Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry

By combining first and second-person, Berry puts the reader into the story with the narrator, and both become surrogates for characters. The intimacy this creates is immediate and unsettling, thrusting the audience into the tale almost against their will, especially as these are past events that have already taken place, leaving the reader wondering how they fit with the narrator and what happened to make this story worth being shared.

Third-Person

Third-person past is the staple of storytelling. Something happened to someone and now it is being explained. No matter the setting, time-period, scope of characters, or style of narration, third-person past will always be comfortable to read as it is a natural way of both delivering and receiving a story, and therefore is most accepted by all parties.

Standing at the door, Stephen glanced down to his left at the neat row of green wellies by the doorman, arranged in descending order of size, and tried not to feel like a salesman.

The Understudy by David Nicholls

This extract demonstrates the use of character and narrative voice in a third-person scene, as it is Stephen making those observations, not the narrator. The style it is written in is clear and unique, yet Nicholls deceptively projects the characters onto the narrator (or, perhaps, the other way round) and the narration is hidden in the tale.

 

Past tense reaffirms the reader that they are catching up on what has already taken place, whether that is something they are watching unfold, or they are told the tale by the central character, or even if they are themselves part of the story. It is a natural way to tell stories and remains incredibly popular with writers.

 

Next: Present Narration

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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