While I was writing my last article—Writing in Past Tenses for the Tense-Switching Writer—I realized that there was something missing from it, and it’s this: writers don’t accidentally switch between past tenses. No, tense-switching happens between the present and the past tenses. But why is this? And can we learn something about the writing brain from it? Read on to find. out
I’m grateful for the fact that when I pick a tense to write in, I’m pretty good at sticking to it. However, when tense-switching happens for me, it’s when I’m writing something in the past tense and some present tense sneaks in. My first guess for why this happened was that the brain thinks in the present tense, and it turns out it wasn’t a bad guess. Dr. Steven Smith, a scientist engaged with explaining the human mind, makes an argument about consciousness and the present tense:
“One of the most peculiar things about the first-person viewpoint is our perception of time. We are conscious only of the present. It can never be yesterday or tomorrow; it is always now… consciousness exists only in the present tense.”
-The Inner Light Theory of Consciousness, 2002
While the brain is certainly engaged most of the time in remembering the past and anticipating the future, everything we perceive is in “present tense.” We react in real time.
Even more interesting, and something I think confirms this present tense consciousness theory, is that when I look at my own stories, they are all outlined in the present tense! This tells me the present tense is not only the easiest way to get my story out of my head, but also the most basic tense of thought. Because the present tense is rooted in perception, this tells me that outlining in present tense means I am interested in experiencing the story as my characters would. I put them into the present tense because that is the way we humans process our world.
I polled the JUVEN blogging team and it turns out that their outlines are also in present tense, regardless of what tense the story is in. This is the same for my stories even by the third draft—when I supposedly should have nailed down the past tense for that story. Here’s a snippet from that third draft outline(character names changed):
Ch.42, Harry’s house, he invites Simon over, wants to tell his feelings, because even if they can’t be together, he has to say them.
Writing in this basic way helps us boil down everything a character might be doing. Even my comments to myself about the outline are in present tense. I also feel like outlining in the present tense is useful because it helps me keep straight what I want to happen vs. what actually happens on the page. For me, the present tense is more free, and I can ramble more in it. I don’t know why this is. Maybe because the present tense feels like I'm telling myself the story? But that’s a theory for another day.
So did you learn something about outlining, present tense, or consciousness? All three?! I encourage you to check your story outlines (if you’re a plotter) and see if they’re in present tense. Tense-switching can be seen as sloppy writing, but I want you to take away from this article that when the present tense slips into your writing—when you accidentally switch tenses—you haven’t failed at consistency. Your brain is actually trying to process the story the easiest way it can.
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.
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