Time and Tense in Stories

The last three books I read with the tenses used, any shifts or inconsistencies, how the tense interacts with events, and any other devices used by the writer to convey the period when the action takes place:

  • The Hothouse by the East River – Muriel Spark
    There are two time periods: an undefined present day and 1944. Past simple is used for the present and a combination of past perfect and past continuous used for the past. There are inconsistencies in the story due to the nature of the people in it, but none in the tenses used. The story shifts quite frequently to the past and this is usually indicated by using ‘1944’, ‘compound’ or other components of the past as tags. The same characters inhabit the past and future and so these cannot be used as devices to indicate when the action takes place, so this is why tags are used.
  • NW – Zadie Smith
    The story follows the lives of several close friends, acquaintances and family members and ranges freely over the present and the past. Various forms of the past tense are used to indicate when the events take place. The device used to separate past and present is that they are presented in their own separate and distinct sections. In this way, it is always clear when we are in the story. There is some slight overlapping of events when we reach the present, but this is overcome by describing the same event from the different points of view, thus putting a pin on the temporal map.
  • Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    This book in set in two time periods: early 1960s and late 1960’s. I can see why the author split the book and the effect it has, but she could have made more use of the split. As it is, it seemed to have only a minimal effect on the way this reader experienced the book and thought about the events. Because the book is narrated and therefore remembered from the date of publishing (2007), the whole of everything in the book is set in the past, and so past tense is used. Once we are within a time-period, there is little if anything to take us out of it. Maybe a fleeting memory or a reference to something that happened in the past. Most references are to what was happening elsewhere rather than else when. The book is based on real events in Nigeria and so references to these as historical events indicate when they took place.

Yeah, I know – this is serious and sometimes boring stuff to read. I’m doing a Masters in Creative Writing and these are the exercises. This one is designed to make me more aware of how the books I read are constructed and what the author’s intentions are in constructing them in this way. This and other exercises will make me into a better writer; one that is more aware of how I use tense and other elements of my narratives. Hurrah!


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