Staying intense … well, I do that pretty well. But, staying in tense, well that’s a different story. While busily clattering on my keyboard, a scene rolling out across the screen as quickly as I can squeeze it out of my twisted brain, I have a tendency to switch from being in the here and now, to the then and what may be. I seem to do it without ever consciously flipping a switch. I am not speaking of what comes up in dialog – that follows another set of rules. I mean the background stuff that binds it all together. For instance in one place I might say “Marcus turned and handed Shelly a diamond,” (past tense) two sentences later I might say “Shelly enters the pawn shop” (present tense).
This switching comes via my penchant for being a seat of the pants writer. When I visualize a scene, it may very well have taken place in the past from my point of view. Writing it in a first draft, it comes out however it does and in truth in a first draft that doesn’t really matter. All that matters is getting the words out of my head and on the screen where I can see them. Afterwards, during the edit process, I can fix these situations. Unfortunately, my mind is so accustom to the switching, that it takes some effort to find all of them.
There is a big difference in using anything but present tense in a story. When using past tense, a writer is telling their story rather than letting the action or the characters tell it, versus in present tense the story seems to be alive and moving though actions, senses, emotions, and thoughts. Are there times when past tense is appropriate? I know that in dialog where a character is telling another character of something that occurred it is appropriate. Personally, I want to steer away from telling my story. I also want to avoid a lot of backstory (if something from the past is absolutely necessary for the overall story to be understood, the story may need to start earlier in time to encompass this information. Backstory tends to be a distraction.) Instead, I want to craft a situation in such a way that it is unfolding in the readers mind – action happens right now all around them. It matters little the actual setting of the story, whether it be Victorian England, Cleopatra’s Alexandria, Buck Rogers’ return to earth, or John Carter’s meeting a Martian Princess, to the reader the story must be a current, moving, and living thing.
I tend to associate past tense telling as what I read in high school textbooks – boring, dry, ho-hum drudgery that I forced myself to suffer through to pass tests. A person reading a story has no such requirement and will more often than not put such a book down unfinished and let it gather dust. (I am here to tell you some people do still read books made of paper, ink, and cardboard.) The only thing a reader is likely to remember is the author’s name so they can avoid them in any future purchases or selections.
Here and now is how life must be lived – one cannot healthily live in the past or wait for some future event to befall them to get on with living. Stories should reflect that in your face, right now system.
Your character is a modern day female soldier in Afghanistan who wakes after an explosion to find she is seriously behind enemy lines. Take me from this moment of waking though her escape. (Some restrictions for this exercise – (1) For the moment, the enemy thinks her dead or dying from their initial attack if they have seen her at all. (Is there someone checking bodies to ensure they are dead?) (2) The only weapon she can find is a chipped stone spear. (3) Her right leg is injured, but she can walk. (4) The only water she finds hangs from a camel in a dusty goat bladder near three soldiers who are looking the other way. (5) Keep the story in present tense.