Letters on Literary Devices 8: Back to the Present

Howdy y’all,
Just kidding. I’m not from Texas (Sorry if I offended any Texans… don’t hurt me).

Tonight I’m writing to discuss a topic that gets some folks a little bit ‘tense’ if you know what I’m sayin’. Yes, that’s right, this post is all about using tenses in fiction. Present tense, past tense, past participals, present participals, futures, perfects, the whole lot of ’em. Now I’m not going to go through all the definitions. That would be mundane. Trust me, I teach them to high school students and no one ever seems very interested.

So instead, to save us all a little boredom, we’ll just assume that everyone here knows their tenses – well, at least the two basic umbrella tenses (my term, I use it for teaching high school) used in fiction: Present and Past.

First off, most fiction is, in fact, written in past tense. There are some exceptions, of course, the most popular being the Hunger Games series. I haven’t read it personally, but it’s pretty popular I hear and written completely within the present.

Now, that’s all fine and dandy but what’s the point?

The point is this: A novel can be written in the past; a novel can be written in the present, but it is a major faux pas when an author goes back and forth.

Why though? Well, if done poorly it makes for a pretty sucky book. Seriously, if an author goes back and forth too much, their book is probably going to be hard to follow, hard to understand, and totally sucky.

However, there are some awesome authors who have gone against common wisdom and jumped from the present into the past within their fiction: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Dickens to name just three. I actually just finished a novel by Aldous Huxley last night, so I’ll throw him in with all the others transgressors.  And No, it wasn’t Brave New World. He wrote other books too, apparently. Ape and Essence was the book I finished last night and, guess what? That one’s a tense changer and a damn good book.

So, what am I saying here? Simple, I’m saying this: If they can do it, if they can change tenses within a novel, it should be possible for other people to do it as well.

So you’re probably thinking this: those are some of the best writers of all time. Of course they could do it. Those guys could do just about anything with words. Well, yea, but it wasn’t  their names alone that accomplished the feat.

The trick is this: They didn’t try to hide it. They didn’t jump from present to past between paragraphs or in the middle of one.

Fitzgerald did it using simple paragraph breaks. If you read The Great Gatsby or The Beautiful and the Damned closely, you’ll find several examples. In To Have and Have Not, Hemingway wrote whole chapters in the present. Chapter breaks make for a really clear transition. My favorite example can be found in A Tale of Two Cities. The final chapter, when Sydney Carton is described rolling out to his fate, the guillotine, Dickens makes a sudden shift to present tense, making his readers, his millions of readers feel as if they were rolling out to the guillotine too, at the same time in the present.

Another way to do it is through Framing. If you don’t know what framing is in literature, check out this old blog post: Framing a Story. In Ape and Essence the story begins in past tense. Two characters find an old movie script. They read the script. Guess what? Scripts are written in the present, so the rest of the story is written in present tense.

Well, with that in mind I tried incorporating jumps from present to past, from past to present in my recently published book (I hate when people say released) The Church Peak Hotel: Revisited. The tense jumps only occurred in two of the chapters. This specific example is from the chapter titled “The Bench Made of Green Recycled Plastic”. I actually showed the ‘seams’ on purpose in the beginning of this chapter and then let the transitions become ‘seamless’ as the chapter continued. Check out this short excerpt and let me know what you think!






from The Church Peak Hotel: Revisited
The boy was twelve. He didn’t know it, but that’s how old he was. Hanky Wilson. That was what the other boys had called him. But that was years and years ago.
The boy no longer goes by the name Hanky Wilson. He calls himself Hank to those who ask. How many years has it been? That is a question he never considers, never thinks about.

At twelve, Hank is thin, short, dirty, ugly, malnourished, and smells like shit and body odor. His skin is dark, not only because of the quantity of time he spends out in the sun, but because of the quantity of dirt that is caked to his skin.

Sitting alone within the crumbling remains of the Church Peak Hotel, Hank is nothing like the six year old Hanky Wilson, a boy ridiculed for an over-attendance to personal hygiene.

Hank can’t picture himself at six, no, he can never see himself when he reflects on his past. But that is the last age he remembers. After six there are no birthdays. After six time is still. He is alive, but time is still. It is the present, always the present.

Hank reflects. He sees images frozen in time. There is no progression. There is no cause and effect. There is no order. He sees these as things, things that he can think about, call into existence.  It’s like images but not just images. There’s emotions and some fleeting thoughts too. There is how he felt in the moment. But not always. It depends.
Here is an example:

Hank saw two boys, sometimes three; other times it was just the one. He couldn’t remember that one’s name. He tried sometimes at night when he was alone. He tried to remember that name, but all he could see was the face, a red face with freckles and angry blue eyes. “Oh, no! Hanky Wilson got a wittle dirt on his shoe,” the face said in a jeering whine. “Oh, no! Better wipe dat wittle dirt off with a hanky, Hanky Wilson!” There was always a drawn out, dramatic pause between hanky and Hanky and then extra emphasis on his last name. It was always the same words. It was always that same face.
Back to the present:

Hank’s shirt is a rag. The left sleeve is ripped at the seam. The right is still attached. His shorts are new. Well, new to him.

The crotch of his old shorts had ripped when he was climbing a rock. He hadn’t worn underwear since the first year, so one of the two men that he’d been staying with kept ribbing him for having his, “thing,” out.  “We really ought to figure out some way to get those shorts mended. Get that ‘thing’ put away.”


Well, that’s it. That’s the excerpt. Hope you liked it and please let me know what you think by commenting below!

Oh, and one other thing. All four novels in the series are still on sale for a dollar a piece. Check out these links if you’re interested:
















Eric James-Olson

About Eric James-Olson

Eric James-Olson writes novels and short stories. Currently, he's working on a coming-of-age novel set in the Panhandle of West-Virginia. Check out the "Novels by Eric James-Olson" tab above for the titles of his other books. In addition to writing, James-Olson is a high school English teacher, an amateur woodworker, and an outdoor enthusiast. He lives with his wife and daughter in West Virginia. View all posts by Eric James-Olson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: