Cutting to Present in a Past Tense Story

21Mar12

The rules of timekeeping are supposed to be simple in fiction.

Choose a tense when you start writing, and stick to that tense throughout — whether it’s past, present, or (god help us) future.

Sometimes, though, cutting to the present tense in your past tense story can create some unusual & noteworthy effects.Today at SpecTechnique we’re going to look at just a few of them.

The classic example is the so-called ‘historical present,’ which we use in speech every day.

Watch how naturally the shift occurs (I’ve bolded all verbs:)

 It all started when I went to the racetrack last Sunday. The big race had just begun, and I’m standing there cheering and shouting, see — and all of a sudden this forty-something woman with a big blue wig who looks like she means business walks up to me and hands me an envelope.

And inside the envelope is a sheet of paper with just one word, RUN.

Another traditional way to use the Cut to Present is to present exposition of facts that aren’t only true in the story’s milieu, but are more or less permanently true.

Here’s the technique as used in Hideyuki Kikuchi’s first Vampire Hunter D novel. Note how the tense shifts back and forth!

 The cells in his sinus cavity — the olfactory nerves that make the sense of smell possible — were dealt a devastating blow by the allicin that gives garlic its distinctive aroma.

Or as Gully Foyle tries to start a fire in space in The Stars My Destination. (Love those short Bester paragraphs!)

He tried matches.

Matches will not burn in the vacuum of space.

He tried flint and steel.

Sparks will not glow in the absolute zero of space.

In M. John Harrison’s Light, the technique is used for the delivery of philosophical claims that aren’t limited to the present moment.

(Note that this passage happens immediately after a flashback ends:)

Kearney stared around him, uncertain for a moment where he was. Light will transform anything: a plastic drinking glass full of mineral water, the hairs on the back of your hand, the wing of an airliner thirty thousand feet above the Atlantic. All these things can be redeemed and become for a time essentially themselves. The cabin crew had begun to run up and down the aisles, emptying the seatback trays. Shortly afterwards the engines began to throttle up and then down again, as the aircraft banked and slipped down into the cloud. Vapour roiled in the wingtip turbulence, then the runway was visible, and the illuminated day transformed itself suddenly into the wet, windswept spaces of London Heathrow.

See how the latter half of the paragraph shows the ‘eternal’ claim of the first half in action?

Now let’s look at some more unusual uses of this device.

Mary Gentle for the win

Let’s turn to Mary Gentle’s (fucking amazing) Rats and Gargoyles, which is written in past for the most part but occasionally breaks from it. Gentle sometimes uses a Cut to Present as a scene starter, perhaps to create a sense of scenic timelessness that is then broken by action. You could call this a kind of “establishing shot,” I guess?

 A distant clock chimes.

Blazing white light reflected from pale gravel and a pale sky.

Zar-bettu-zekigal sprawled on the fountain’s marble rim, knees and black dress spread apart, nostrils flaring to smell the day’s heat.

[From here, the scene continues in past tense]

Also, Gentle uses the move as a scene ender, to heighten tension and showcase the extraordinary:

 A great intake of breath sounded around him, a simultaneous sound from the thousands gathered. Like wind across a cornfield, faces tipped up to the sky, ignoring the building-site and the foundation stone. Lucas raised his head, the corners of his vision filling with yellow dazzles.

Brilliant blackness stabbed his vision. Ringed with a corona of black flames, a black sun hung at the apex of the sky.

All the sky from arch to horizon glows yellow as ancient parchment. The twelfth chime of noon dies. Transmuted, transformed, in a fire of darkness: the Night Sun shines.

it's on

I think this technique can create a kind of naturalistic effect, a momentary pause from the action so the environment can seep into the scene. Maybe the effect on the viewer is similar to that of what Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, calls the aspect-to-aspect transition

I’ve also seen the Cut to Present used subtly & briefly to introduce a magical effect.

He blinked. There was a sudden breath of chill on him and his eyes were blurring — no, no, it was the ship that wavered, ship and men fading — he clutched at Chryseis. She laughed softly and slipped an arm around his waist.

“It is only Shorzon’s spell,” she said. “It affects us too, to some extent. And it makes the ship invisible to anyone within seeing range.”

Ghost ship, ghost crew, slipping over the slowly heaving waters. There was only the foggiest outline to be seen, shadow of mast and rigging against the sky, glimpses of water through the gray smoke of the hull, blobs of darkness that were the crewmen…

I’ve taken this example from Poul Anderson‘s novella “Demon Journey,” which I found in the very retro, very sexist, very derivative, very fun 1970 anthology Swords Against Tomorrow. (Robert Hoskins, ed.)

Because it creates a subtle effect of time distortion, the Cut to Present can also be used to signal that a flashback is approaching. Watch how M John Harrison (god, I’m really leaning on this guy for examples) does this in his gnostic horror novel The Course of the Heart.

Here the Cut to Present takes us out of the current scene — or maybe on the contrary deeper into the current scene — signaling, in any case, that the current order of things has been interrupted and that the story is now going in a different direction:

She watched the steam rising from her coffee cup, first slowly and then with a rapid plaiting motion as it was caught by some tiny draught. Eddies form and break on the surface of a deep, smooth river. A slow coil, a sudden whirl. What was tranquil is revealed as a mass of complications that can be resolved only as motion.

I remembered when I had first met her:

She was twenty then, a small, excitable, attractive girl…

I also found an interesting instance of the Cut to Present— too long to quote at length, unfortunately — in John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy.

Without summarizing the plot, near the midpoint of the story, there’s a critical meeting where George Smiley & company synthesize the evidence and come to a conclusion that will drive the rest of the story.

Le Carre relates the whole scene in present tense, an exception in his mostly past-tense novel.

Why?

even better in this role than Gary Oldman

Maybe le Carré does this because what we read in the past tense is we perceive as “already finished.” The fact that it’s happened and we’re able to hear about it now creates a sense of completion and safety.

We sense this on a very basic level — for the same reason that we know a first-person story told in the past tense probably won’t end with the death of the POV character. (Otherwise the end of the story would have to bust out some serious gymnastics to convey how we’re getting the story “NOW.”)

So if you buy this theory of mine — and it is only a theory — I think the reason Le Carre wrote the turning point of The Honourable Schoolboy in the present tense was to deprive his readers of that sense of safety you get reading a past-tense tale.For a few critical moments at MI6, nobody in the crew knows what’ll happen next. By means of an extended Cut to Present, Le Carre reproduces that unease in the formal structure of his story.

If you’re a beginning writer who hasn’t mastered the basics of tense control, work on that first. It’s pointless trying to use this technique if you can’t stop yourself from doing it by accident.

But once you’ve gotten to the point as a writer where you no longer have trouble keeping tense consistent, push yourself by trying out the Cut to Present.

See you tomorrow at SpecTechnique!

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5 Responses to “Cutting to Present in a Past Tense Story”

  1. I wonder: is there a general rule or consistency here, when/how to use tense shift? It seems like M. John uses it consistently to make “timeless” statements, philosophical observations. But I can’t figure out how/why Gentle uses it, other than it comes off naturally. Is the lesson here really: only use it if you’re a badass like Gentle?

    • 2 nicktramdack

      Gentle makes it work and I that proves it’s possible. But I think the lesson (if there is one) is really just, try a lot of different ways and see what works for you and yr beloved beta readers. (I think doing it for beginnings & endings might be safe for the most part.)

  2. I wonder: is there a general rule or consistency here, when/how to use tense shift? It seems like M. John uses it consistently to make “timeless” statements, philosophical observations. But I can’t figure out how/why Gentle uses it, other than it comes off naturally. Is the lesson here really: only use it if you’re a badass like Gentle?

  3. 4 Matt

    what page was the Hounorable Schoolboy quote?

    • I’m afraid I was working off a library book and cannot confirm but my notes say it was 303-312. This would’ve been an older hardback edition. Hope it helps!



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