Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Narrative tenses

A writer friend was describing her dilemma last night of trying to decide whether to tell her memoir stories in narrative past or narrative present. And it's an interesting problem. If you're writing memoir or fiction, or even non-fiction that makes use of narrative in story examples, it's a good thing to contemplate.

Compare these two examples:

When she walks in, I'm sitting alone in the apartment. Fred has just left. Our argument hangs in the air like beach fog and I wonder if she notices.

Narrative present creates an immediacy of action, drawing the reader into the scene more easily than the past tense.

When she walked in, I was sitting alone in the apartment. Fred had just left. Our argument hung in the air like beach fog and I wondered if she noticed.

 However, narrative present is hard to sustain and can become rather corny and inauthentic. Most longer writings (more than a scene) are best served by the narrative past.

When I wrote my memoir, I used the narrative present for very specific, dramatic scenes but I used narrtive past for the bulk of my story telling. This can be fun to experiment with for both fiction and non-fiction purposes to see the effects.

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