It’s becoming more common, especially in Young Adult fiction, to see present tense used instead of the more traditional past tense. Present tense allows any use of past tense to be the actual past, making flashbacks very clear. (Along with its immediacy, this is one of the benefits of present tense.) But present tense can also be used, for effect, in a work that is primarily past tense.

I recently read a novel, Villette, which used this effect so smoothly that I barely noticed the transitions. It was written by Charlotte Brontë, whose best known work is probably Jane Eyre, and, like most books written in the 19th century, the prose is predominantly past tense. Here is an example of the standard prose from the protagonist’s first night in Madame Beck’s house.

“After the ‘prière du soir,’ Madame herself came to have another look at me. She desired me to follow her upstairs. Through a series of the queerest little dormitories—which, I heard afterwards, had once been nuns’ cells: for the premises were in part of ancient date—and through the oratory—a long, low, gloomy room, where a crucifix hung, pale, against the wall, and two tapers kept dim vigils—she conducted me to an apartment where three children were asleep in three tiny beds. A heated stove made the air of this room oppressive; and, to mend matters, it was scented with an odour rather strong than delicate: a perfume, indeed, altogether surprising and unexpected under the circumstances, being like the combination of smoke with some spirituous essence—a smell, in short, of whisky.

Beside a table, on which flared the remnant of a candle guttering to waste in the socket, a course woman, heterogeneously clad in a broad striped showy silk dress, and a stuff apron, sat in a chair fast asleep. To complete the picture, and leave no doubt as to the state of matters, a bottle and an empty glass stood at the sleeping beauty’s elbow.”

It is all past tense, pure and simple, which is essential, because Lucy Snowe, the narrator, is unreliable. She tells us the story in a filtered fashion, picking her details and leaving some out until chapters later, so the past tense choice makes sense. She is retelling the story to us, long after it happened, and we are not privy to the moment. There is no immediacy; if there were, we should have greater access to what is really going on.

But during the climax, when Lucy is suffering from Madame Beck’s intrigues, having been drugged with opium to prevent her from meeting someone (I won’t spoil the plot), we switch to present tense. We have complete access to how she feels, in those moments of despair when she feels her friend is gone from her forever, and the transition is beautifully done.

“The great classe-doors are close shut: they are bolted. On the other hand, the entrance to the corridor stands open. The classes seem to my thought, great dreary jails, buried far back beyond throroughfares, and for me, filled with spectral and intolerable Memories, laid miserable amongst their straw and their manacles. The corridor offers a cheerful vista, leading to the high vestibule which opens direct upon the street.

Hush!—the clock strikes. Ghostly deep as is the stillness of this convent, it is only eleven. While my ear follows to silence the hum of the last stroke, I catch faintly from the built-out capital, a sound like bells or like a band—a sound where sweetness, where victory, where mourning blend. Oh, to approach this music nearer, to listen to it alone by the rushy basin! Let me go—oh, let me go! What hinders, what does not aid freedom?

There, in the corridor, hangs my garden-costume, my large hat, my shawl. There is no lock on the huge, heavy, porte-cochére; there is no key to seek: it fastens with a sort of spring bolt, not to be opened from the outside, but which, from within, may be noiselessly withdrawn. Can I manage it? It yields to my hand, yields with propitious facility. I wonder as that portal seems almost spontaneously to unclose—I wonder as I cross the threshold and step on the paved street, wonder at the strange ease with which this prison has been forced.”

Lucy still gives us lots of sensory details, particularly of sight, and she still uses highly descriptive metaphors for what she encounters. The only thing that changes is the tense, moving us from past to present, and it serves to increase the tension for us, as readers. Suddenly, we are with her in that moment, wondering if she can get out, wondering if there is yet any hope for her. Her struggle becomes ours, and we relive her past with her.

It’s very effective, I think, because it was used so sparingly. After a few more paragraphs, we return to the past tense, and there we stay until another excited moment occurs, when Lucy again draws back the curtain and lets us inhabit her memories with her.

Use of this effective tool seems rare; most authors approach the subject as an “either/or” quandary: we must either choose present tense to begin with or abandon its immediacy and urgency, locking ourselves into past tense for the entire work. But, as shown from Villette, both can be used in a predominantly past tense work, and the dash of present tense can strengthen the overall narration, adding extra zest to the story.

Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by hotblack, Creative Commons

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