Writing Narration In the Past Tense
Past tense is a way of delivering a story that has already occurred; the narrator, whether first, second, or third-person, is recounting a tale. It is the most popular tense for fiction as it follows the natural tendency of retelling a story.
There are four types of past tense: past simple, past continuous, past perfect, and past perfect continuous.
Past simple tense means describing actions being undertaken in the past: I listened. You tried not to daydream. The children sang. Practice went on for hours.
Past continuous tense means describing actions during their undertaking in the past: I was listening. You were trying not to daydream. The children were singing. Practice was going on for hours.
Past perfect tense means describing actions after their undertaking in the past: I had listened. You had tried not to daydream. The children had sung. Practice had gone on for hours.
Past perfect continuous tense means describing actions that were undertaken after their undertaking in the past: I had been listening. You had been trying not to daydream. The children had been singing. Practice had been going on for hours.
Past Tense from a First-Person Perspective
With first-person perspective, past tense narration becomes a character literally telling their story. They share whatever details and insights they deem necessary whilst propelling the tale forward, as it appeared from their personal point of view. As such, it can be an immersive and natural way of delivering a story.
I waited, expecting more banter, more indignation, maybe another shot across the bow, but that was all she said. I decided that getting more out of her on the case was a lost cause. I changed the subject.Michael Connelly, The Lincoln Lawyer
Here Connelly uses the voice of his narrator—a lawyer—to almost coldly comment on the facts, whilst also imparting subtle opinions and almost subconscious judgements on the situation. The balance of objective observation—as per the character’s profession, which has shaped his worldview and attitude—and personal insight is well-maintained, showing a lot more about the narrator as he tells his story in an almost witness-statement-like fashion.
Past Tense from a Second-Person Perspective
By telling a story that has happened using second-person, the temptation for the reader to argue with the character’s choices is lowered as these are facts: this has happened, you can’t change it, you must accept it and move on. It makes for a more personal tale, but—as with all second-person stories—it is limiting on the amount of complex character depth you can impart upon the reader without them rebelling against it.
It was always you. When you gathered nuts in the forest with the other coltish boys, I liked your smiles and jokes the best. I swelled with pride when your slingshot brought down a big tom-turkey.Julie Berry, All the Truth That’s In Me
By combining first and second-person, Berry puts the reader into the story with the narrator, and both become surrogates for characters. The intimacy this creates is immediate and unsettling, thrusting the audience into the tale almost against their will, especially as these are past events that have already taken place, leaving the reader wondering how they fit with the narrator and what happened to make this story worth being shared.
Past Tense from a Third-Person Perspective
Third-person past is the staple of storytelling. Something happened to someone and now it is being explained. No matter the setting, time-period, scope of characters, or style of narration, third-person past will always be comfortable to read as it is a natural way of both delivering and receiving a story, and therefore is most accepted by all parties.
Standing at the door, Stephen glanced down to his left at the neat row of green wellies by the doorman, arranged in descending order of size, and tried not to feel like a salesman.David Nicholls, The Understudy
This extract demonstrates the use of character and narrative voice in a third-person scene, as it is Stephen making those observations, not the narrator. The style it is written in is clear and unique, yet Nicholls deceptively projects the characters onto the narrator (or, perhaps, the other way round) and the narration is hidden in the tale.
Narration In the Past Tense
Narratives written in past tense have already happened, so whoever the narrator is, they will be recalling the past. The most important aspect of writing in past tense is to ensure the narration remains as a recollection, and not a commentary on current or future events. This can create a feeling of distance from the story, in that events have already happened, however it can also build tension as it implies an inevitability which characters can try to escape.
Past tense reaffirms the reader that they are catching up on what has already taken place, whether that is something they are watching unfold, or they are told the tale by the central character, or even if they are themselves part of the story. It is a natural way to tell stories and remains incredibly popular with writers.