By far, this is the shortest section of my in depth look at narrative mode. It is part of what we all think of when asked about the nature of our story narrator. This is the narrative tense (sometimes called narrative time) of the story. Depending on whether events happened in the past, are happening in the present or will happen some time from now, the grammatical tense shifts.
If you do much reading, and you really should be doing a lot of it, you will probably recognize this as the single most common form of narrative tense. Whatever is happening in the story, it happened before this moment. Maybe it was only a few minutes ago, maybe centuries. Regardless of which it is, the words used all fall into a sense of already having happened. Pretty strait forward and most of us have no trouble staying in the right wordings with this. After all, when most of what you read is written in this tense, it is second nature to write in that tense as well.
This is where things get sticky. Everything that is happening in the story is happening right now. Several things become problematical as a writer here. First and foremost is that a single slip of tense can pull someone out of the story instantly. You’ll have to go over things with a fine toothed comb. Second is that it is very easy to get caught up in the minutia of events. With everything happening ‘right now’, many writers feel compelled to talk about all of the trivial things happening at any given moment.
It is sometimes called the historical present and is most often found in the sorts of narratives that are conversational. The narrator is telling us what is going on in the moment, or if the tense is second person, then we are learning it as we see it. It comes up very commonly in second person works.
When is the last time you read a story that hasn’t happened yet? I mean really. Yeah, me either. Still, it does happen. This is where our narrator has knowledge, or at least the expectation of future events before they happen. Such stories often come in the form of prophesy. If you do see this, more often than not it is a short story or a small section of a larger narrative.
As mentioned under present tense, this most often happens by accident. That said, there are times when it is done with intent. Future tense, as mentioned before, will appear within a story as part of a prophesy or portent. Present tense may start a book or chapters as our narrator talks about things right now before shifting into past tense. The narrator might also spend the story in past tense, but occasionally reference to something they feel or believe being in the present tense.
It can be used effectively, but only if you do so with forethought. Switching tense can pull someone out of your story in a very jarring manner if it happens without warning or obvious reason. If done right, either they won’t think about it at all or they will be drawn deeper into the story because of it. It is certainly something to keep in mind while writing. Personally, I am still trying to wrap my head around the idea of a story set in second person, but future tense. It would be quite surreal I imagine. Good luck in your writing and hopefully this has been helpful to you.