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The Red Pen: Timelines and tenses

Publishing Director and author Moira Forsyth is back on the blog today with the fifth in a series of blog posts featuring advice for writers. We are not currently open to unsolicited submissions, but the tips in The Red Pen blog series will help you ensure that when we do reopen in June, your book will be in the best possible shape. Find out more about our submissions window on our submissions page.

There comes a point in the writing of a novel when you must stop and do some background work. This is particularly necessary with a long time frame. If the narrative covers many years, your characters will age: they may grow up, marry, divorce, have children and die. Unless you’re writing an updated Robinson Crusoe, they are likely also to have relatives, friends, colleagues or enemies.

Do you know the exact ages of your main characters, and can you answer questions such as:

  • How old was J when he moved into the manor house?
  • Was he already married to G?
  • What was M’s age when she fell off her horse and never walked again?
  • What year did P come out of prison?

(You can easily supply your own questions here.)

Writers deal with this in different ways: I have a document saved as ‘Dates and Timelines’ where that kind of thing is worked out and recorded. I know others who have post-it notes all over the wall behind their laptop, or who create family trees and charts. The purpose of this is to prevent you making some awful blunder where B appears to have left school aged twenty-five, or Q got married when she was six. I exaggerate – but you will get the point.

It’s also wonderful displacement activity when you get stuck and can’t write a word. It feels useful!

It is useful. It’s also something you should check when you edit your work.

Logistics

For tightly plotted novels, in crime fiction for example, being clear what happens when is vital. So you should read through the whole thing again not for the beauty of the language but for the facts. Look out for this kind of thing:

  • Does the detective have time to travel from A to B in the brief hour you’ve allotted him?
  • Are your characters at the right ages, at the right time?
  • Do they behave like people at the age you’ve given them (allowing for individual personalities)?
  • How did the murderer know his victim would be alone in the house on that particular night?
  • If you’re being specific about dates, and this is intended to be realistic, have you missed any major world event which was also happening at this time and which would certainly affect your characters?
  • Is the development of a relationship believable in the timeframe you’ve set out for it?

You will be able to substitute your own questions.

Past and Present

It’s common for modern novels to switch between times, perhaps focusing on one character in the past, and another in the present, or using lengthy flashbacks to ‘fill in’ background, gradually reveal a mystery or illuminate what is happening in the present. This has its own challenges, and there are obvious pitfalls, but my concern here is editing, not the original concept.

When you come to edit a novel written in this way, check for the following:

  • Is the transition between time periods signalled clearly enough for the reader? You may, for example, have used chapter heads which indicate the date or period
  • Do NOT rely on using italics or different fonts for one period or the other. There is no guarantee the publisher will wish to adopt this when typesetting the text. Long sections in italics are off-putting and difficult to read.
  • Is there enough connection between past and present to make the reader willing to switch between them? If the scenes set in the present are much more interesting than those set in the past, and the connection is tenuous, the reader will be tempted to skip!
  • If you’ve decided to write the ‘present time’ parts in the present tense and the ‘past time’ in the past, have you been consistent throughout?

Tenses 1

Of course, you may be weaving past and present, slipping more fluidly between what is happening now and what happened in the past. This is where use of tense requires more subtle handling. Inexperienced authors are inclined to over-use the past perfect tense when referring to an incident in a character’s past, before the main narrative. This soon becomes clumsy. Convention is to indicate the step into the past by using past perfect briefly, then to move into past tense. For example:

He had seen her in the bookshop several times before he’d plucked up courage to speak to her. That day she had been wearing a red jacket and it stood out, brilliant among the dusty shelves. She had been browsing the crime and thrillers table, which he’d re-arranged only that morning. Finally, he had thought of something to say to her, but when he’d come out with it, it had sounded so awkward and stilted he’d blushed bright red.

…reads more easily like this:

He had seen her in the bookshop several times before he’d plucked up courage to speak to her. That day she was wearing a red jacket and it stood out, brilliant among the dusty shelves. She was browsing the crime and thrillers table, which he’d re-arranged only that morning. Finally, he thought of something to say to her, but when he came out with it, it sounded so awkward and stilted he blushed bright red.

The return to the present can be indicated by a line space and a new section, or simply a new paragraph, and something in the first sentence that tells the reader they’re now back with the current action.

Tenses 2

When you’re editing your finished work it’s rather late in the day to ask you why you’ve chosen to write in the past or present tense. However, it’s something you should know the answer to. The fashion for writing whole novels in the present tense has been prevalent for some years, and though I admit to disliking it myself (especially for historical fiction!) it clearly has great appeal for many writers. There are a couple of reasons I often dislike it (it’s not just prejudice!):

  • The author loses the option to use the historic present for dramatic effect
  • If the novel lacks pace, present tense can be clumsy and wearisome to read at length

In English grammar, the historic or historical present is the use of the present tense to refer to an event that took place in the past. In narratives, the historical present may be used to create an effect of immediacy. It can be used to heighten tension, intensify emotion and/or increase the drama of an incident or scene. If you use it all the time, that effect is lost, and you don’t have it as a resource. Used briefly, for a paragraph or a short scene, it can have quite an impact.

Having said that, the use of the present tense throughout a short story or for selected sections of a novel, can be immensely effective. What matters when you’re revising your work, is that you know why you have chosen the tense you are using.

It’s like everything else to do with your finished work – you’re the author and should know exactly why you’ve written it in the way you have.

There comes a point in the writing of a novel when you must stop and do some background work. This is particularly necessary with a long time frame. If the narrative covers many years, your characters will age: they may grow up, marry, divorce, have children and die. Unless you’re writing an updated Robinson Crusoe, they are likely also to have relatives, friends, colleagues or enemies.

Do you know the exact ages of your main characters, and can you answer questions such as:

  • How old was J when he moved into the manor house?
  • Was he already married to G?
  • What was M’s age when she fell off her horse and never walked again?
  • What year did P come out of prison?

(You can easily supply your own questions here.)

Writers deal with this in different ways: I have a document saved as ‘Dates and Timelines’ where that kind of thing is worked out and recorded. I know others who have post-it notes all over the wall behind their laptop, or who create family trees and charts. The purpose of this is to prevent you making some awful blunder where B appears to have left school aged twenty-five, or Q got married when she was six. I exaggerate – but you will get the point.

It’s also wonderful displacement activity when you get stuck and can’t write a word. It feels useful!

It is useful. It’s also something you should check when you edit your work.

Logistics

For tightly plotted novels, in crime fiction for example, being clear what happens when is vital. So you should read through the whole thing again not for the beauty of the language but for the facts. Look out for this kind of thing:

  • Does the detective have time to travel from A to B in the brief hour you’ve allotted him?
  • Are your characters at the right ages, at the right time?
  • Do they behave like people at the age you’ve given them (allowing for individual personalities)?
  • How did the murderer know his victim would be alone in the house on that particular night?
  • If you’re being specific about dates, and this is intended to be realistic, have you missed any major world event which was also happening at this time and which would certainly affect your characters?
  • Is the development of a relationship believable in the timeframe you’ve set out for it?

You will be able to substitute your own questions.

Past and Present

It’s common for modern novels to switch between times, perhaps focusing on one character in the past, and another in the present, or using lengthy flashbacks to ‘fill in’ background, gradually reveal a mystery or illuminate what is happening in the present. This has its own challenges, and there are obvious pitfalls, but my concern here is editing, not the original concept.

When you come to edit a novel written in this way, check for the following:

  • Is the transition between time periods signalled clearly enough for the reader? You may, for example, have used chapter heads which indicate the date or period
  • Do NOT rely on using italics or different fonts for one period or the other. There is no guarantee the publisher will wish to adopt this when typesetting the text. Long sections in italics are off-putting and difficult to read.
  • Is there enough connection between past and present to make the reader willing to switch between them? If the scenes set in the present are much more interesting than those set in the past, and the connection is tenuous, the reader will be tempted to skip!
  • If you’ve decided to write the ‘present time’ parts in the present tense and the ‘past time’ in the past, have you been consistent throughout?

Tenses 1

Of course, you may be weaving past and present, slipping more fluidly between what is happening now and what happened in the past. This is where use of tense requires more subtle handling. Inexperienced authors are inclined to over-use the past perfect tense when referring to an incident in a character’s past, before the main narrative. This soon becomes clumsy. Convention is to indicate the step into the past by using past perfect briefly, then to move into past tense. For example:

He had seen her in the bookshop several times before he’d plucked up courage to speak to her. That day she had been wearing a red jacket and it stood out, brilliant among the dusty shelves. She had been browsing the crime and thrillers table, which he’d re-arranged only that morning. Finally, he had thought of something to say to her, but when he’d come out with it, it had sounded so awkward and stilted he’d blushed bright red.

…reads more easily like this:

He had seen her in the bookshop several times before he’d plucked up courage to speak to her. That day she was wearing a red jacket and it stood out, brilliant among the dusty shelves. She was browsing the crime and thrillers table, which he’d re-arranged only that morning. Finally, he thought of something to say to her, but when he came out with it, it sounded so awkward and stilted he blushed bright red.

The return to the present can be indicated by a line space and a new section, or simply a new paragraph, and something in the first sentence that tells the reader they’re now back with the current action.

Tenses 2

When you’re editing your finished work it’s rather late in the day to ask you why you’ve chosen to write in the past or present tense. However, it’s something you should know the answer to. The fashion for writing whole novels in the present tense has been prevalent for some years, and though I admit to disliking it myself (especially for historical fiction!) it clearly has great appeal for many writers. There are a couple of reasons I often dislike it (it’s not just prejudice!):

  • The author loses the option to use the historic present for dramatic effect
  • If the novel lacks pace, present tense can be clumsy and wearisome to read at length

In English grammar, the historic or historical present is the use of the present tense to refer to an event that took place in the past. In narratives, the historical present may be used to create an effect of immediacy. It can be used to heighten tension, intensify emotion and/or increase the drama of an incident or scene. If you use it all the time, that effect is lost, and you don’t have it as a resource. Used briefly, for a paragraph or a short scene, it can have quite an impact.

Having said that, the use of the present tense throughout a short story or for selected sections of a novel, can be immensely effective. What matters when you’re revising your work, is that you know why you have chosen the tense you are using.

It’s like everything else to do with your finished work – you’re the author and should know exactly why you’ve written it in the way you have.

There comes a point in the writing of a novel when you must stop and do some background work. This is particularly necessary with a long time frame. If the narrative covers many years, your characters will age: they may grow up, marry, divorce, have children and die. Unless you’re writing an updated Robinson Crusoe, they are likely also to have relatives, friends, colleagues or enemies.

Do you know the exact ages of your main characters, and can you answer questions such as:

  • How old was J when he moved into the manor house?
  • Was he already married to G?
  • What was M’s age when she fell off her horse and never walked again?
  • What year did P come out of prison?

(You can easily supply your own questions here.)

Writers deal with this in different ways: I have a document saved as ‘Dates and Timelines’ where that kind of thing is worked out and recorded. I know others who have post-it notes all over the wall behind their laptop, or who create family trees and charts. The purpose of this is to prevent you making some awful blunder where B appears to have left school aged twenty-five, or Q got married when she was six. I exaggerate – but you will get the point.

It’s also wonderful displacement activity when you get stuck and can’t write a word. It feels useful!

It is useful. It’s also something you should check when you edit your work.

Logistics

For tightly plotted novels, in crime fiction for example, being clear what happens when is vital. So you should read through the whole thing again not for the beauty of the language but for the facts. Look out for this kind of thing:

  • Does the detective have time to travel from A to B in the brief hour you’ve allotted him?
  • Are your characters at the right ages, at the right time?
  • Do they behave like people at the age you’ve given them (allowing for individual personalities)?
  • How did the murderer know his victim would be alone in the house on that particular night?
  • If you’re being specific about dates, and this is intended to be realistic, have you missed any major world event which was also happening at this time and which would certainly affect your characters?
  • Is the development of a relationship believable in the timeframe you’ve set out for it?

You will be able to substitute your own questions.

Past and Present

It’s common for modern novels to switch between times, perhaps focusing on one character in the past, and another in the present, or using lengthy flashbacks to ‘fill in’ background, gradually reveal a mystery or illuminate what is happening in the present. This has its own challenges, and there are obvious pitfalls, but my concern here is editing, not the original concept.

When you come to edit a novel written in this way, check for the following:

  • Is the transition between time periods signalled clearly enough for the reader? You may, for example, have used chapter heads which indicate the date or period
  • Do NOT rely on using italics or different fonts for one period or the other. There is no guarantee the publisher will wish to adopt this when typesetting the text. Long sections in italics are off-putting and difficult to read.
  • Is there enough connection between past and present to make the reader willing to switch between them? If the scenes set in the present are much more interesting than those set in the past, and the connection is tenuous, the reader will be tempted to skip!
  • If you’ve decided to write the ‘present time’ parts in the present tense and the ‘past time’ in the past, have you been consistent throughout?

Tenses 1

Of course, you may be weaving past and present, slipping more fluidly between what is happening now and what happened in the past. This is where use of tense requires more subtle handling. Inexperienced authors are inclined to over-use the past perfect tense when referring to an incident in a character’s past, before the main narrative. This soon becomes clumsy. Convention is to indicate the step into the past by using past perfect briefly, then to move into past tense. For example:

He had seen her in the bookshop several times before he’d plucked up courage to speak to her. That day she had been wearing a red jacket and it stood out, brilliant among the dusty shelves. She had been browsing the crime and thrillers table, which he’d re-arranged only that morning. Finally, he had thought of something to say to her, but when he’d come out with it, it had sounded so awkward and stilted he’d blushed bright red.

…reads more easily like this:

He had seen her in the bookshop several times before he’d plucked up courage to speak to her. That day she was wearing a red jacket and it stood out, brilliant among the dusty shelves. She was browsing the crime and thrillers table, which he’d re-arranged only that morning. Finally, he thought of something to say to her, but when he came out with it, it sounded so awkward and stilted he blushed bright red.

The return to the present can be indicated by a line space and a new section, or simply a new paragraph, and something in the first sentence that tells the reader they’re now back with the current action.

Tenses 2

When you’re editing your finished work it’s rather late in the day to ask you why you’ve chosen to write in the past or present tense. However, it’s something you should know the answer to. The fashion for writing whole novels in the present tense has been prevalent for some years, and though I admit to disliking it myself (especially for historical fiction!) it clearly has great appeal for many writers. There are a couple of reasons I often dislike it (it’s not just prejudice!):

  • The author loses the option to use the historic present for dramatic effect
  • If the novel lacks pace, present tense can be clumsy and wearisome to read at length

In English grammar, the historic or historical present is the use of the present tense to refer to an event that took place in the past. In narratives, the historical present may be used to create an effect of immediacy. It can be used to heighten tension, intensify emotion and/or increase the drama of an incident or scene. If you use it all the time, that effect is lost, and you don’t have it as a resource. Used briefly, for a paragraph or a short scene, it can have quite an impact.

Having said that, the use of the present tense throughout a short story or for selected sections of a novel, can be immensely effective. What matters when you’re revising your work, is that you know why you have chosen the tense you are using.

It’s like everything else to do with your finished work – you’re the author and should know exactly why you’ve written it in the way you have.