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It’s such a basic part of the framework of writing that sometimes we forget how effective it can be, playing around with it. I’m talking about tense, and how varying it within a story, from past to present and vice versa, and even adding a touch of the future, can really help to increase tension/suspense, even within a short span of text, and even if we mainly stick with one tense or the other.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with examples of how writers have done this effectively, but instead of simply quoting from those, I’m going to demonstrate the tense switcheroo by starting with a classic-style opening that simply invites the classic-style past tense: Once upon a time, there was a lonely princess who’d lived by herself for years, in a castle made of iron.

Now you could simply go on with She had lost her parents at a young age and it was a long time since anyone had come to visit. OR you could ditch the past tense at that point and instead go on to say: It’s a long time since anyone has come to visit, but the princess still waits in hope that her parents might come back one day to the iron castle. And immediately there you have a little mystery, a dash of tension, a hint of suspense, just from that simple switch from past to present.

You could also do it the other way round, to make for more pathos and create a bit of backstory: Today the lonely princess waits in the iron castle, hoping for good news. Once upon a time, she was the cherished only child of her parents, but she had lost them at a young age and since then no-one had come to visit.

A touch of the future can play its part as well, like this:

Once upon a time, the lonely princess sat at her window in the iron castle, as she’d done for years since she’d lost her parents and the visitors stopped coming. Little did she know that her grim and gloomy existence was about to change and that today will be the first day of a very different life.

Each variation of tense offers a different narrative path, despite the sameness of the basic material. That’s the simple magic of tense! And it can be a lot of fun to apply that to a story, not just at the beginning, but in the middle bits where the narrative might occasionally sag, or in climactic scenes where jumping from past to present makes the action so much more immersive, more cinematic even.

Of course you don’t want to switch around all the time in a narrative, certainly not in a novel and most likely not too often in a short story. You don’t want to annoy your reader or give them story-whiplash with too many flash-backs or fast-forwards. But with a judicious use of tense, you can create not only tension but sparks of surprise at various points in your narrative.

What are your thoughts on playing around with tense? As a writer, do you use it? And as a reader, do you like it?

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About Sophie Masson

Born in Indonesia of French parents, and brought up in France and Australia, Sophie Masson is the multi-award-winning and internationally-published author of over 70 books, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, she has a PhD in creative practice and in 2019 received an AM award in the Order of Australia honours list for her services to literature.

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