The Uses of Past and Present Tense When Telling a Story
By Chris King, firstname.lastname@example.org
When writing or telling a story orally, we must pay particular attention to our tenses.
What do I mean by this? Several summers ago, I attended a one-week intensive storytelling session with Laura Simms. There were fifteen of us working on a story of our choice with Laura coaching, critiquing and sharing her years of storytelling experience with us. One of the areas of storytelling style that she stressed was the use of the proper tense. This might seem obvious and/or a small, nitty-gritty topic, but following her directive has made quite a difference in my storytelling. In this column, I will share her suggestions.
First and foremost, remember that you are the "storyteller."
In other words, you are relating a story that has happened. Yes, you want to bring it to life so the audience can see it. And, yes, you want to be part of the story with the storys locale pictured in you mind. But, the story has already taken place. It is not occurring as you tell it. Therefore, avoid using phrases like, "The King turns to the Princess and says …" It would be, "The King turned to the Princess and said. It is amazing how easily we can slip into using the present tense, and many beginning storytellers do just that, even though the past tense keeps us where we are supposed to be - on the outside looking in. I found that in my writing, I tended to follow the present tense trend. After an interview, I would quote the person I had interviewed, "John says that he studied at …" After the storytelling retreat, I cleaned up my writing also.
What should I do when I am speaking as a character in the story?
If you actually change your voice to take on a characters part - for example, you say something like, "The King turned to the Princess and said …" - then you would speak as if you were the King who is standing there in person, "No, I forbid you to marry that scoundrel …" Just make sure that once the character has spoken his lines, that you step back into the storytellers shoes and tell the story in the past tense. It sounds simple, yet it is so easy to slip from past into present tense, you probably dont even notice it. This is why it is a good, but sometimes painful, exercise to tape your storytelling sessions. Then, when you are alone, listen carefully to the tape to discover if you are using tenses properly. Note: You may also be surprised to discover other distracting and jarring habits you may have acquired.
What if I am telling a story in the first person?
You would still be sharing a story that happened before you appeared in front of the audience. You can vary the storys pace by saying, and I said to her, "Is that my favorite sweater you are wearing?" and then return to the past tense. It is always effective, whether or not we are telling or writing, to include dialogue. It breaks up the rhythm and adds color to the story. The trick is to remember our role at the time - are we the teller or a character in the story?
By now, I am beginning to sound like your English teacher, so I will close by saying, "Watch those tenses. They can make a big difference in your storytelling!"