Verb Tense and Writing Fiction

black and white photo of Jean Rhys

Verb tense is a very important tool in the writer’s toolbox. Will you write in the present simple and continuous? The past simple? Both?

Verb tense offers us the unlikely ability to time travel. This becomes particularly important when we explore shifting mental and emotional states of our characters. How authors depict human consciousness fascinates me. As a student of my own mind, I never tire of writers willing to explore this aspect of humanity.

Describing shifting mental states and movement through past and present can be challenging for writers. We must remain vigilant to the need to direct our reader’s attention to the right place (here) at the right time (now/yesterday/tomorrow).

(We need not worry after these details all the time. Sometimes we tell a story using straight past simple. And that’s okay. Really. Not everything need be intricate. Just as it’s fun to read a straight ahead simple romance, it’s also fun to write one. We need that sometimes, so go for it. But I also think it is invaluable for us to push our own comfort zones and use tools we’ve not used before.)

But what do we do when we the right place is in the past and the right time is the present? Why might we want to pursue this strategy as a writer?

Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight uses verb tenses to signal when Sasha Jensen’s fragile emotional and mental state. Sasha has been rescued by a friend from her room in London where she had been drinking herself to death and sent to Paris.

The City of Light overflows with memories. Indeed the novel begins with her Parisian room querying her:

‘Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’

That the street outside the room ends in a flight of stairs, ‘what they call an impasse,” signals to us Sasha’s emotional and spiritual state and also tells us there will be no happy ending here.

Rhys’ hops through past and present tense with precision. Some of Sasha’s experiences of people’s hypocrisy and cruelty happen in the past, even though the framing story is told in the present. An interaction with a woman at a bar shortly after her return to Paris leads Sasha to beginning sobbing, which causes the woman to scold her.

Rhys uses the past tense here, which seems natural. We know that Sasha Rhys’ conveys this by having Sasha describe the crying incident as “That was last night.”

But Rhys wants to blur distinctions between nightmare and reality. How she does this is quite something, I think.

In a brilliant passage, in which Sasha describes a past job, she tells us about this past incident in the present tense. The past is living thing in Sasha, as it is for us. We relive with Sasha the cruel treatment from her manager.

Rhys initially frames the story in the past tense.

…it was a long white-and-gold room with a dark polished floor. Sasha begins her memory/story with a description of the beautiful woman’s dress atelier where she worked for three weeks. Her job was to greet customers and convey them to the next floor. “It was dreary.” Management forbade her from reading. “I would feel as if I were drugged, sitting there, watching those damned dolls, thinking what a success they would have made of their lives if they had been women.”

(An aside: What a brilliant image, class and gender expectations given to us in such an exquisite manner -dolls versus women.)

Sasha continues to describe a particular day at work in which the London-based managing director visited the Paris shop. She relates her thought process, again in the past tense:

“what’s he like? Oh, he’s the real English type. Very nice, very, very chic, the real English type, le businessman….I thought: ‘Oh, my God, I know now what these people mean when they say the real English type,’

and here comes Rhys performing her brilliance as we shift from the past memory to a current action/memory/story that we are all (re)living:

…He arrives. Bowler-hat, majestic trousers, oh-my-God expression, ha-ha eyes – I know him at once. He comes up the steps with Salvation behind him, looking very worried. (Salvatini is the boss of our shop).”

And so we are off. Sasha’s descent is harrowing and Rhys’ writing absolutely brilliant. We as readers become ensnared in Sasha’s teetering madness, in large part because Rhys knows when to use the past and present tenses.

Jean Rhys for my money is a more interesting writer than Virginia Woolf. Rhys hailed from Dominica, and her mother was Creole. Her arrival to London’s high society taught her quickly about upper-crust British racism and classism and sexism. Unlike Woolf, who seemed unable to gain any distance between the world and her class standing, Rhys described upper-class cruelty with a keen, brutal eye.

Her most famous book is Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” told from the perspective of Mrs. Rochester, the madwoman locked in Rochester’s attic so fascinating and frightening to Jane. Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole woman from Jamaica, is betrothed and married to an unnamed English husband. As their marriage progresses the unnamed husband renames her Bertha, declares her mad, confines her to the locked attic room, where she does indeed go mad.

If you haven’t read Wide Sargasso Sea, please add it to your rotation as well as Good Morning, Midnight. Rhys needed, in the words of Diana Athill, her longtime editor at André Deutsch Limited, a nanny. Athill goes on to say in the video below that despite Rhys thorough inability to care for herself, Rhys was someone worth saving. I agree with Ms. Athill. Rhys’ writing was that important.

(This video contains a super BONUS discussion from Ms. Athill about the differences between working with nonfiction and fiction writers.)

DIY MFA: Writing Prompt, No. 2

bare lists of words are found suggestive to an imaginative and excited mind

Writing notebook time!

A very exciting interview with poet Eileen G’Sell in which she describes her process to fire up her writing. Poetry can provide infinite possibilities for both the fiction and nonfiction writer as poetry teaches us about dynamic word choices.

G’Sell shares that how words sound inspires her to keep writing:

Going back to sound, no matter the type of writing, I love calling attention to the tension or “heat” between words based on what they mean, how they’re spelled, and what they sound like. The sounds and appearance of letters can actually “cue” me to keep on writing.

A recent piece I wrote for Flavorpill, about Lana Del Rey, is one instance where this “sonic heat” presides: “The Reign of Del Rey: Lana, Longing, and Generation Z.” Of course the “Rei” and “Rey” rhyme, but the different spelling calls attention to how “Rey” is also a Spanish word, meaning “king,” such that Lana is “of the king” in terms of surname. “Lana” and “longing” are not only alliterative, but share the same trochaic beat. The third “n” in each creates an exciting tension.

She also shares three prompts she uses when she can’t write. My personal favorite is Hot Words! in which she writes two lists, one contains abstract emotions and the second, concrete objects:

2. Hot Words!

Look at your lists and combine some of the abstract emotional words with the concrete terms. You’ll need to transform some of these nouns into adjectives to pair them up (for instance, “fear” into “fearful”). After matching the abstract with the concrete, which pairs are the most surprising or have the most heat?

The phrase “fearful shoe” appeared in my journal when I wrote out this exercise. As to whether or not the shoe induces fear in others or is afraid, I cannot say. G’Sell shares that if an exercise gets weird that’s a good thing.

She also offers a series of prompts to write about an emotion or sense without using any words that relate to those emotions or senses. If you want to write about anger, you cannot use ire, rage, pissed, for example. I chose the sense of taste, specifically salty, and wrote in my journal, “The fish made me drink a gallon water.” (This exercise reminds me of Borges The Garden of Forking Paths, a parable about time [at least I think it is!] in which time is never mentioned.)

We often become dead to the energy latent in words. I know I do. Email, newsletters, 24-hour newsfeed, often composed and consumed in haste, can lack dynamism. We fall into a rut of parroting what we read.

What someone else writes, however, does not concern us. Our words are our concern and our responsibility. In the end, we can communicate with oft used phrases or make different writing choices.

I want to do more. At the very least I want to thrill myself with the very rare fantastic turn of phrase, even if it’s only once every eternity.


One Cool Trick to Shift Points of View

A man's hands are on the handlebars of a bicycle. as we look down the street from his point-of-view
photo by Will White

Shifting between different points of view requires skill. This is something of a truism in writing. There are many who try and fail. The ones who succeed make it seem like they are writing out a laundry list. Their work appears effortless. Today I want to make a case for adding Chester Himes to that small group of writing who can and do shift successfully from one point of view to another.

Chester Himes wrote a series of noir fiction novels in the 1950s and 60s. Set in Harlem Coffin Ed Jones and Gravedigger Johnson work as detectives for the New York City police department. Mordant and fatalistic Chester Himes described a world shot through with racism and classicism that neither Dashiell Hammett nor Raymond Chandler seemed to notice.

Recently I read Himes’ lesser known, All Shot Up (public library). In it Himes offers us a skillful shift from third-person close to third-person omniscient.


Himes creates a kind opening wide shot with a description of the bitter cold and then settles on a medium shot of the man he names “joker” at work, a man stealing tires from a car on Convent Avenue. He needs two tires and has managed to remove one.

“He had the inside wheel jacked up on the slanting street, making the car tilt dangerously. But he was unconcerned. He worked swiftly, without light.”

A passing car halts his efforts, a Cadillac that looks as though it’s made of solid gold. The joker sees the passengers as a result of the illuminated dash panel. What he sees disturbs him.

“The joker’s heart gave a lurch. There was something shockingly familiar about the face. But it was impossible for his own true Sassafras to be riding about in a brand-new Caddy with two strange men at this hour of the night.”

The joker then witnesses the Cadillac hit an old lady crossing the street, or so he thinks. Within moments she is up on all fours, laughing. Just when he and we think she is safe, a black Buick carrying three uniformed police officers hits her square in the bum and sends her to her doom.

Himes continues on with the use of third-person close. The joker becomes disoriented from what he has just observed. The first car wheel he removed brings him back to reality and off he goes, rolling the wheel in front of him.

Now here is where Himes shows us a nifty trick for moving from third-person close to third-person omniscient from within the scene. He doesn’t tell us, he shows us. And he shows us using the motion of the tire.

The Joker flees the scene of the murder with his single tire in front of him. He pushes it away from what has just happened but loses control of the tire as he descends down a hill. The wheel takes a huge bounce in the direction of two police officers. Here our narrator must leave, as he doesn’t want to tangle with the police.

From this point to the end of the chapter, Himes moves to third-person omniscient and uses the wheel as the point of action to weave his descriptions.

“The wheel kept on down the street and knocked the legs out from underneath the two cops, knocked down a lady coming from the supermarket with a bag full of groceries, swerved out into the street, passed through the traffic oaf 125th Street without touching a thing, bounced over the sidewalk and crashed through the street-level door of a tenement facing the start of Convent Avenue. A heavy-set, middle-aged man wearing a felt skull cap, old mended sweater, corduroy pants and felt slippers, was emerging from the back apartment when the wheel crashed into the back wall of the hallway. He gave it a look, then did a double take. He looked about quickly, and, seeing no one, grabbed it, ducked back into his apartment and locked the door. It wasn’t every day manna fell from heaven.”

From this point Himes moves into third-person omniscient. Masterful, simply masterful.

I probably would have just started the next chapter in third-person omniscient because I’m no Chester Himes. Thankfully he is a fantastic teacher, and this opening shift from third-person close to third-person omniscient is now a permanent instrument in my writing tool box.


Writing Prompt, No. 1

A building where Observation and Curiosity are written in chalk beneath the industrial name of the building, Glasgow Association
“Glasgow Association of Observation and Curiosity” by Michael Gallacher

I use this photo when I write about the importance of concrete, specific details in writing. Whether we write fiction, nonfiction or both, the more tangible the details, the more memorable the story.

These are warm-up prompts, not to be confused with the longer writing exercises I post here. Think about 250-325 words as compared to 700-1000 for the writing exercises.

Describe this scene using your senses. Let us see the building and hear and smell the streetscape, feel the texture of the bricks, taste some of the smells in the air.

To get you started:

Maybe you’re writing a nonfiction article on the rise of magical graffiti after the publication of Harry Potter. Or you’re writing a piece on what happens to signage when a building is shuttered. After all, before it was the Glasgow Association of Observation & Curiosity, it had a different purpose. Or maybe you curate a journal devoted to the ampersand. What a literate graffiti artist, to use both chalk and the ampersand, instead of the written word and.

Or maybe you’re writing a sci-fi mystery and only those with special powers can see the chalked words. Or perhaps your protagonist walks towards a newer, taller building as she contemplates jumping to her death from the roof when she halts in front of the graffiti. Or write something else.

Do your choices create a mood, reveal character or emotion?

For extra credit, try using a few different points-of-view for the same scene. Just remember to keep all that lovely specific detail in the scene.