I have a problem with the past. I didn’t know I had a problem, though, until I started writing. The majority of my stories are told in the past tense. Writing in present tense just isn’t my style and a story told in future tense would make me crazy. So there are a lot of she was, he went, they looked, etc. My problem comes when I get into flashbacks and memories. There, I seem to get caught up in the narrative and forget to keep it in the past perfect tense which indicates that it had all happened before the present story. Which causes my readers to get lost in time and makes me cringe when someone points it out to me.
It all starts out fine, but halfway through I inevitably drop the ball. My had hads turn into just had; instead of she had found it becomes she found, and so on. I thought the problem was that I was writing too fast and not paying attention, or that my schooling had failed me by not teaching me proper grammar, or perhaps that I was just a tense doofus. Then I learned about the historical present tense. Most English speakers have a tendency to begin a story in the past tense and finish in the present tense and linguists call talking about past events in the present tense using the historical present. We begin in the past to orient our audience with the who, where, and when, and then move into the present when the action ramps up. To steal an example from Lexicon Valley, the podcast where I learned about the historical present, check out the episode of Seinfeld where Kramer is telling everyone what happened to him on the bus when he tries to take a woman’s severed toe to the hospital to be reattached. It starts in the past “I found the toe…” and switches to the present “So I’m driving the bus…” So, if Kramer can get away with shifting tenses in the middle of a story, then why can’t I?
Well, there are a few reasons why I can’t – the most important ones being consistency and not confusing the reader – but I don’t let it bug me too much anymore. We all do it at some point, mine just happens to show up in my writing. And when I notice the flashback moving out of past perfect into the past, that’s when I know I’m writing something really exciting.