Previously we looked at how to use a blend of pluperfect tense and past tense to integrate flashbacks. Today we will look at mixing past and present tense.
Deliberately Mixing Past and Present Tense
I've read some interesting stories using a mixture of tenses. One book involved a current investigation that triggered constant flashbacks for the protagonist to a previous investigation. The author handled this by separating the two stories and writing the main narrative in present tense, alternating full scenes of present tense and past tense reflecting the present and past respectively. It helped to clarify for which case clues were being processed.
Another story was written in first person past tense in a confessionary style. When the narrator spoke of scenes that were emotionally "present" to him, he slipped into present tense narration. Take care with this technique, as you need to have a good handle on your own grasp of tense.
Inadvertently Mixing Tenses
Some writers find they unintentionally mix their tenses. There are two main reasons for this. One is not being able to separate dialogue from narrative in your mind. Past tense creeps into the characters' words, and when the quotes close, the narrative continues in present tense for a few words.
The other reason is the tendency to tell someone about a past experience using the present tense: "So, I ordered the fish, and it arrives, and it's still got the head on, and I absolutely freak." Listen to yourself in conversation next time - do you drift back and forth from past tense to present tense in your speech?
But if you want to train yourself so that you have the choice of which tense you use and when, try some dialogue and action exercises. Write the dialogue in present tense, then immediately follow it with past tense action. You might even want to try monitoring your own speech and "correcting" yourself when you use present tense to describe the past - just to help yourself gain awareness of the differences.
Elsa Neal owns HearWriteNow.com, an online magazine for writers. Read her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog. Elle is based in Melbourne, Australia.