My current novel involves two separate threads; events taking place in the present, and a separate, gradually unfolding story that took place some months earlier. I’ve chosen to relate the story of past events in the past tense. It made sense to me. It’s a good way of delineating the two separate stories – when I slip into the past tense the reader will immediately know that I’ve moved to the second thread, which took place in the past. I’m relating past events, so I set them in the past – easy really. The trouble is, while it was fine at first, it’s beginning to become somewhat cumbersome. Instead of ‘he thought’, I’ve got ‘he had thought’. Instead of ‘she did something’ I’ve got ‘she had done something’. Instead of ‘they had dinner’ I’ve got ‘They’d had dinner’ (which does at least neatly avoid the clumsy and rather ridiculous ‘double had’ problem – as in ‘they had had dinner’). I had thought,.. I mean, I thought this would be fine, but the longer passages are becoming tortuous. I feel as though I’m picking my way through a grammatical minefield. I can imagine how it might feel to fly a spaceship (if there were such things as spaceships) into an asteroid field, to escape your enemies. Dodging the asteroids is fine for the first few minutes. After half an hour it becomes wearing. And then you realise that it’s going to take hours to get through to the other side. Somebody beam me up, please!
I’m actually getting there. I’m half way through the penultimate chunk of the past story. Once I’ve finished this, I’m going to dispense with the past tense, and write the final (and, I think, rather exciting) ‘denouement’ (that’s French, you know; it should have an accent, but I haven’t got one) of the past history as if it were happening in real time. I’m hoping this will work well. I’m hoping it will be ‘seamless’ (not that books have seams) in that it will give this final, important past scene energy and drive, without the reader (and I use the singular advisedly, based on past sales) noticing that it’s written in a different tense to the other parts. I’m hoping it will be the literary equivalent of the cinematic trick of filming in black and white to start with and then having the film burst into colour at a critical point. There are many things that I lack. Ambition isn’t one of them.
I just hope that I don’t hit any of those grammatical asteroids on the way. I guess I could do with some advice from my fellow writers. What do you think, blogging buddies? What would you do? Would you stick with the difficult option of writing the separate threads of the story in different tenses? Or would you use the same tense all the way through and find another way to delineate between the different time settings? And if so, how would you do this?