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JonnyCeltics's avatar

In writing a backward-trending narrative, is it wise to write it in past tense?

Asked by JonnyCeltics (2664 points ) November 15th, 2010

I am writing a story in narrative-form without dialogue, 1st person. The beginning is the end, and I need to move backwards from here on out—but I like the “nowness” and effect of the present tense as opposed to past tense. But how do I tie it back without using past tense? Here is my first paragraph (unedited, for now):

A melancholy and determined Jenny opens her door to leave and I know now that this is how it ends for me, for us. And in the midst of my shock and grief and pain, Jenny closes the door, and I am amazed by the education I receive—the knife, along with my skin and guts and other innards that Jenny had decided not to consume, lay all around what is left of my half-mangled core.
———-
From here, I need to work backwards. Should I say: “i think about….when….” but then that requires past tense.

Or if I just keep it in present tense, it might lose the reader. Like if I continue and write:

Jenny and soandso fight and make love, etc….the reader would be like – wait? when is this happening. But might that effect work well at the end….?

Sorry for the confusion – just hoping for some guidance.

Thanks Fluthericians!

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24 Answers

Foolaholic's avatar

What about describing events in present tense as though you’re slowly watching the scene rewind. For instance, if she was stabbing him, you could describe something to the effect of her inserting the knife flawlessly into existing holes, which slowly disappear as the blade slides back out.

Does that make sense?

JonnyCeltics's avatar

It does….that is some dense writing. From this point in my story, I need to rewind to her grieving and fighting with someone…can I keep it in present tense, and just write it as it’s happening right now?

Fyrius's avatar

[Disregard what it said here.]
(writes on blackboard) I will read before I reply. I will read before I reply. I will read before I reply.

Do you literally write everything backwards, or do you write regular scenes in reverse chronological order?

Foolaholic's avatar

@JonnyCeltics – That’s hard to say without know what’s going to happen next. Are you attempting to work strictly within the confines of events in reverse? Or, would you be OK with jumping back to a specific point, then continuing in present tense until arriving at the previous scene and jumping back again? That could be achieved by continually diving scenes with lots of ellipses’.

JonnyCeltics's avatar

I am planning on writing scenes, paragraphs even in reverse chronological order….strictly. Would that be a flawed POV? I want to challenge myself and my readers with this. Basically my story is about the intertwined lives of a women and a mango…so the next scene is going to be literally what happened right before, but i want to keep the mangos voice in the present tense to show its growth,e tc.

Fyrius's avatar

I think the present tense would be okay. Even if the narrative works backwards, at any moment events are happening right now, and that’s what you’re describing.
Using the past tense instead… well, if the narrator is reminiscing, that could make sense too, I suppose. But I think it would have different implications.

Foolaholic's avatar

@JonnyCeltics – Ok, so it just sounds like you want to backtrack without having to get into the present tense. Why not call it a flashback? For example;

Memories are flooding back to me. It is last night. I lie upon the counter, slowly loosing my firm tone with age.

Foolaholic's avatar

Depending on your situation, of course.

JonnyCeltics's avatar

@Foolaholic and @Fyrius – thanks for hanging with me on this here lovely Monday evening. Here is the next sentence from the next paragraph. I think it reads well, in spite of the backwards narration. Thoughts? (this is still a working doc, of course)

I watch out the window from my home, a woven bowl atop Jenny’s desk, as Lt. Anderson yells you’re a fucking liar and I didn’t sign up for this and you tell me this when I’m leaving tomorrow into Jenny’s face and again out into the deep well of the night’s sky.

DancingMind's avatar

I’m a little late to this, but… if you want to write in present tense, you like the effect present tense has, then write in present tense. The mind’s a beautiful thing in that time doesn’t matter so much inside it. You’ve got three minds, basically, that are involved in this story: yours, the Mango’s, and the reader’s. Yours can make the Mango’s behave however you want it to, and it’s up to the reader’s to keep up with what you’re having the Mango’s think and do.

It might be more “clear” to the reader if you switch to past, but for, say, me: I wouldn’t notice the tense as much as when that part of the story is supposed to be happening.

Besides, as far as memories go, they last forever, something the present tense can convey better than the past… so in that way, present is actually better.

Fyrius's avatar

@JonnyCeltics
One thought, on the last phrase about “the deep well of the night’s sky”: it’s a general rule that you should avoid getting too poetic unless doing so serves a narrative function (e.g. it’s plot-relevant to convey a sense of large looming emptiness, or you’re assuming the POV of a drunk poet).
Are you familiar with the term purple prose? That’s what happens when you do this too much.

JonnyCeltics's avatar

@DancingMind Thx for the wonderful response – appreciate the encouragement!

Foolaholic's avatar

@JonnyCeltics – Glad to be working with some interesting writing :)

Is that the beginning of a previous scene? If so, I think you’ll need some sort of transition to show that a change is being made.

JonnyCeltics's avatar

@Fyrius – good advice…I’ve since changed it…but we shall see. This is draft 1. I’d love to keep y’all updated on it.

JonnyCeltics's avatar

@Foolaholic – therein lies my point. The transitions MUST be past tense or elude to it…. I am going to try to write it without transitions…

HungryGuy's avatar

Most fiction is written in the past tense. Writing in the current tense is an advanced technique, as is writing in the first person. Past tense and third person give you the most versatility and flexibility

Foolaholic's avatar

@JonnyCeltics – Must it? While it’s true that to truly elaborate a re-occurrence of events to the reader you should delve into past tense, it’s better to give them a vague idea of movement than none at all. Simply saying, “It is the previous day,” might be blunt, but it gets the point across.

Fyrius's avatar

@JonnyCeltics
Please do keep us up to date. :) It sounds like an interesting story.

JonnyCeltics's avatar

It is the previous day is telling – and I get where you are coming from, tho. I’ll work with it. I kind of want it to just be implicit and understood within a few paragraphs…

jlelandg's avatar

I’m too late to this party. Jon, do you know how the story’s going to happen folded out in forward order? (That might be a stupid question, but I think developing it in the normal way might helped you go backwards).

jlelandg's avatar

Also, to alert the reader, I would suggest possibly giving an OBVIOUS and what might seem to you “dumb” plot device to clue the reader into your intention of taking them backwards, therefore there’s a little less confusion, and the reader doesn’t figure it out halfway threw and go back.

DancingMind's avatar

Transitions aren’t manditory. Nothing really is. It all depends on how clearly you want to convey the time shifts. If you don’t mind the lines getting blurry (and since that Mango sounds like he’s fading fast, maybe the lines are getting blurry?) you don’t necessarily have to put in transitions.
I can think of a few literature books that didn’t have clear time distinctions, or hardly any at all. They were confusing, but in such an intriguing way.
btw please do post the story!

JonnyCeltics's avatar

@jlelandg I want the reader to have to go back and read it…i want that reveal!

Fyrius's avatar

A clear enough but still subtle way to indicate time literally flowing backwards, is to take some easily recognisable background event and casually narrate it, in reverse.
There’s a certain flash animation involving time going backwards, which shows things like a fish in a bowl with bubbles floating downwards into its mouth. Stuff like that.

Although if the cause of the reverse narrative is that the mango is remembering things, then that wouldn’t work, of course. Unless it specifically imagines everything going backwards.

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