Storytelling is generally done in the past tense. Those who huddled around the fire and recounted great hunts or encounters with strange tribes spoke of things that had happened in their past. Events that had come before. Those storytellers are our lineage and the past tense is our heritage. This is why we tell stories — even those happening in our present time — in the past tense. Readers are culturally conditioned to expect them that way.
There are, of course, experimenters who do their storytelling in the present tense, and even some in the future, but these stories are anomalous, and the thread is often difficult to follow or the willing suspension of disbelief difficult to sustain when reading these. By and large, our stories are presented in the past tense.
The writer and the reader make an exchange. The reader says “I will hand over some of my money, much of my time, and the opportunity to read any of a thousand other books in order to read your book. In exchange, you will do your best to give me entertainment, information, edification, or escape. You will create a seemingly whole, coherent universe in which I can participate as an observer.”
A writer — a storyteller — must create a world in which the reader can remain immersed so that the conceit that the tale being told actually happened can be believed (within the confines of its context). The better the writing, the better this state of mind in the reader can be supported. For example, I once listened to a recording of Smila’s Sense of Snow, which is set in the frozen north, and I was completely immersed in the ice and unrelenting cold of the tale even though I was driving across Missouri in August.
In less careful hands, though, the alternate universe of the story that a reader longs to enter can be interrupted. The reader can be jarred out of the story by some mistake. For me, a spelling error can do it. I think that in most of the books I have read, I have found at least one spelling error overlooked by the copy editor. Suddenly I stop being a reader who has willingly entered the writer’s world and am back the to English teacher I used to be. The imaginative state grinds to a halt as I shake my head and then try to find the path back into the story.
Anachronisms can do this as well. In The Year the Colored Sisters Came to Town, which is set in the rural south in the 1950s, a hurricane tears up the town, and the young narrator marvels at the Amoco gas station sign that is found across town in a ditch. At the time of the story, however, this chain of service stations was known as Standard, not Amoco. (And they are now known as BP.) This kind of disconnect rips me out of the story, and it makes me a little bit angry with both the writer and the editor for failing to sustain the imaginative world.
Even the best writers can do this. In his novel The Ghost Writer (perhaps my favorite work of fiction and one I have read more than a dozen times), Philip Roth introduces a character who teaches at a university in upstate New York called Athene College. More than twenty years later in The Human Stain, Roth introduces another character who teaches at that same institution, but it is now called Athena College. That jumped out at me the instant I read it. Where was the editor? More importantly, where was the reader? Not inside the story at the moment.
Perhaps the most common breakdown of storytelling I’ve found, though, is when a story confuses its time with my time. The improper use of such time specific words as “yesterday,” “today,” “last week,” “this afternoon,” and the like violate the past tense of the story. The “there and then” slips into the “here and now.”
If a character is described as having an appointment “tomorrow” rather than “the next day” I no longer can imagine the story as being in its time. “Tomorrow,” to me, is the day after the one I am in. The character in the story is living in days that are past. At least that is part of how I build and sustain my imaginative participation in the story being told. I don’t object when characters speak of their “tomorrows” or their “yesterdays” or their “tonights.” That is expected, and a character who says “I have an appointment with my doctor the next day,” would sound ridiculous. It is the narrator who cannot make this mistake.
If the narrator says “Roger had an appointment with his doctor tomorrow” then I am jolted. His verb is in the past tense (had), yet “tomorrow” is out of context in the way “the next day” would not be.
I just finished reading a novel by a major, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist that was filled with these kinds of violations of the “there and then.” The novel is set in the African desert, in the midst of a war, with characters who are unlike me in many ways. The writer has a big job maintaining the imaginative world that his readers must enter. Yet the narrator drops “tomorrows” and “tonights” and “yesterdays” throughout the storytelling.
I blame the editors for this. The writer may be so immersed himself in the imaginative universe he is creating that he doesn’t recognize at the moment of writing that the story’s tomorrow is not the writer’s tomorrow. But as I’ve said before, I think editors can sometimes be too hands-off with major writers.