This question comes up periodically on editing forums, but surprisingly, there's very little written about it.
And most of the things I have come across have fallen into one of two camps:
1. "Of course you can use words like now and today in past tense narrative—what a
stupid question!" (This is a paraphrase of one of the responses I got the first time I asked
this question myself. Clearly it still rankles.😉)
2. "Except in dialogue or direct thoughts (which are in present tense), you should always
avoid these words in a past tense manuscript."
From my editing work, I know that both of these responses are wrong, or at the very least incomplete. How? Because while I have worked on past tense manuscripts where words of immediacy were occasionally jarring, I have also worked on past tense manuscripts where the author avoided them in favor of "past tense–appropriate" words like "then" and "that day"—and it sounded just plain weird.
Words of immediacy
For lack of an official term, I call time markers that evoke the present tense "words of immediacy."
Immediacy is the sense that the story is happening right now, that the narrator/POV character is relating the actions as they occur and has no prior knowledge of what's to come. (Some think this requires writing in present tense, but while present tense does heighten immediacy, this sense can also be achieved using past tense.)
Words of immediacy indicate that the speaker/narrator is talking about their present or from the vantage point of their present. These words always have a corresponding word/phrase that can be used to indicate temporal distance from the action instead.
To a person experiencing an event, the following day is "tomorrow," but to someone recalling the scene at a later time, that day would properly be called "the next day"—because this person's tomorrow would be a different day entirely.
There are a few words that aren't exactly time markers, but convey closeness or distance in a similar way.
Not a yes or no question
I believe that some of the confusion surrounding words of immediacy in past tense narrative has arisen from sites for English language learners, because whenever I try to research this question, these are mostly what I find.
But the general rules about time expressions in conversational and written English don't always apply to fiction writing.
The reason there's no easy answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article is that whether or not these words work depends on the context—and not just the immediate context of the surrounding sentence or paragraph but of the narrative approach of the book as a whole.
Past tense for traditional storytelling
Imagine a storyteller sitting around a campfire. They might start their story with "Once upon a time..." or "Back when I was your age..." The events that the storyteller goes on to relate happened then, not now. The storyteller's vantage point is from the present (now) looking back into the past (then).
So they use the past tense and time-markers that refer to the past as they tell their tale. This storyteller might say something like...
That night, the night of the party, felt like the beginning of everything. It was
my time to shine.
They most likely would not say...
Tonight's party would be the beginning of everything. Now was my time to shine.
"Tonight" and "now" are words that use the speaker's present time as a reference point and usually don't feel right when telling a story about long past events. (Those listening to the storyteller might think they're taking a break from the story and bringing up a party they're going to after the campfire.)
Many books that have been written in the past tense have a retrospective narrator who is similar to that storyteller relating past events around a campfire. In books like these, words of immediacy in the narration can confuse or jar the reader, just as in the example above.
Literary past tense: When what's past is present
But despite the apparent contradiction, not all past tense stories use a retrospective narrator. Instead, the narrator is using the past tense to describe what's happening in the story's present. This is called the literary past tense.
Literary past tense works because we're all so used to hearing and reading stories in the past tense that we can still get the sense of events unfolding in the present without using the present tense.
Words of immediacy in literary past tense
Because literary past tense gives the reader the sense of present time actions, words of immediacy feel right at home. Let's take the example above that sounded odd in the mouth of a retrospective storyteller and put it in the mind of an experiencing narrator instead.
I waited outside the double doors and took a deep breath. Tonight's party would be
the beginning of everything. Now was my time to shine.
The passage is in past tense, yes, but the sense is that the POV character is narrating the scene as it unfolds. The reader is seeing the scene through their eyes, coming alongside them in their present. This is not a retrospective narrator remembering a scene that has already happened.
How to convey immediacy in the past tense?
Consider vantage point
Before writing, think about what kind of narrator you want and what their distance should be from the events of the story. The closer the reader feels to the POV character's experiences, the more immediate the scene.
Stay deep during scenes
While it's possible to have dual narrators (retrospective and experiencing) in the same story, if the retrospective narrator pops up in the middle of a scene and comments on what's happening, it will create distance and undermine immediacy. To keep the immediacy of scenes, limit the retrospective narrator to transitions.
Use words of immediacy when appropriate
I edited a past tense manuscript written in deep third where the author deliberately avoided words of immediacy. It's likely that this author ignored their instincts in favor of following what they thought was a rule. But if you're experiencing a scene alongside a POV character, and they refer to what's happening "tonight" as happening "that night," your response will likely be confusion: "Which night are they talking about?"
Avoid filter words
Filter words tell the reader what senses the POV character are experiencing the scene through. For example: saw, noticed, felt, heard. They're great words for a retrospective storyteller/narrator, but increase narrative distance by "filtering" the character's immediate experience through "telling" words. (Narrative distance is the perceived distance between the narrator and the POV character. For example, is the narrator observing from a distance, on the character's shoulder, or behind the character's eyes?)
Filter words don't have to be entirely eliminated, even from scenes where you want immediacy, but only use them if they serve a purpose. Sometimes the act of realizing is just as important as the realization itself.
Dual narrators and shifting perspectives
To add another layer of complexity, the narrative distance can vary even within the same book, and some books in first person can have dual narrators, a retrospective narrator and an experiencing narrator (as mentioned above and in section five of this article).
So when deciding whether to use words of immediacy in past tense narrative, you need to consider the immediate context as well as the overall narrative approach. Ask yourself, What is the perspective of the current narrator? And what is the distance/immediacy desired for this sentence/paragraph/scene?
For example, take these two chapter openers (changed to be unrecognizable from the original) from a story written in third person past with a moderately close POV. The author used words of immediacy throughout the book, but they didn't work in these two instances. (Gloria is the POV character).
1. This morning, Gloria woke up in Reynaldo's villa.
2. Waking up today, Gloria felt better.
The sense in the first example is that it's not morning anymore, that the narrator is relating something that happened earlier in the day. (I could imagine saying something like this when gossiping about Gloria to a friend over lunch.) But that wasn't the author's intent. Despite words of immediacy working elsewhere in the manuscript, they didn't work well to transition into new chapters. I edited them thusly:
1. The next morning, Gloria woke up in Reynaldo's villa.
2. When she woke up the next day, Gloria felt better.
This doesn't mean words of immediacy never work in chapter openings. Let's take an example from a deep POV.
Ugh. Why was my alarm going off so early? This morning sucked.
But even with this example, "this morning sucked" works better once the POV character's vantage point has been established. If moved to the opening position, it can still throw the reader, making them think the POV character is thinking back on something that happened earlier in the day, rather than commenting on the morning they're experiencing in the moment.
If I really wanted to open up with this line in a third person past story, I'd consider making it a direct thought, allowing present tense.
This morning sucks.
Moaning, I rolled over and fumbled for the alarm.
So as you can see, whether or not to use words of immediacy in past tense narrative doesn't have a simple answer. As with many questions about writing, the answer is "it depends."
Fortunately, despite the complex interplay of factors, writers and editors can usually sense when the time markers feel off, even if they don't always know why. If you're proficient in English and well read, this is an area where you can usually trust your gut, so (as usual) don't let black-and-white "zombie rules" get in the way of your instincts.
Want advice on how to get your manuscript as clean, clear, and consistent as possible? Check out my fiction style guide. And if you're ready to hand your manuscript off to a professional, check out my services page, or drop me a line.