Monday, February 21, 2011

Mixing Past and Present Tense

If you’re writing in present tense, it makes sense to mix in some past tense as you provide back story to your reader. But what about when you’re writing in past tense? Can you mix in some present tense?

I hear this off and on: if you’re writing past tense, you can’t mix in present tense because that violates the rules of past tense. As in, you’re telling a story that happened in the past, so you can’t talk about what’s happening in the present. That statement is logically sound, so it makes sense. But I still disagree with it.

When a story is told in past tense, the main character has had some time to reflect and perhaps understand what happened on a deeper level. Sometimes it changes the way she currently thinks, and sometimes it doesn’t. And it’s perfectly fine to include her current feelings on things that happened in her story.

Basically, you can follow this rule of thumb: if it’s still true in your character’s present, then you can write it in present tense even if your story is in past tense.

For example, if your character has a medical condition that still exists after the story is concluded, then she can talk about it in the present tense. Or, if your character’s family member has a medical condition that still exists, she can talk about that in the present tense. If she has a dog with quirky habits, that can be referred to in present tense (as long as the dog and the habits are still there after the story’s conclusion). Things like this.

The next question, of course, is why would we want to mix present tense with past tense? What purpose does it serve other than to confuse the author, possibly the reader as well?

Well, if you’re not careful, you do run the risk of confusing the reader. So pay close attention to how you mix the tenses. But, if done well, then it adds an immediacy to your story, similar to what you get when writing in present tense.

The big advantage of writing in present tense is that it makes the story feel immediate, like it’s happening right as we’re reading, and we get to watch things unfold at the same time the characters do. But that’s hard to pull off, and it can easily come across as a gimmick. Writing completely in past tense can make the story sound old, like it’s been stuffed in a box for a while and the characters have finally decided to take it down and dust it off. But it’s often a more effective way of telling the story, because we get to add the character’s reflections and gained wisdom. So, each has a strength and a weakness.

But if we mix the two, we get the best of both worlds. We get the reflection and the wisdom that comes with it, plus the immediacy of how the character is feeling at the time she’s telling the story. A definite win-win for both reader and writer. :)

Have you ever mixed the two tenses? Has it worked, or did it leave you banging your head against your keyboard?


S.A. Larsenッ said...

I haven't mixed the two but I've thought about it. I pretty much write past tense. For my new MS, I've been thinking about giving present tense a try. I love how you describe the 'immediacy' it creates. I think that's a great strength. I wonder how these difference would affect let's say writing a picture book as apposed to a YA or MG book? I'll have to explore that.

Thanks for making me think.

Anonymous said...

I follow the rule you mentioned about if it's still true in the present then you can write it in the present. I don't think that disrupts the flow of the writing.

Tabitha said...

salarsen - I pretty much write in past tense, too, but that's because I don't have a story that *needs* to be told in present tense. Maybe some day. :)
I hope you'll share what you find if you explore the PB vs. YA/MG present tense thing. I don't write picture books (because I don't have that skill set) so I'd be interesting to hear more!

Kelly - I completely agree. Mixing in some present tense can really spice things up and make it feel like the present, doesn't it? I think it's the best of both worlds. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm currently working on a novella that, while in past tense, has snippets in present that express the MC's mental state. (Severe PTSD and psychotic breaks.)

It's a very small amount of narrative (present) overall, and there are some other narrative kinks used as well--so far I like the effect.

(I've seen this technique used fantastically--namely Genevieve Valentine has a tendency to use lots of parentheses and mixed tense for effect. I adore her work, so I'm well aware there's an influence. ;))

I think as long as you're aware what you're doing, and use mixed tense deliberately and understand how it works and what effect it will bring and that is what you are aiming for, it can work so well.

A lack of understanding or attention to detail that results in just sloppy tense is entirely different. (So I guess this is partly a case of knowing the rules before you manipulate them, so you can do it right.)


LM Preston said...

When I wrote my first MG I tried it in present tense and mixed some past with it, but it didn't go over well with betas so I switched it all back to past tense. Now it's just easier for me to write in past tense so that's where I'm sticking for now.

Christine L. Arnold said...

My current WIP is a mix of past and present. The story and all the actions are written in past, with the MC's inner dialogue written in present. Basically, anything she could say out loud but is choosing to keep to herself. I'm using it like dialogue, only without the quotes.
So far, most of my readers haven't really noticed it. But I still worry that it might be "wrong" or confusing.

Tabitha said...

Merc - your story sounds *awesome*! And you're absolutely right that doing things deliberately with full understanding of what you're doing is what makes it work. Without that, you'll likely end up with a big ol' mess. :)

LM - my second book started coming out as present tense, but it felt *wrong*. I didn't know why, and it took me forever to figure out that the present tense was coming from me, the author, as I was discovering the characters and story, but the story itself didn't need or want it. So now I write in past tense, but I mix in present tense here and there to make it feel more immediate.

Christine - that's how I do it, too. Not all of her thoughts, but some of them. It feels natural to me, because I almost always think in present tense, so it makes sense that my characters would, too. If your readers haven't noticed, then it's clearly working. :)

T.D. McFrost said...

This is referring to first person, right? 'Cause I can't see this working in Third Person. Also, I think it wise to adhere to the writing rules when you're a debut author (give them less reasons to reject you); when you're published you can do whatever you want.

Yes, I know rules are meant to be broken, but I say this from experience, because when I tried this in a short story (in first person, no less) every darn editor commented on the tense issue. :(

I doubt I did it wrong--I actually wrote it somewhat like your theory--and it still got red pens.

I hate to be the bummer (bad Tyson!) but this technique is very risky for a debut author.

I love your blog, btw. Its very well done.

Tabitha said...

Wise words of caution. :)

I was referring to first person, but this could also work in third person. It would be harder to do, but still possible. The key, really, is to know more than the rules. You have to know your characters better than you know yourself, how they think and how they react to anything and everything. You also need to know your story inside and out: where it needs to go and how it needs to get there. Plus, you need to know exactly the kind of effect you want to get by breaking the rules. If you don't know what effect you want, then you'll likely end up with something you don't want.

If you know all that *and* the rules of past vs. present tense, then it's possible to pull off mixing the two tenses. But it's still really difficult, and can go wrong any number of ways.

Writing is such an exact art, and I sometimes feel like I'm performing surgery on my story when I'm revising--a misstep can unravel plot threads or spin characters out of control. But it's also some of the most fun I've ever had. :)

T.D. McFrost said...

Oh lord, you called writing fun. Someone call Dr. Phil, this lady has lost her mind! :D

Writing is work. It takes skill, and some chocolate or wine to find the fun in it. And don't get me started on revision. That beast needs to die!

It is a very important process, but can't someone hurry up and make a word processor that automatically fixes the story? They're gonna wait 'till after I die to make one, and that's when I'll come back and haunt them.

I see your point, but is it wrong that I feel bad 'cause I tried it and failed? Thanks for making me feel like crap Tabitha. I hope you're happy. :D

Tabitha said...

LOL! Well, sorry for making you feel like crap. :) But if it makes you feel better, think of it as coming from the crazy lady who thinks writing is fun and, *loves* revision. I apparently cracked long ago, so anything and everything I say can be considered questionable. :)

Actually, even more so because of what I'm going to say next... Ready? :)

The fact that you tried and failed is a good thing. It means you're working outside your comfort zone, and really amazing stuff can come out of that. Of course, since you're outside your comfort zone, you don't know what you're doing yet and you kind of flail around. Well, I did, anyway. :) But, if you keep trying, you'll get it. And it'll end up being fantastic.

Hmm...there's probably a 50-50 chance I just made you feel like crap again. Sorry about that, but, you know, consider the source and all that. :)

T.D. McFrost said...

0_0 So now I don't know what I'm doing?

Can someone tell me if this crazy lady is sane enough to give advice, please? --_--

I'll take all this in stride and go back to *flailing around*.

Thanks for sinking my esteem Tabitha. Now I feel tempted to call the penitentiary and have you admitted. :D

Catherine Stine said...

Yes, past tense is okay in a flashback, or used consistently throughout. But the less switching back and forth, the better.
I've written MG in present tense. The voice is close, fresh and engaging.

Unknown said...

For me, when I'm writing in any perspective, in past tense, I do not mix in present tense. That being said, I tried, and liked a present/past mix in a novella I wrote recently. It was stream of consciousness though, and I think this is the most appropriate break from these rules, where you have a person thinking about his past (or future) while trying to live in life at the moment. Sooner or later I'll get this novella published (or not) and see what people think. Don't know.

Legacy said...

I love this post. I struggle so much with tense. When your writing thoughts its okay to write in present but then switch back to past with dialgue. This confuses me, but it is okay right? I mean its someones thoughts. I know as a rule you're suppose to stick to one tense and its a constant switch back and forth for me I struggle with. I'm still figuring out which tense I write best in.
Great post.

Tabitha said...

TD - you crack me up, which is dangerous since I am apparently cracked already! Though I *do* have to tease you about putting me in a penitentiary. As far as I know, I haven't broken any laws. :)

Catherine - that is the biggest benefit of present tense. And using a flashback in past tense makes perfect sense. I do agree that this switching back and forth should be used sparingly, especially when writing in past tense and mixing in present tense. A little bit can go a long way.

Plot spider - this kind of mixing isn't for everyone, or for every story. I agree that stream of consciousness is probably the easiest way to utilize this style, bur it could also be used in other ways. It all depends on the story and the writer.

Legacy - yes, I think so. Spontaneous thoughts are almost always in present tense, so it makes sense that characters would think that way too. If it confuses you, i'd suggest trying out a bunch of scenes with varying levels of mixed tenses, and then get some feedback on what works and what doesn't. With enough practice, your knack will emerge.

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

I've never written in present tense, but do enjoy reading it.

Legacy said...

Thanks tabitha.

T.D. McFrost said...

Oh but you did, Tabitha, killing someone's confidence is a crime.

You're lucky you're fun to chat with, so I'll spare you.

For now. :D

Natalie Aguirre said...

I haven't mixed it. Because I've written in third person limited, I thought it should be in past tense unless it's her thoughts. Isn't that right?

Tabitha said...

Beverly - I do, too, depending on the story. If it's done well, then I love it. If not, well... But I guess that goes for everything. :)

Legacy - you're welcome!

TD - *hangs head in shame* Your mercy knows no limits. :)

Natalie - yes, pretty much. But, in third person limited, there is still only one main character, and therefore the whole story is basically her thoughts. So you could still use the present tense for things that are true in the present, at the time the story is being told. It all depends on the story, the characters, and what effect you want to have on the reader.

Unknown said...

I have recently read in a book called "Set the Scene" (author not remembered) where he says a writer should not change perspectives or tenses in one single scene, so whatever one picks, stick with it until the scene changing. Sometimes, that can be a really important or obvious indicator the scene is changing. To change tenses mid-scene tends to be looked at as amateurish, particularly by publishers.

Tabitha said...

I completely agree with the author of that book. It's not possible to tell a story both in past and present tense. Either it happened in the past, or it's happening now. But it is possible to include things that are true now, even if the story happened in the past.

For example:

Past Tense Only--
I drove myself to the swimming pool in Mom's car. My friends were going to meet me there, and we'd have a great time ogling the cute boys like we always did.
My phone rang. It was Mom.
"Where are you? We're supposed to go to the Jensens' house for lunch in ten minutes!"
I sighed. "Mom, I made these plans last week. You said I could go."
She'd always forget my plans if they suddenly interfered with her own. But she'd also never bother to straighten things out ahead of time.

Mixed Tenses--
I drove myself to the swimming pool in Mom's car. My friends were going to meet me there, and we'd have a great time ogling the cute boys like we always did.
My phone rang. It was Mom.
"Where are you? We're supposed to go to the Jensens' house for lunch in ten minutes!"
I sighed. "Mom, I made these plans last week. You said I could go."
She always forgot my plans if they suddenly interfered with her own. But she also never bothered to straighten things out ahead of time.

The only difference is the last two lines, which refer to Mom in the present tense. Mom's personality hasn't changed even though the story is over by the time the MC tells it to us, so we can refer to Mom's behavior in present tense. What we can't do is change the unfolding of events from past to present, because that conflicts with the timeline. I think that's probably what the author of Set The Scene was referring to.

Michelle A. Kobayashi said...

I enjoyed the post, but what I enjoyed more was the discussion in comments. It really helped me understand the ideas - especially the example about the pool trip. Thanks!

Tabitha said...

Very glad it was helpful. :)

Beth said...

I really agree with this post! Unfortunately, when I submit work to be looked at it seems as if most people don't.

Unknown said...

Some publishers want avant gard (spelling) stuff and some don't. Regardless, what matters is intent. If you know exactly what you are doing and you make it obvious that you know what you are doing, then your audience applauds pretty much whatever. If, on the other hand, you look like a sneezing dentist who drops his tools, wipes his mouth with his gloved hand and says "let's have a look," well...I know what I would do. Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

I’m dead. My life is over. To tell it in simple words is: it started 10 minutes ago, when Ms. Stacy gave me my parts of speech test, and it ends with one of my dad’s world famous lectures.

Ms. Stacy, the English teacher, had given me my parts of speech test. Ms. Stacy had asked why I had done so poorly. As I had thought about it, I tried not to cry. I got a D! My parents would SO kill me.
“I didn’t really pay attention to the details that you gave out in class. I thought I already knew parts of speech. I’ve been studying them since 2nd grade,” I had given my teacher a reasonable answer.
“Chelsea, I know you’ve been studying parts of speech since 2nd grade, but in seventh grade, we do parts of speech, and all other subjects, differently. It’s a little more difficult.” Ms. Stacy said.
Now, you may be thinking, ‘What! Parts of Speech are so EASY!’ But it isn’t like that at Johnston Middle School
I was silent. Sensing the silence, Ms. Stacy let me go to lunch, saying that she would talk to my parents about this matter.

I clutched my books to my chest. I felt like crying. I wondered about what my mom would say and more importantly, what my dad would say. My dad is like, the strictest dad EVER about grades. He always says, “One should make effort to try hard. I they don’t, a slap here and there shouldn't hurt.”

That's the beginning of my story. I want to switch between the past and the present from "Ms. Stacy.." and "I clutched my books.."

Anonymous said...

I’m dead. My life is over. To tell it in simple words is: it started 10 minutes ago, when Ms. Stacy gave me my parts of speech test, and it ends with one of my dad’s world famous lectures.

Ms. Stacy, the English teacher, had given me my parts of speech test. Ms. Stacy had asked why I had done so poorly. As I had thought about it, I tried not to cry. I got a D! My parents would SO kill me.
“I didn’t really pay attention to the details that you gave out in class. I thought I already knew parts of speech. I’ve been studying them since 2nd grade,” I had given my teacher a reasonable answer.
“Chelsea, I know you’ve been studying parts of speech since 2nd grade, but in seventh grade, we do parts of speech, and all other subjects, differently. It’s a little more difficult.” Ms. Stacy said.
Now, you may be thinking, ‘What! Parts of Speech are so EASY!’ But it isn’t like that at Johnston Middle School
I was silent. Sensing the silence, Ms. Stacy let me go to lunch, saying that she would talk to my parents about this matter.

I clutched my books to my chest. I felt like crying. I wondered about what my mom would say and more importantly, what my dad would say. My dad is like, the strictest dad EVER about grades. He always says, “One should make effort to try hard. I they don’t, a slap here ”

Here is the beginning of my story. I want to switch between past and present respectively, "Ms. Stacy..." and "I clutched..."

Thank you.

Tabitha said...

I think you're off to a fairly solid start, tense-wise. Your first line mixes past and present well.

In your second paragraph, you switch to past perfect:
'had given'
'had done'
'had thought'

I actually think you can stick with regular past tense after that first sentence. For example:
"Ms. Stacy, the English teacher, had given me my parts of speech test. She asked why I did so poorly. As I thought about it, I tried not to cry. I got a D! My parents would SO kill me."

I don't see a good opportunity to use present tense, but I think switching from past perfect to past tense will liven things up.

Does that help?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I found your post really helpful. But can you give me some advice.
I am writing an article in which I have described my childhood. A large chunk of this is dedicated to my father. Now, when I write about the activities my father and I did together, I have written them in past tense. But when I write about his qualities like his nature, should I write it in the past tense.
Eg. He was a loving father. He was also very knowledgeable and helped me in my studies.
Or should I use present tense because my father is still living.
Eg. He is a loving father. He is also very knowledgeable and helped me in my studies.

I am not sure how to use the present tense because the article is in past tense.

Tabitha said...

If your father is still alive (and still has the trait you want to talk about), then you can definitely talk about this in the present tense. It's all a about what is still true when the story is over--these things can be shown to the reader in present tense.

Does that help?

Unknown said...

If you want to see this done and done well, read some John Le Carre fiction. He even switches into present tense in his flash backs while telling the main of the story (e.g., "the present") in past tense.
Eduardo Suastegui
Story-telling that captures the heart.

Unknown said...

One other thing... it's all about voice. Watch someone get interviewed about something (a fire, a tornado, ...) that happened to them a week ago. Sometimes it's annoying if they tell you about the past in present tense or sometimes I found annoying when they told me about what happened in past tense. When I dig deeper, or when I dug deeper, it comes down or came down to their voice, not the tense they use or used. ;

Tabitha said...

Yes, of course, voice is in everything. So is show-don't-tell, and pacing, and character development, and plot, etc. All aspects of writing are so intertwined that it's impossible to pull one out completely. The best we can do is try to improve one aspect while keeping the others in the back of our minds.

As for telling a story verbally and telling a story on paper, those are two different kettles of fish...and I think that's going to be my next blog post. :)

LiveOakDreams said...

How about a story completely written in past tense, but you stumble upon a description of something that is today as it always has been...


The group of teens followed Brett down to the blue hole in the woods. As they made their way down the sandy path, all recognized the echos of Cal’s hollering followed by a splash as someone broke the surface.

The spring is a magical place with its deep blue waters where crystal clear water boils out from the depths of the ground. The limestone rim rises about twelve feet above the seventy-two degree water, and from this rim, all plunge in for the shock of their lives.


The spring continues to be magic, water continues to boil, the limestone continues to rise, and people still take the plunge.

What do you think?

Sine said...

I often struggle with this. I like to write my travel memoirs in present tense, precisely because of the sense of immediacy that you describe. But I often mix in the past for backstory. This can confuse the reader, and you have to leave what my editor calls "signposts" that guide the story back to the present, or into the past, whichever the case may be. Still, it's tough. For instance, if your opening paragraph is in present tense - "we are hurtling towards the abyss, everything seems doomed..." and then you backtrack to how you got there, you have to do that in the past, until you come back to the present moment of peril. But if you do it for too long, the story runs the risk of becoming stale, like it is a different kind of story. It's certainly easier to set everything in the past, i.e. start out in past tense and then put the back story in past perfect ("a year earlier, I had already..."). But then you lose the gift of using present tense.

David Pickell said...

I am just starting out as a writer, learning bits of technique every day but trying to avoid rules to keep myself exploring and fresh. I might have to lean my lessons the hard way! I'd like feedback on whether this works or needs rewriting for tense.

My buddy Jonas came over yesterday. He's normally calm these days but yesterday he's jigging a bit as he walks into the room saying, "Where's that book on tenses I loaned ya?'

"It's over there with the rest of your junk."

He starts blasting through his stuff and I'm ducking sweaters, and ski gloves, and CD's as he's flailing around looking for "How To Write Tense Correctly".

He's always a handful but he especially was yesterday. I finally found the book for him and he left, steaming.

Anonymous said...

In my novella, I go in and out of past and present seamlessly. Even within a paragraph.

I sat down on the couch with my glass of chianti. The phone rings.

Anything confusing here? No. I especially do this when I want a scene to evolve into a stream of thought immediacy. When I ask friends to read a chapter, I'll frequently ask them if they noticed a tense change. They never do. I don't use quotation marks in dialogue either. I do what I want.

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.


Unknown said...

My novel, so far, is a mix of present and past tense. I've spent hours trying to get to the bottom of this, knowing the criticisms. I start to write and then I find myself switching tense. It seems natural to me!? It's exactly like how I would tell a story to a friend if they were sitting next to me. I would say that things happened. Then I would say, for example, that I have a particular opinion about that. I'm a thinking being. I can write/tell a story in whatever tense I like (I hope). Here's an example:

My brother slowly rolled to the edge of the bed an then connected his feet with the slippers that I bought him. I can't believe that he still has those. They are 10 years old!

Basically, I'm taking a "pause" moment to get right up in the readers face to let them know what I think. Then, I'll retract and move back to past tense to leave a little distance.


Daniel said...

The Hunger Games is written in third person present tense. It's not hard. All movie scripts are written in present tense. I write everything in present tense whether first person or third. Then when I describe something that happened in the past, I use past tense.

The only people who get confused are the people who think it should never be done under any circumstances. If you do it with purpose, and you are consistent within your own convention, it shouldn't be a problem.

Daniel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel said...

Correction, THG is in first person present tense.

Cynthia M. Andersen said...

Hi. I am writing a fiction but my intro is present tense, my protagonist flashes back to her last few years living in another country. It becomes a narrative from Third Person POV. My question is, I am writing in past tense but i am including my protagonist's thoughts and conversations with others. Is this okay to do? This is my first book. Thanks for your help :O)

Davison said...

I think it is great to do that. Your character is flashing back in her thoughts. In her thoughts, it is happenening right then. You must use present!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Conversations too correct?

Jack Daniel said...

I use a version of Historical Present Tense with 1st-person. This has the advantage of being in the present for the reader (as for the protagonist) without the gimmicky awkwardness of present tense.

If you divide 'what happens' in the narrative into two categories, A) incidental events (things that begin and end) and B) ongoing conditions, the incidental events all take past tense (because the narrator observing/commenting on them means they have already occurred in their immediate past). But ongoing conditions can take present tense, because they still exist in the narrator's present.

Example: "Parker crossed her arms and stared at me. She's difficult to fool. I can't lie to her and get away with it."

It's told from present using present tense ('she is', 'I can't'), because her 'being difficult to fool' is an ongoing condition for the narrator as is his inability to 'lie to her and get away with it'.

At the same time, 'crossed her arms' and 'stared at me' are incidental events. They happen, then they're over (although she may continue to stare), then the narrator tells us that he observed them, using past tense. Since these things have happened in the narrator's immediate past, it still feels as if the narrator is speaking from his present, a 'present' shared by the reader.

The same passage in simple present tense (Parker crosses her arms …) feels awkward and amateurish. In simple past tense (She was difficult to fool, I couldn't lie …) it feels like a story we're hearing about after the fact. In HPT it feels immediate, yet natural, as if it is happening right now, and it is not an error in mixing tenses, because past events get past tense and ongoing conditions get present tense, and those are the proper tenses. You can do this in the same paragraph or even in the same complex sentence, and the reader should have no issue with it.

So a story told using Historical Present Tense can feel natural. It masquerades as past tense making it feel familiar and comfortable to the reader, yet it also has all of the immediacy of present tense (without the inherent negatives) that place the reader directly in the room with the protag and the action. It's a combination, rather than a mash-up. And it is not a compromise between past and present tense because nothing is sacrificed.

It's the best of both worlds. This can be very effective. But it's tricky to do.

Jack Daniel said...

I'm going to correct an earlier comment (2018). I am not changing my position, but I referred to what I was speaking about as Historical Present Tense. That's not really accurate: Historical Present Tense is using present-tense verbs with events not in the present, such as all advertising does: "Our product cleans your commode effortlessly!" or news headlines "Stock market drops 500 points—Film at Eleven!" No, the stock market closed hours ago. Technically, that news show teaser should take the past-tense verb, 'dropped'.

What I was talking about is more-accurately 'temporal positioning'. If the author uses past-tense verbs for incidental events and present-tense verbs for ongoing conditions, it transports the reader into the scene, real time live, along with the 1st-P character. The present-tense verbs then imply that the past-tense verbs refer to the immediate past.

Hayden said...

I am writing a book but I'm still unsure of past/present tenses. They don't make sense. Here is a sample below. The first one has past and present combined(and 1 future word 'will') The second has only past language and sounds illiterate and ridiculous! Should a book read well or must it be written in an illiterate way to appease scholars. I'm unsure and would appreciate some advice. Thanks.

Sample 1 a & b: Past/Present/Future

Past Tense 1a:
As the craft came to a halt and locked itself into the holding bay, a voice spoke throughout their ship.

Present Tense 1b:
"You are now in the hands of our race. We are Graylings. The exits to your vessel will open. There are many of us, and we bear arms. It is in your best interests not to use your weapons."

will (future tense)

Sample2 a & b: All Past Tense

Past Tense 2a:
As the craft came to a halt and locked itself into the holding bay, a voice spoke throughout their ship:

Past Tense 2b:
"You were now in the hands of our race. They were Graylings. The exits to your vessel would open. There were many of us, and we bear arms. It was in your best interests not to use your weapons."

Jack Daniel said...

To Hayden.

I agree that the second (2b) sounds ridiculous. I think the reason is that in any book, including those told about past adventures written in simple past tense (95% of all books) dialogue always uses present tense verbs (unless the speaker is speaking of something in the relative past referenced to that conversation).

This is not a 'mix' of tenses. A verb tense is independent, meaning one verb references one object or one subject only, and if one object or subject takes a past or present tense verb, that does not lock everything else to that.

For example, here is a (dialogue) sentence that uses both present and past tense correctly, in the same sentence: "I am under the impression that he did not know." There is the present tense verb 'am', referencing the speaker's current impression, which happens to that speaker in that speaker's present, and a reference to something in the past that someone 'did not know', so the past tense verb 'did' is used there.

It is not a 'mix', because one verb references a subject that is independent of the object and the tense that object takes, while the other verb references something from the past. One is not dependent on the other.

Professor Google says 'don't mix tenses', but that is a gross oversimplification. What Prof Google should be saying, to be more accurate, is 'don't use the wrong tense in the wrong place'.

Thomas Harvard Lewis said...
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Mol Smith said...

In the past, media like television had hardly any changes to the play and story. Over the last 50 years, visual media now has rapid changes with a mixedstory of past and present. The viewer has moved on and evolved in theway they digest stoies. This is true in written media as well. I believe modern novel writing benefits from shifts in past tense and present tense. Yes, it is difficult not to accidently mix the two in say, a single paragraph, nut that work in some instances. I tend to use both tenses over tracts of several paagraphs or pages, doing it right from the start so a reader adjusts quickly to the device.

Presnt tense is good for action or a moment when you need to pull the reader right into the story close up. An example...

He wanted her, but as she looked at him and realised his intention, there was nothing to stop her engaging in what she desired too.

She removes her clothes. He pulls her into him. Lust grips them... blah... blah... blah

I hope you see my point. Excuse the corny example.


Thomas Harvard Lewis said...

I'm beginning to look at my own writing in a new way. I use a version of present tense, but not the YA version where all past-tense verbs are simply converted to present-tense verbs. I don't think that works well. The present moment is of course where everything happens, but it's impossible to grasp it in our minds. All it really is is a dividing line between the past and the future. Trying to tell a story from that dividing line never really seems to work well at all.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens was written this other way. Elena Ferrante, who has won the Booker prize, also sometimes uses this technique.

I base this on how human awareness works. We have three types of memory: sensory memory, working memory, and long-term memory. Sensory memory, or experiential memory, last for milliseconds, and is how we experience events that happen. Long-term memory last for a long time. This is where we store our memories.

In between those on the timeline is working memory, also known as short-term memory, which lasts about 30 seconds. This is where all awareness takes place. It's where all human creativity and decision-making take place. All expression. It is the space of time that happens directly after the present moment, and since the present moment is constantly moving forward, short-term memory also is constantly moving forward.

Since this is a chunk of time, it includes the immediate past. This is what gives it the ability, in narration, to use past-tense verbs for things that have happened in the last 30 seconds, and present-tense verbs for things that are still ongoing.

To distinguish this from thinking of present tense as referring to the present moment, I think of this as 'current tense', meaning it encompasses that 30 seconds of awareness that keeps moving forward, that moving chunk of time that represents what we experience in life as we experience it.

An easier way to think of this, let's say if you were writing in first person and wanted the temporal position of the main character to be directly in the scene, telling the reader what is happening as it happens, is to simply confine what you write to that character's current awareness of what is going on around them, including that 30 seconds of the immediate past. Then use past-tense and present-tense verbs appropriately to modify subjects and objects in the sentences—past tense for incidental events that happen and end, and present tense for events that have not ended quite yet.

So it's much broader (and accurate) than simple present tense (and much more immediate than simple past tense) and much more natural sounding. And it is essentially invisible to the reader. It will feel to them as if it reflects 'what is happening' in the story. This is the way that everyone navigates the world, so to me it makes perfect sense as a way to show a first-person main character navigating their world.

Not that this is easy to do. To write in this style one must be constantly aware of what the precise temporal position of the main character is. But it's worth it, because it has all the immediacy of simple present tense with none of the drawbacks of either that or simple past tense.

It does have its advantages beyond that, including that the presence of present-tense verbs implies that the past-tense verbs in the same scene refer to the immediate past and not the distant past, and that can make the scene feel as if it's happening right now.

It has another advantage in that the character can let a little bit of time pass, and then summarize what has just happened, which allows the narrative to include small chunks of summary, something that is quite common and even expected. And even then, the summary feels like it's happening right now.

Mol Smith said...

I include present and past tense in my novels. As pointed out elsewhere here, it enables immediacy (present tense) whilst writing the main bulk of the novel in the past tense (easier).

I never mix tenses in a paragraph. one paragraph: one tense. I don't keep switching from one to another in paragraph after paragraph either or else this would confuse the reader and the writer, me.

One has to check carefully in each paragraph for accidental tense errors. It is an easy mistake to make. Present tense suits fast, unfolding action well. And suddenly brings a story alive and more vibrant in such moments. One can switch back to past tense as the 'dust settles'.