1. Wolfy Snackrib
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    Wolfy Snackrib Member

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    Mixing present and past tense, simultaneously?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Wolfy Snackrib, Aug 30, 2012.

    This is a bit of a follow up thread to my other one which was just about present tense. But now I'd love to hear everyone's opinion on something else that may be a bit hit or miss. Any advice is helpful.

    So I was considering the idea of first person narrative, where the narrator speaks in present tense about the things that he is doing, but the things outside of him, the things that everyone else is doing is past tense. An example:

    -----
    Overhead, the leaves on a branch rattled. Looking up, I find two big red eyes staring back at me. It's hanging upside down like a bat. This one doesn't look like it has a mouth.
    "What are you looking for?", said the mouthless one. "Expecting someone?"
    "It... speaks?", I ask with an inability to keep the look of surprise from entering my face.
    Its eyes shifted from deep red into a bright green, almost glowing.
    "Mantis, they call me", he replied with a rather amused tone of voice. Shifting my gaze, I look to the taller one once more. His left arm appears to be tattooed with dark blue stripes. The style of his clothes kind of remind me of something gothic. They're dark and fit tight on his upper body, his left shoulder decorated with a peculiar shoulder pad. Fashionable.
    With his head tilted down, threateningly looking up at me and bearing a crooked grin, he too gives his introduction but through a hissing growl, "Cult."
    The smaller one, Mantis, leaps from the branch and lands with a thud. In me there's a feeling of awkwardness as his eyes examined me thoroughly.
    -----

    Sort of like that I suppose. Is it messy or does it complement the narrative? Should I toss the present tense all together and just go with past tense, or should I keep this up? It's very difficult for me to decide.
     
  2. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    The first question is why do you want to do that? If it's just for the sake of being different then all you will do is annoy your readers. If there is a specific narrative reason for that mixing then it is possible to do things like that, but very difficult to pull them off. As it stands you've not even managed to do it consistently ("It's hanging upside down like a bat" is outside the narrator, so for consistency it should be past tense; ditto "They're dark...", "He gives...", "The smaller one, Mantis, leaps..."). That should ring alarm bells that the non-standard writing style doesn't have a narrative reason, because if it did you'd find it easier to get inside it. So it might work for a different writer or a different story, but here it's just an unnecessary nuisance.
     
  3. GHarrison
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    GHarrison Senior Member

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    It is possible to mix the two, creating certain dynamics, but in this example, the few past tense verbs just read as incorrect and misleading.
     
  4. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    makes no sense... won't be acceptable to agents/editors/publishers...
     
  5. Wolfy Snackrib
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    Wolfy Snackrib Member

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    The main purpose would be so that I could kill a narrator in mid sentence as if it was happening present time. That could be fun.
     
  6. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Nope. Still makes no sense, and would enter the reject bin fast enough to leave a dent.
     
  7. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    After reading your example, I would suggest keeping it all one tense. If you're really curious about how switching between past and present is done effectively, read Jose Saramago. He tends to do this a lot.
     
  8. Wolfy Snackrib
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    Wolfy Snackrib Member

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    Oh well. Shouldn't be a biggie. But I will miss my initial ideas of making it all neat and present tense. But that's cool, it'll probably be easier past tense.
     
  9. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This is just plain confusing - why is something happening in the past and then the narrator's looking at it from a present tense perspective? Nothing's there to be looked at - it happened in the past. Personally it just looks like you don't know how to get your tenses right - I know that's not the case, since you already stated it's deliberate - but that's how it looks to me and probably how it's gonna look to any agent.

    Mixing would be all right if you separated it between scenes or at the very least italicised paragraphs - but then this part will have to reveal something not already revealed in the regular narrative.

    Why can't you write a present tense narrative that is NOT first person? This way you can still kill your MC mid-sentence.

    Heck you can kill him mid-sentence even in the past tense, midear :)

    But yeh, don't do this tense mixing. It just looks like you made a ton of mistakes in your MS without bothering to proofread. Write in the present tense if you want - no one's against that - it's only MIXING the present and past that's a bad idea. So go ahead and write in the present tense. As long as it's all in one single tense, it's fine!
     
  10. Wolfy Snackrib
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    Wolfy Snackrib Member

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    Don't worry about the mistakes made, it was my attempt to try figuring out how it might look if I mixed both tenses, and needless to say, didn't work out too well.

    Another question. As I'm starting to rewrite the story in past tense, there's a few instances here and there that I feel I don't want to get rid of. An example that contains it:

    -----
    Nighttime. The canvas of murky alleys and dark corners beckoned to be painted with blood. Even before it begins you can smell paranoia oozing from within the city. It's an abstract fear, not yet given shape, but it's out there. As always it's as if I could smell it.
    -----

    Some details that I feel to be more universal and static, is it alright to write those in present tense? Like "It's an abstract fear..." since it's always that way, even if the story is in a past tense.
     
  11. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    As much as that is in present tense as in past. I'm not usually a fan of present-tense narration, but I think you might do better if you move it over completely to present. The resulting effect is rather like a voice-over. Do you read a lot of graphic novels?

    "Nighttime. The canvas of murky alleys and dark corners beckons to be painted with blood. Even before it begins you can smell paranoia oozing from within the city. It's an abstract fear, not yet given shape, but it's out there. As always it's as if I can smell it."
     
  12. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    that tense muddle still doesn't make any sense, wolfy...
     
  13. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Guess it depends on the type of narration you're giving, eg. if you're addressing the reader, then I assume some things should be in present tense. But to be honest, unless you're very experienced and a whizz when it comes to grammar, I wouldn't try it because while it can be done, it's hard to do it right.

    It really sounds like you're in love with writing in the present tense, and there's nothing wrong with that. Hunger Games was written entirely in present tense, first person and it was a hit. I think you should abandon the convention of using past, and just use present since that's what you're inclined towards and if you tried to write in past tense, it sounds like you're just gonna slip right back into writing present, ending up with a lot of grammar muddle that'd just not worth it. Don't worry about breaking the norm, as long as you stick to only one tense, it doesn't matter much which you choose.
     
  14. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    Is there a page on the internet somewhere that is a good 101/RTFM about maintaining tense in descriptive writing?
     
  15. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Probably, along with probably even more bad ones.

    You could also read a wide variety of fiction to see the effective management of tense in actual use.
     
  16. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    yes, the best tutorials on re how to write well are the works of writers who do write well...
     

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