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  1. Aled James Taylor
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    Aled James Taylor Contributing Member Contributor

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    Past and Present Tense.

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Aled James Taylor, May 11, 2014.

    I'm writing a story in the first person in which my main character is the narrator. Sometimes he describes events that have happened and sometimes he describes situations that currently exist for him.

    In my text I end up with statements along the lines of, 'This is what I did' and 'This is how things are' but one is in the past tense and the other is in the present. Would it be all right to swap between tenses like this?

    I could write both in the past tense by saying, 'This is how things were' but wouldn't that imply that something has changed and the current situation for the MC is different?

    Would it be better to write everything in the present tense?
     
  2. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    first person present tense is pretty much always an awkward read and makes little to no sense, since your character can't be doing all he's doing, at the same time he's telling us about it, can he?

    as for switching from one tense to another, i'd have to see a sample of what you mean, to offer an opinion on whether it works, or not... generally speaking, you shouldn't have both in the same paragraph and must segue smoothly from one to the other, so you don't confuse the reader...
     
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  3. Aled James Taylor
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    Aled James Taylor Contributing Member Contributor

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    @mammamaia Thank you for your comment, it seems most helpful. I hadn't thought about the paragraph breaks. Here is an example:

    Sitting on my balcony and looking out over the lake, I wondered what to write. The lake was serene as it always was. It's surface was only ever disturbed by the occasional boat and then only by the gentlest ripples. There were never any waves or wind to make them.

    In fact, wind isn't even possible here since there is no air.

    Nothing here is real, in this virtual world. Well, nothing you can actually see anyway. The people are real, those who aren't simulants that is and apparently, even the simulants seem real sometimes. Friendships are real and experiences too. It seems strange, to think of the most unphysical things as being the most real and the most solid of objects as being the most unsubstantial. And perhaps that's the case in the real world too, in a way.

    I looked down at the terrace, several floors below me. Being a little afraid of heights, the view unnerved me slightly. Perhaps a top floor apartment wasn't such a good idea after all.
     
  4. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    In her latest book, Patricia Cornwell switched from first person past to first person present from one chapter to another. I found it annoying, and I don't think I would like it any better if the switch happened within a chapter.
     
  5. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    There was a story submitted for a crit on another site that was in first person present. I thought it worked very well.

    http://www.floggingthequill.com/flogging_the_quill/2014/04/flogometer-for-ediwould-you-turn-the-first-page.html

    Though as for switching to past tense, I'd say you'd only do that for recollections of events that take place at a different time. As in, "Yesterday it was bright and sunny, but today the skies outside my window are gloomy and gray."
     
    Last edited: May 11, 2014
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  6. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    aled...
    i see no valid reason for the tense shift... and it makes no sense to me, as i read it...
     
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  7. Aled James Taylor
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    Aled James Taylor Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thank you for that. I shall write it all in the past tense:

    Sitting on my balcony and looking out over the lake, I wondered what to write. The lake was serene as it always was. It's surface was only ever disturbed by the occasional boat and then only by the gentlest ripples. There were never any waves or wind to make them.

    In fact, wind wasn't even possible here since there was no air.

    Nothing here was real, in this virtual world. Well, nothing you actually saw anyway. The people were real, those who weren't simulants and apparently, even the simulants seemed real sometimes. Friendships were real and experiences too. It seemed strange, to think of the most unphysical things as the most real and the most solid of objects as the most unsubstantial. And perhaps that was the case in the real world too, in a way.

    I looked down at the terrace, several floors below me. Being a little afraid of heights, the view unnerved me slightly. Perhaps a top floor apartment wasn't such a good idea after all.
     
  8. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would say that the present sense only makes sense if that present tense statement refers to something that is either still true at the time that the narrator is narrating, or that the narrator thinks is always true.

    Example:

    Mom could never just wait for me to get home from a trip--I had to call her before getting on the plane, then again when I got off, then when I got home. This was in spite of the fact that every other day of the year, I was going to and fro, taking taxis, driving cars, without her knowing anything about it. But mothers are like that.

    I shift to the present tense at the end because I'm stating something that the narrator believes is an ongoing truth. Similar, though not quite identical, your statement:

    In fact, wind isn't even possible here since there is no air.

    suggests to me that the narrator is still in this virtual world as he's narrating. In fact, statements like this, at intervals, could slowly make it clear to the reader that the narrator chose to live in the virtual world, or is imprisoned there, or something of the sort.

    Now, you could change that by changing "here", which requires the narrator to be in that world as he's narrating, to the name of the place:

    In fact, wind isn't even possible in VirtualLand, since there is no air.

    This, to me, means that as the narrator is narrating, VirtualLand still exists and has these characteristics, or at least the narrator believes that it does.
     
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  9. Aled James Taylor
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    Aled James Taylor Contributing Member Contributor

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    @ChickenFreak Thank you for your reply. Yes, this is exactly my issue. Things that are considered true generally or currently don't sound right somehow if their written in the past tense. If you'd said, 'mothers were like that', this would, to me, imply that mothers are not like that any more. This might not be a problem if the issue is familiar but in this SF story, the issues will not be familiar (hopefully).

    In my story, the narrator is still in the virtual world and narrates the story from there, almost as a series of diary entries. he would be describing events after they occurred but describing the world around him as he currently sees it.

    So which is best, the first example text I posted or the second? Or is there another option that would be best?
     
  10. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I might change my mind at any instant, but right now I'm thinking that I prefer your first example, except that the description of the lake should also be mostly in present tense:

    The lake WAS serene as it always IS. Its surface is only... there are never....

    In fact, wind isn't...


    The WAS and then the IS transition from the moment to the description of the place where he continues to live.
     
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