1. Spacer
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    Spacer Active Member

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    Past or Present Tense (sort of)

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Spacer, Jan 20, 2011.

    Is there a good explanation to learn the "literary" tenses? That is, do you use past or present tense to describe events? More than that, there are actually different tenses involved even though it mostly looks like the past tense. What are those?

    Consider a sentence like "The computer was a comparatively simple design." That might appear in a narrative in which the action is written in present tense. It doesn't mean that the computer was simple (only) before the story takes place. So what is it?

    Describing a scene in present tense sounds odd. But three paragraphs setting the scene using "X was here, Y was there" makes a contrast to the subsequent action, where "MC trips over X".

    Another example, "Bill was worried. He looked out the window and ..."


    What are the principles involved here?
     
  2. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    See, I'd say "The computer is a comparatively simple design." would be present tense. "Was" is past tense. So is your second example. It's not really that complicated. "Bill is worried. He looks out the window..."

    People do use past tense while writing in present tense, just because no one thinks constantly in present - they do look back on events, sometimes even within a paragraph. But as long as all the main driving verbs that carry the action are in present tense, the rest can be in past. It's like how people use "ing" verbs in past tense to speed up the action. Instead of, "he walked down the road, and paused to look in shop windows that he passed," you could write, "he walked down the road, pausing to look in shop windows" maybe even "in passing" if you really want to speed things up. Same principle in reverse could get you a "was" sentence in present tense. Don't know how to set up the context so well since I don't often write in present tense. Er..

    "I go into the computer room, and sit at my favourite workstation. It was a comparatively simple PC in design... before I had souped it up. Now it's mega-fast and jargon speak blah I hate this example!" :p
     
  3. Spacer
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    Spacer Active Member

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    I did some searching, and found, for example this list.

    I think what I'm looking for is Past Indicative and the examples under Subjuctive mood for "Past Indicative".
     
  4. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    Using continuous tense doesn't speed things up, rather it slows them down. "Pausing" insinuates that he did it for a while, where as "paused" could be almost infinitely brief.

    "He paused briefly." - sounds right.
    "He was pausing for a while." - sounds right.

    "He paused for a while." - sounds right.
    "He was pausing briefly." - sounds awkward.


    ... Or am I standing on my head today?
     
  5. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    "He was pausing for a while" sounds awkward to me if it's on its own, although it would be ok in a more complex structure: "Just as he was pausing for a while, he realised that he could use the steam to power the motion".
     
  6. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    Probably because "pausing" already implies a while from its continuous tense?
     
  7. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, that makes sense -- it's tautological. I'm not sure why I feel I could get away with the longer sentence. Maybe it's because the tautology gets buried in the extra words so I don't notice it. I didn't much like even the longer sentence; "Just as he paused" seemed too bare, but "Just as he paused for a cup of tea" would be better than "Just as he paused for a while". I think you've nailed it.
     
  8. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Tenses: Keep in mind there are two things working in fiction. First, the tense you've decided to work with. And secondly, the time-line you're working with. You start with the anchor tense, and stick to it, but because time-line's change, tenses can change as well.

    So, present tense narrative referring to something that happened previously in the time line, in first person:

    I note the fear on her face. As a kid she was licked by a rhino, and hasn't been the same since. She scans the crowd. I wonder if she is looking for rhinos.

    In third person:

    He notes the fear on her face. As a kid she was licked by a rhino, and hasn't been the same since. She scans the crowd. He wonders if she is looking for rhinos.

    First person, past tense:

    I noted the fear on her face. As a kid she had been licked by a rhino, and hadn't been the same since. She scanned the crowd. I wondered if she was looking for rhinos.

    Third, past:

    He noted the fear on her face. As a kid she had been licked by a rhino, and hadn't been the same since. She scanned the crowd. He wondered if she was looking for rhinos.


    You basically have to take one step back in the tense if you're referring to something previously on the time-line.

    The exception is the reminiscent narrator, as it's technically a present-tense story-line that usually adopts a past-tense narration.

    I'm sitting here at my desk, wanting to write her a letter about the time she had been licked by a rhino. For years she was affected by that, but I never said a thing, even when I saw she was scanning the crowds looking for rhinos.

    The entire following story may stay in a past-tense prose, but the actual time-line is technically being told from a point in the future of the story events as the narrator looks back.


    I think that seemed to be what you were asking. Sometimes, due to the language, the tenses will seem off, but as long as they make sense in the contexts of the tense you've adopted for the story and the time-line, it's probably not wrong, just one of those things that seems weird in our language.
     
  9. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Not buying this completely. Sure, pace is affected by word choice, but not exactly so easily as a blanket statement that 'ing' verbs speed up action.

    What about:

    "He walked down the road, and was pausing to look in the shop windows."

    As with your exampled of 'paused,' throwing in extra words delays action and simply makes there be more words to read.

    What about:

    "He walked the road, paused at shop windows."

    To me that feels sped up, and to an awkward extent as the pace now feels much faster than the action. The actions are abrupt, and almost feel careless (as if the character too wasn't taking his time).

    The words/wording of "down the road" and "look" both add a ton of the slow, strolling feeling of the sentence.

    I dunno, there are tons of things that affect pace, and it's one of the hardest things to master (imo). I often see people point to something like tense or ing verbs or sentence length as key players in pace, but it's so easy to provide counter examples using those constructions that I can't fully buy it.

    And of course, the second you use a counter example the person goes from making an objective sort of statement on pace, to opinion. Well, that doesn't FEEL faster/slower to ME. So yeah, it's also quite subjective when one wants it to be. ;)
     

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