1. Magnatolia
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    Magnatolia Active Member

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    Present and future tense

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Magnatolia, Apr 5, 2014.

    Hey guys,

    I'm reading some books on showing, and description, and read about writing in present and future tense. I generally write in past tense. Not sure how to write in present tense, or rather, to combine the two, however I've been practicing with future tense.

    He grabbed the unbroken food items and a couple of kitchen knives. They felt solid enough to stab one of these creatures, and he handed one to Clair.


    Clair looks at the knife. “I can’t, I’ve never killed anyone.” The idea of stabbing someone sends her stomach lurching and she gags, causing goose bumps to race from her feet right up to the top of her scalp. Later that day, she’ll have to. Or risk losing the one person she cares about. Right now, though, the thought is too much for her to handle and she slips the knife through the back loop of her jeans. The cold metal resting against her flesh reminds her that it’s there.


    He took her hand, warm touch reassuring. “They’re not the people we knew Clair. We’re no longer innocent. As much as we want to be.”

    “Do … do you think they fought back?” Her eyes searched his, looking for approval.

    “I think they did.” His smile was thin-lipped, his eyes reflecting uncertainty. His mother was a strong independent women and he knew she would have gone down swinging. Clair's mother, on the other hand, had servants for the mundane tasks in life. He wondered how she would have coped.


    This is a scene from my novel that I've rewritten to foreshadow a future scene where Thomas' life is in danger and the only person who can save him is her, by killing a creature that's attacking him. The one paragraph is in present tense, and I think the rest are in past tense.

    Is that a good use of present tense, and does it flow well with the past tense on either side?

    Thanks!
     
  2. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    You're mixing past and present.

    "He grabbed the unbroken food items and a couple of kitchen knives. They felt solid enough to stab one of these creatures, and he handed one to Clair."

    This is all past tense, then the next couple sentences:

    "Clair looks at the knife. “I can’t, I’ve never killed anyone.” The idea of stabbing someone sends her stomach lurching and she gags, causing goose bumps to race from her feet right up to the top of her scalp."

    Are present tense.

    Then the next paragraph:

    "He took her hand, warm touch reassuring. “They’re not the people we knew Clair. We’re no longer innocent. As much as we want to be.”"

    Is back to past tense.
     
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  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I wouldn't include the part starting with "Later that day, she'll have to...." In my opinion this is a very weak form of foreshadowing.

    I do like the idea of mixing present and past tense. It can be a very powerful technique if used properly. Part of knowing when to use past and when to use present involves knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each tense. The way you have it right now, I would say that having only a few sentences in present tense isn't very effective. Perhaps fleshing out the paragraph written in present tense might help.
     
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  4. Magnatolia
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    Magnatolia Active Member

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    @Robert_S Thanks, yeah, however the next bit is future tense I believe - Later that day, she’ll have to. Or risk losing the one person she cares about. Then back to present tense. Right now, though, the thought is too much for her to handle and she slips the knife through the back loop of her jeans. The cold metal resting against her flesh reminds her that it’s there.

    @thirdwind Thanks for the advice. Is this better? Clair looks at the knife, taunting her as she turns it in the light. "I can't, I've never killed anyone." The idea of stabbing someone sends her stomach lurching and she gags, tasting her breakfast for a second time with a hint of acidic mouthwash. Goosebumps race from the bottom of her feet to the top of her scalp sending a chill down her spine. Clair feels Thomas' calloused hand grasp hers. Very gentle for a man with hardened hands. Reassuring.

    That way I'm combining the next bit into the present tense. Then continue with the dialog. Is that more meaty?

    Thanks!
     
  5. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I was actually going to suggest that you write the part of them holding hands in present tense. Looks like you read my mind. :)

    At this point my advice would be to post a larger passage in the Workshop (once you meet all the requirements). That will make it much easier for me to give my thoughts on what you're going for.
     
  6. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    I saw that, but IMO, there was nothing wrong with it. It goes bad when you mix past and present, then throw in a bit of future.

    When is the story taking place? Now or did it happen in the past? I got the foreshadowing and that worked okay for me, but I still don't know when the story is happening.
     
  7. Magnatolia
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    Magnatolia Active Member

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    @Robert_S It happened in the past.
     
  8. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    since it all happened in the past, it makes no sense whatsoever to switch to present tense in the middle of a scene... or anywhere...

    where would you want to use future tense?... how and why?
     
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  9. AlannaHart
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    AlannaHart Contributing Member

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    You don't need to, it doesn't make sense to and, if you want to become a better writer, don't.
     
  10. Magnatolia
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    Magnatolia Active Member

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    @mammamaia future tense can be used to foreshadow. For example in my story I use future tense, as above, Later that day, she’ll have to. Or risk losing the one person she cares about. Right now, though, the thought is too much for her to handle and she slips the knife through the back loop of her jeans. The cold metal resting against her flesh reminds her that it’s there.

    Future tense, led in with later that day and returned to 'reality' with Right now. This creations tension as I haven't outright told the reader that she will kill someone. I've shown her to be anxious and pretty damn sure she doesn't have it in her to kill a zombie. Yet by foreshadowing I'm letting them know that she will be placed in a position of her worst nightmare. Doing something she doesn't think she can in order to save someone she cares about. I put her in a position later where she doesn't kill the zombie, so this adds to the tension already provided with one simple foreshadowing.

    @AlannaHart Thanks for the response. I believe you can on the odd occasion. It wasn't my intention to do it throughout the entire book. To me it's like zooming in, although it should probably come from a memory of an observing character. Thomas handed her knife, watching the look on her face. She holds it up to the light, twists and turns it, eyes widening as the light reflects off the walls. It reminded Thomas of the day she had her first ever apple.
     
  11. AlannaHart
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    AlannaHart Contributing Member

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    Foreshadowing does not necessitate changing narrative tense, which is a big no no. It's not 'zooming in', so much as destroying the foundations on which you have constructed a viable sense of time and place within your story. The paragraph Thomas handed her (a) knife, watching the look on her face. Is not wrong. But to follow it with she holds ... is actually, objectively, wrong. Adjusting the rest of the paragraph to follow suit in regards to tense would result in: She held it up to the light, twisted and turned it, eyes widening as the light reflected off the walls. It reminded Thomas of the day she had (seen) her first ever apple.

    I'll try to break it down for you. When you say Thomas handed her the knife, you are telling the reader that the story you are currently telling has already happened, meaning the whole thing has already happened. When you say She holds it up to the light, you are telling the reader 'no actually, just this fragment is happening right now!' which just doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

    If you separate the sections with differing tense by chapters or line breaks, you can create flashback scenes or the like in this fashion, but I wouldn't recommend it, unless you really know what you're doing.

    He grabbed the unbroken food items and a couple of kitchen knives. They felt solid enough to stab one of these creatures, and he handed one to Clair.

    Clair looked at the knife. “I can’t, I’ve never killed anyone.” The idea of stabbing someone sent her stomach lurching and she gagged, causing goose bumps to race from her feet right up to the top of her scalp. Later that day, she’d have to. Or risk losing the one person she cared about. Right now, though, the thought was too much for her to handle and she slipped the knife through the back loop of her jeans. The cold metal resting against her flesh reminded her that it was there.

    He took her hand, warm touch reassuring. “They’re not the people we knew Clair. We’re no longer innocent. As much as we want to be.”


    Notice, this says exactly the same thing, but it doesn't nonsensically skip from then to now. There's still the problem of they felt solid enough to stab one of these creatures being an observation of his, and the following paragraph being observations of hers which could be headhopping unless it's intended to be third person omniscient. If it were the former, that would be a POV issue and not a tense issue.
     
  12. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Like I said earlier, I think the foreshadowing here is weak because it takes us out of the action and doesn't really do much. However, I do like the idea of mixing past and present. In fact, this is something Jose Saramago does quite often, and many people, including members of the Swedish Academy, like this idea. If used correctly, it really is a powerful tool.
     
  13. Magnatolia
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    Magnatolia Active Member

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    Thanks @AlannaHart I'll try and stick to the one tense, and foreshadowing when needed. I deliberately move between the two POV's as they are essentially both protaganists, although I stick to one POV more than the other. I think the writing would get clunky if I tried to write both characters through one POV.

    Clair watched him grab the unbroken food items and a couple of kitchen knives. He bounced the knife in the palm of his hand, and handed one to her.

    @thirdwind, I think that's a reasonable lead-in, and the whole point of it is to make the reader think about that future situation, so I think in that sense it does a lot. They get questions, therefore they're not thinking about the action. And there's no real 'action' per se in that scene. One other way would be to say something like She had a feeling she'd need this knife in the future. Or risk losing everything. But it doesn't have the same gripping effect though.
     
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  14. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    that isn't really future tense... it's still in past, just referring to what she might have to do... that doesn't make it past tense in any way...
     
  15. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    that isn't really future tense... it's still past, but just referring to something she might have to do... that doesn't make it future tense in any way...
     
  16. AlannaHart
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    AlannaHart Contributing Member

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    Later that day, she’ll have to ... = present tense, not past (or future). Clarifying, not disagreeing, so's nobody gets confused :p
     
  17. Magnatolia
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    Magnatolia Active Member

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    Oh, okay, so foreshadowing doesn't have to be written in future tense? as in She knew a time would come when she'd have to use the knife. Just hope to God I can do it ?
     
  18. AlannaHart
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    AlannaHart Contributing Member

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    If you say "Tomorrow I will wash my dog," you are not in the future, you're in the present thinking about the future, like in your example :)
     
  19. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, the story isn't in the future, but that one little sentence is indeed in future tense.
     
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  20. AlannaHart
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    AlannaHart Contributing Member

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    @ChickenFreak I suppose, or crastinal tense :p but it's not considered breaking out of past or present tense as such.
     
  21. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree, just as a character speaking in the present tense doesn't change the fact that a story is in past tense. (And vice versa.) But some clarification did seem to be called for.
     
  22. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    yes, of course... i was probably recalling the preceding and following parts being in past, wrote 'past' by mistake... which is a good reason not to mix present and past as you did...
     
  23. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    Does English have a future tense? It seems all it has is present tense talking about the future, either with certainty or some uncertainty.
     
  24. AlannaHart
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    AlannaHart Contributing Member

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    Arguably, but not so clearly as some other languages. Apparently 'he will do this' is as much future tense as 'he did that' is past tense, though grammarians differ in their opinions on this. I'm personally of the opinion that future tense is bogus.
     
  25. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    I think English, but probably not only English, makes the distinction that nothing is certain. You can say what you're going to do tomorrow, but anything can happen that makes it a false statement. Only in the world of fiction can the future have an predictable absolute outcome.
     

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