1. RANDOMCL
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    RANDOMCL New Member

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    Shifting tenses based on perspectives

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by RANDOMCL, Oct 21, 2008.

    From what I've gathered, it is best to stick to the passive tense. For the novel I am currently working on, a large portion of the story takes place in the psyche of the main character. Along with this, the style I've used where he is the focus of the chapters is one that I find very fitting. It is mainly composed of the active or present tense, formed from short, bursting sentences. The character, partly based on aspects of my own life, is represented through his thoughts in these chapters. The style is more descriptive of thought, and seems very fitting.

    My own worry is audience: are you personally turned off by even a small amount of present tense usage? Do you consider it appropriate in some cases. People say to write what you feel, and write how you want, but as someone looking to make it successfully as a writer (not necessarily financially, but critically or at least reach a large audience), I want to do my best to fit the expectations.

    Opinions?
     
  2. Scarlett_156
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    Scarlett_156 Active Member

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    Shifting tenses can convey immediacy and drama to a scene if competently handled. If they are NOT well handled you might as well stamp the word "amateur" all over your copy in big red letters, right?

    One thing I've noticed personally is that it's REALLY hard to stay consistent when trying to write in varying tenses. I can write several paragraphs in present tense and have things go along pretty well but then without realizing it I will have shifted back to past tense, which is of course easier to write in and more standard. So then I go through and try to make the tenses consistent, read the thing, and decide it would have all been better in past tense anyway.

    What you're describing as far as internal dialog/monologue (ex, It's hot in here. I can't feel my legs. I don't remember anything... that's right, there was a cave-in. I'm trapped!) is often very effective; however--again, this is just something I've noticed personally--if I try to stay in present tense when describing any subseqent action, the whole thing starts to suck.
    That doesn't read very well, does it?

    That reads a bit better--if it's just my own internal speech, present tense is ok, but once it gets out of my head it's not so ok. Switching from present in internal monolgue to past/passive for scene and action is like the camera panning slowly back--at first the reader only knows what the character knows, and then the scene comes into focus, and you can see the character too, plus still hear what he's thinking.

    I've seen other writers make good use of changing tenses but it takes a lot of control. In my opinion if you are just starting out, and in particular if you've never had anything accepted for publication (by someone other than your buddies on your personal website!), then it's a better idea to veer away from present tense writing.

    Good question! I hope this was helpful. yours in Chaos, Scarlett
     
  3. RANDOMCL
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    RANDOMCL New Member

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    I definitely appreciate the help. That gives me a better idea for usage. I'm a relatively new writer, but I'm emphasizing the creation of style, and trying to find something that suits me personally. Every bit of advice contributes. Thanks much!
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I would disagree vehemently with this statement, although I'm not sure you are using the right term for what you mean.

    Passive voice relegates the actor to the role of a passive object. In an extreme example:
    As opposed to an active voice:
    I'm using essentially the same nouns and verbs, but the second sentence makes John the one in the driver's seat, so to speak. That's probably why you're more likely to see the passive version in a report to the insurance company, though - it all happened to John, he didn't DO anything.

    I suspect, however, that you meant past tense, not passive. In that, I will agree. Past tense is a more natural narrative voice than present tense, and the writer has complete control over how far in the past is represented; anywhere from microseconds to eons, depending on context. A past tense voice on the order of seconds is emotionally nearly equivalent to a present tense voice, but with more flexibility to vary the time distance.

    In your example, by the way, the present tense is all contained in internal dialogue, which is literal thoughts by the character. It is correct to write internal dialogue without quote marks, as you have done, but you should not italicize it (even though you may see it that way in some published books - it's a publication choice, but you should never rely on typesetting choices to convey meaning).

    However, don't confuse the narrative voice with the grammatical tense in individual sentences. A past tense narrative voice will predominantly use past tense verbs in the individual sentences, but there will be exceptions:
    The narrative voice here is past tense, but there are present tense verbs (Jack is, I am certain) and even a future tense verb (he will be institutionalized).

    I do discuss this somewhat in this blog: What's Your Point (of View)?
     

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