1. Nicholas C.
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    Nicholas C. Active Member

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    Shifting tenses - how acceptable or unacceptable is it?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Nicholas C., Oct 5, 2012.

    I understand that shifting tenses mid-sentence is a serious no-no, and the mark of a pretty terrible writer (i.e... John walks to the door, and he wondered what he'd say to Mary.)

    But how about shifting tenses in different sentences of the same paragraph? Take this passage from my WIP...

    Tom rushed back to his office, still donning the necklace under his half-open shirt, and grabbed a form from the filing cabinet. He scoured the desk for a pen. Frantic. Eyes flashing and darting like fireflies.

    ... Switching the last sentence to 3rd/past, like the rest of the passage, just doesn't sound as good to me. Thoughts?
     
  2. Still Life
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    Still Life Active Member

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    As a fellow tense-shifting, fragment-loving writer, I think it would make more sense if that line was actually written out in one sentence. As in: He scoured the desk for a pen, frantic, eyes flashing and darting like fireflies.

    It’s less disruptive. Plus, it's one whole connected action anyway. If written out like that, we would still feel the sense of urgency you are trying to convey without having to constantly mentally halt because we keep getting interrupted by those pesky, pesky periods.

    I don’t think that answered your question though. So here’s my opinion on the matter: I think it sounds good the way you wrote it, but it would be nice to replace the periods with commas instead.
     
  3. Nicholas C.
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    Nicholas C. Active Member

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    I try to believe that I find a good balance between fragments and free-lowing sentences, but I have to admit that I've probably been showing more love to that hyper-minimalistic, fragmentary style as of late. Thanks for the input. I'll give that some thought.

    I suppose an em dash could be used as well.

    He scoured the desk for a pen -- frantic, eyes flashing and darting like fireflies.

    I kind of feel that the first clause should stand on it's own somewhat. But I agree that the parts after being separated by periods is maybe a little much.
     
  4. JackElliott
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    JackElliott Senior Member

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    The third sentence, with the -ings, is not really present. Still reads as past.

    But, to answer your question, shifting tenses is not only acceptable, but a good technique to use once in a while. Read a story done in present tense. When the writer explains the past, often the narrative slips into simple past, and from there sometimes into pluperfect.

    And your first sentence about shifting tenses mid-line isn't true either.
     
  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Your last sentence does not contain any complete verbs, only present participles. It has no tense.

    Sentence fragments have their place. Overuse of them will make your writing sound rough and choppy, though.

    As for mixing tense, your grammatical tense (the tense of individual verbs) can vary considerably. But the narrative tense, the time perspective from which your narrator tells the story, should NOT change,
     
  6. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't see that you are shifting tenses. To me, your last sentence is a trimmed version of "His eyes were flashing and darting like fireflies," which is comfortably past tense.
     
  7. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    yes, all of the above...

    what i find wrong is the verb 'donning'... did you mean 'wearing'?...

    'donning' would me he was putting it on under his shirt, the whole time he was performing the other actions...
     
  8. Nicholas C.
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    Nicholas C. Active Member

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    Thank you for the comments! You are all correct. On second glance, it's not an issue of tense changing (which makes me realize I need to brush up on my grammar comprehension). And yes, Mama good catch. Donning is not the right word for what's going on here. Thank you for the help, all :)
     
  9. remiojones
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    remiojones Member

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    I'm writing my book in the first person past tense. Sometimes I slip into the present tense. I do the best I can in keeping the narrative clear but in the end I'm leaving those inconsistencies to the proofreader. I have to give them something to fix, am I right?

    It was reassuring to read that someone else has a similar problem. Thank you.
     
  10. robertpri007
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    robertpri007 Member

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    I have agonized with this dilemma for years, continually shifting tenses without really noticing it. An editor once told me to write as if everything happened one second ago.
    Simple, but it helped me.
     

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