1. John Locke The Cat
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    John Locke The Cat Member

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    Switching between past and present tense

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by John Locke The Cat, Jun 10, 2009.

    I am writing my novel in first-person. The style I have adapted is that my main character will do actions in past tense, and also delve into his thoughts. Perhaps, my main character will think of a certain subject or idea, and go into commentary on it. What I am wondering is... is it okay for the actions and story itself to be in past tense... but when my character goes off into commentary on a subject related to the actions in the story (let's say commentary on religion or politics or something) is it okay to switch to present tense? Then move back to past tense in the next paragraph when the action/story continues?

    To me, having the character's/narrator's commentary on a present day subject, but writing it in past tense... just comes off awkward to me when I read it, like it's in the past and not current/still is, even though it is, if I am making any sense.

    I could write up an example or something if I'm not making sense.
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Literal thoughts are very likely to be in present tense. Do not confuse the tense of individual sentences to the narrative tense.
     
  3. John Locke The Cat
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    John Locke The Cat Member

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    Thanks, that's what I thought. I was just paranoid for the most part, since English teachers always drove it in my head to keep one tense all the way through no matter what.
     
  4. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Wouldn't it depend on (a) when he had the thoughts, and (b) how you deliver the thoughts. If he thought is the past, then your "to think" verbs should be in the past tense, and unless you are quoting the thoughts the same way you would quote dialogue, writing them in present tense may be a little troublesome.

    Like you couldn't go "I ran back inside my house. I think (insert your commentary). I ran back outside." It would have to be, "I thought (insert here)."
     
  5. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    show us what you're referring to, if you want valid advice...
     
  6. lynneandlynn
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    lynneandlynn Contributing Member

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    What Cog said. And if you're having this sort of problem with first-person already...I'd honestly suggest that you write it in 3rd. This is one of the major challenges a first person writer faces because if you aren't careful, you can easily find yourself slipping into writing both tenses in the actions your MC does.

    As a first-person writer myself, I'd still recommend that you write in 3rd person if you can. For 90% of writers, it's the strongest p.o.v. Not first person.

    ~Lynn
     
  7. John Locke The Cat
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    John Locke The Cat Member

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    All right, I will write up an example to show exactly what I mean...

    It was a gray, stormy day. I walked out of my house only to see that the cows across the street were being struck by lightning. All around the pasture, the cows were running around with their heads on fire.

    Good for them, I thought. Why do cows even exist? Cows give us milk and hamburgers. I don't care; they are the dumbest, ugliest creatures I have ever seen in my life.

    A bolt of lightning struck near my feet. The sky father must be trying to kill me now, too. I quickly ran back into my house to safety.

    ^ That's what I am referring, too. Is it okay to switch to present tense when going off on a tangent in thought and then back to past tense in action? Or should I just switch that part to past tense, too, and have it:

    Good for them, I thought. Why did cows even exist? Cows gave us milk and hamburgers. I didn't care; they were the dumbest, ugliest creatures I had ever seen in my life.
     
  8. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Definitely the second example: Good for them, I thought. Why did cows even exist? Cows gave us milk and hamburgers. I didn't care; they were the dumbest, ugliest creatures I had ever seen in my life.

    Which is different to: The sky father must be trying to kill me now, too, as that is like a "direct" thought (like dialogue), so the tense is a little more flexible...
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Your tenses are just fine in the example, but in this case your internal thought could be mistaken for narrative. Including the tag , I thought would help:
    Don't worry about the fact that you also used that same tag in the next paragraph. Like said, thought is a tag verb that virtually disappears for the reader.

    Internal dialogue is inherently first person, so it takes more skill to make it stand out as dialogue in a first person story.
     
  10. lynneandlynn
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    lynneandlynn Contributing Member

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    This. Very true. Just felt like I needed to post an agreement nod. :-D

    ~Lynn
     
  11. lynneandlynn
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    lynneandlynn Contributing Member

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    Honestly, you could add the "thought" tag to the line "The sky father must be trying to kill me now, too," but I honestly think that in the context in which you have it written, there's a better way to do it.

    Personally, I'd say "It seemed the sky father was trying to kill me too." Because to me that sentence just seems very out of place.

    ~Lynn
     
  12. diamonds overun
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    diamonds overun Member

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    That made me spit coke out my nose, it was that funny. I am sitting here giggling like an idiot. If that is from you piece i would love to read it.

    funny stuff :D
     
  13. John Locke The Cat
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    John Locke The Cat Member

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    Haha, I just made that up off the whim, but thanks.

    Also, I appreciate the advice from everyone, but I think I might just switch to third person. I'm stressing out and worrying about the tenses in first person too much. To me, adding "I thought" and "it seemed to me" frequently is extra baggage and slows the flow. Personally, I think shorter sentences and paragraphs come off as more entertaining to read.
     
  14. lynneandlynn
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    lynneandlynn Contributing Member

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    If your stressing out about first person, then you're probably not meant to be a first person writer. 3rd person is easier (90 percent of the time) for the majority of writers. You're stressing about 1st person...I stress out about 3rd. I never feel like I get enough of an emotional connection with the reader when I write in 3rd person...however, from what I see in the example of your first person writing, you have trouble getting in enough detail (which is better suited to 3rd person). Basically, this is a long-winded way of saying I agree with you. ><

    ~Lynn
     
  15. tbeverley
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    tbeverley Senior Member

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    Seems a matter of style. It might be correct usage, but the flow of the piece might also be messed up by it. But I'm unsure what the question was; this might, in itself, suggest that the switching of tenses could be so confusing that a reader wouldn't understand.
     

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