1. live2write
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    live2write Contributing Member

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    Tense shifting

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by live2write, Jul 28, 2014.

    This is probably one of the hardest considerations when writing fiction. I have been told I should stick to past tense because I have more flexibility with going deeper into character analysis and speaking the mind. I have read stories in both past and present and I do not find much of a difference.

    Never the less, Tense shifting. I was told that when it is happening in the present or 'real time', stick to present tense. When it happened in the past, write as if it had already happened. However, when writing in present tense, when a topic happened in the past, what are the rules with shifting the tense from present to past.

    An example I came across with my writing was, in the beginning of the story I described a dream the MC had the previous night. Then it jumped to present tense with what was happening now. As the character narrates the actions happening in the present, there are moments when the MC reflects on the past and uses past tense.

    Would it be easier to just make the entire story past tense or it this a rule that is acceptable.

    Ex: (writing this as an example).

    Last night was one of the most frustrating nights I have had in awhile. Everything did not feel right. The bedsheets were too stiff, the blankets were bunched up and the air conditioner seized. Tossing and turning, I could not find the comfort I would have to drift me to sleep.
    I wake up this morning with only three hours of restless sleep. Unfolded clean clothes are scattered on the foot of the mattress. I was in a rush and must have forgotten to fold them and place them back into their proper place.
     
  2. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    This is a tough one. I tried this in a story ( Not Pink ) - it was all first person present tense but there was a memory that I tried to tell in I think past tense - anyway I messed it up and got nailed for it. So, I think you could do it but everyone will notice if it's not done right - and I'll tell you more people are out to point out errors in first person present than any other tense or pov.
     
  3. live2write
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    live2write Contributing Member

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    I am wondering if it is easier to just put everything into past tense perspective. I feel though I am just cheating my way out of a problem that I need to learn. Also, what if I end up writing in past tense and then have to write in present. X_X
     
  4. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    "Last night was one of the most frustrating nights I have had in awhile. Everything did not feel right. The bedsheets were too stiff, the blankets were bunched up and the air conditioner seized. Tossing and turning, I could not find the comfort I would have to drift me to sleep.
    I wake up this morning with only three hours of restless sleep. Unfolded clean clothes are scattered on the foot of the mattress. I was in a rush and must have forgotten to fold them and place them back into their proper place."

    I would make the switch in tense a bit more dramatic. You just kind of...do it. There's nothing wrong with that but it could confuse the reader.

    What I would do (changes in italics):
    "Last night was one of the most frustrating nights I have had in awhile. Nothing felt right. The bedsheets were too stiff, the blankets crumbled up and the air conditioner had (added to make it more noticeable) seized. I tossed and turned; and I could not find the comfort to drift me into sleep.
    This morning, I awaken, having taken only three hours of sleep from the night. I look to see
    unfolded clean clothes scattered at the foot of the mattress. I guess I was in a rush and must have forgotten to fold them and return them to their proper place."

    For me at least, tense switching is confusing, so I try to make it as obvious as possible for myself and for my readers (population: me). Any place to add another verb to utilize the tense should be taken. 'Feel' in "Everything did not feel right" could easily use the past tense as 'Felt'. In the original, you've got the first half as past tense and the second half as presence. While that can work, you've got stray present tense in past tense sections and past tense in present tense sections. While in a normal situation that would work, it's just added confusion to the tense switch.

    That's my two cents. I hope it helps!
     
  5. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Generally speaking, when you are writing in present tense, it's important to be a bit 'common sense' about it. If you and your best friend were having a coffee together, the actions would be narrated in present tense. But if you were telling her about the movie you saw last night, would you continue to tell it in present tense? Of course not. Since I read 'Kafka on the Shore' I realised how organic and perfect telling a story, or at least one subplot, in present tense can be. There are no restrictions, what happened in the past, gets told past tense, future plans in future, when you are back to now - present. We are following the character, and if it's first person and written well. the intimacy is instant. Don't be afraid of it, just read a few published novels that pulled it off and learn from them how it's done.
    The reason why this doesn't work is, you told us about last night and then you woke up? You talk in your sleep? Who is talking to us if you are asleep, since this is first person pov? You have to pay attention to the correct order of telling things in the narrative. Stimulus is followed by a response, cause by consequence, not the other way around. 'I wake up (present tense) and then I go on to tell you about last night (past tense).
     
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2014
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  6. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    For "real time" narration, when in doubt, begin with a statement that frames the narrative. Provide an anchor to the reader. Give context for the events that happen outside the current frame of reference. Also, in first person, especially in present tense, do not be afraid to blurt out the character's thoughts or impressions that occur within the frame of reference.

    "I lie in bed rubbing my eyes. Clean clothes are scattered on the floor around the bed. What a mess. I guess I forgot to put them away last night after getting them out of the dryer. What time is it, anyway?

    8:00. Damn. I think I finally fell asleep at 5:00.

    This was one of the most frustrating nights I have had in a while. The bedsheets were too stiff. The blankets were bunched up. And it was so hot in here with the AC not working. I couldn't fall asleep until I was exhausted from tossing and turning.

    And I'm still exhausted."
     
  7. live2write
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    live2write Contributing Member

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    Thank you for the example. I look at one of my stories that I am rewriting, it is in fact "real time" narration. However, the main issue I have is tense changes where I bring up something that happened in the past.

    I'll post an example.

    ---------------
    I spend the majority of my day on my photography. Unlike most people, I have the luxury of a privileged life. At the age of eighteen, it was revealed that the people who raised me, are my adoptive parents. There is little information about my biological parents. However, they did leave me an inheritance that would last me a lifetime. I was given a place to live, a monthly allowance of three thousand dollars and an advisor to help me manage my money.

    It was in college where I met Geb The two of us shared core classes. I remember the first conversation I had with him; where he shopped for his gothic attire. We quickly got to know each other, day by day. Shortly afterwards I asked him to move in with me. That was around the time when we discovered how we were no different when dreaming. Whether it was a coincidence or fate, it is not the only thing we have in common.

    Geb was adopted too. The same agency that arranged my adoption arranged his as well. He was eight years old. That is all he revealed to me aside from the fact his parents were murdered. He would choke up when asked to reveal more detail. It is a sensitive topic for him to deal with.

    --------------

    I do not know if it was a great example but, I am trying to accomplish what I see in first person fiction when the main character talks in depth about a situation, character or about events that happened in the past.

    Edit:
    I do know I have a problem with mixing first person nouns with third person verbs or I start to write in first person and the character's "real time" narration becomes first person past all the sudden. I am simultaneously writing one version in first person and another in third. It sounds counter productive. When proof reading I can always go back and make the changes. At this point I am not sure whether my voice fits past or present first person yet.
    Also it is good exercise to keep on track.

    I also apologize if I am getting confused with first and third person. What I meant to say was first person present vs first person past.

    I guess I am overthinking it. I have been looking up about present tense verbs and how to use them in the correct context. Also how to structure sentences when taking about the past in the present form. It appears that if an event had happened in the past, keep the sentence and the context in the past. If an event is happening in real time, write as if it is happening now. I think what I am trying to ask with tense changing is "When is it appropriate to in first person present to tell the reader about an event or about the past when it relates to the event or character or situation in real time." One suggestion that I found online was the War example. Say a war has been going on for a century, and a clueless soldier/civilian asks why are we at war, write as if you were telling the causes that is leading to the current effect.
     
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2014
  8. Lucidity
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    Lucidity Member

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    The only example i could think of is if you're writing from a first person perspective and your character is reflecting on an event e.g. "i can't really do much but sit here right now, like the time i got stuck in that cave, that was difficult" sort of like that i guess.
     
  9. Kat Hawthorne
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    Kat Hawthorne Member

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    To make this smoother, I would suggest adding a transitional phrase where you want to make your shift so your readers know what's coming. Something like:

    Last night was one of the most frustrating nights I'd had in awhile. Nothing felt right; the bedsheets were too stiff, the blankets were bunched up, and the air conditioner seized. I tossed and turned, but still I couldn't sleep.

    Now it's morning and the affects of the night before are setting in ...


    (You need to change that "I have had" to "I had had" either by repeating the word, or contracting it like I did. The word "have" is present tense and doesn't fit with the rest of the past tense sentence.)
     
  10. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    "I wake up this morning" jarred badly for me. You're (almost certainly) not writing/speaking at the moment you wake up, so the switch of tense doesn't reflect a move from the past to the present, it's an apparently arbitrary switch in the way you're writing about the past (from past historical present). That can work, but it very strongly foregrounds the bit in historical present, which "I wake up this morning" doesn't seem to merit.
     
  11. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Why not? Maybe the narration does not represent what the character actually says or writes, but what the character perceives.
     
  12. live2write
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    live2write Contributing Member

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    You spoke it for me. When I read novels in first person, there is alot of reflecting back on or even the sentence you described above. I keep getting feedback to why my tense is shifting so much from past to present. I can understand sentence structure mixing past tense words with present tense events. But if I am writing that "Last night I lied in bed after a night of partying. I woke up this morning with a headache and a man sleeping next to me. I am sitting at the edge of the bed trying to remember the events last night."

    It is clear yes that I stated that last night I did lie in bed and I woke up in the morning and then I am describing the actions now.

    It gets confusing when someone tells me that I am using past tense and present tense words wrong. But when I write step by step and speak step by step. I don't feel like it is necessary to narrate everything in the present.
    Especially when the MC is reflecting on events that happened in the past. Example would be my secondary character has a history with the MC that affects a restraint in the relationship. I was told I should speak it in present. However if I write in present, it does not make any sense when it happened then.

    As in the Movie SpaceBalls.

    When will then be now....Soon!
     
  13. JamesBrown
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    JamesBrown Active Member

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    I really think you need to give a great deal of thought before committing to write a book in the present tense. My WIP includes one narrative written in that and it's a minefield with many pitfalls.

    You're using English in a way it wasn't designed - present tense is used for habitual activities mainly (I.E. I play tennis everyday) and when you start using it for past activities, it has knock on effects for the actual past before that time.

    To be use it effectively you have to have a good knowledge of English grammar to be able to navigate all the issues you encounter. It is not a case of simply changing tenses from past to present, it's a lot more complicated that that. Sometimes you actually have change the way you say something to avoid putting yourself in a situation where you use the past perfect, which, in a present tense narrative, you have to avoid like the plague.
     
  14. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    You have it backward. If by "was designed" you mean "evolved from other languages", then the present tense was originally "designed" to express events in the present. Its use to express generalities came later.
     
  15. JamesBrown
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    JamesBrown Active Member

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    Well, like all languages, it's evolved over time, influenced by various sources, but it has also been designed as well, as in specific rules have been assigned to it at various times.
     
  16. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I realize that you posted this a while ago, but wanted to comment anyway.

    The first paragraph of this is fine; it's all a memory, and therefore in past tense. The second, IMO, needs a guide as to what the "was" refers to--without that, there's a feeling of a tense tangle. An example of that guide could be a couple of words telling us when the "rush" was:

    I wake up this morning with only three hours of restless sleep. Unfolded clean clothes are scattered on the foot of the mattress. I was in a rush last night and must have forgotten to fold them and place them back into their proper place.
     

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