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  1. Seren

    Seren Active Member

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    "I am" or "I was" when the narrator is describing themselves in past tense?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Seren, Jan 4, 2017.

    I'm writing something in first person, past tense, and I'm really confusing myself with when I should actually switch to present tense. I've never thought about it until today. I fear I may have a lot of editing to do now...but before I tear everything apart, I'd just like to check this.

    "Inside, the house was spacious, stylish and cool, a relief from the warm sun that had been starting to burn the back of my uncovered neck. I was very pale, but it was only spring. I was certain that we were going to have an unbearably hot summer this year."

    Assuming that the narrator continues to be a pale person throughout the rest of their life, is the above incorrect? Should it be:

    "Inside, the house was spacious, stylish and cool, a relief from the warm sun that had been starting to burn the back of my uncovered neck. I am very pale, but it was only spring. I was certain that we were going to have an unbearably hot summer this year."

    [Edit: I added in a bit more of my example so that it actually makes sense.]
     
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2017
  2. izzybot

    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    "I was very pale" could imply that the narrator no longer is from the point they're telling the story, but it doesn't matter if we never catch up to that point. "I am very pale" implies that they still are, but again, doesn't have to matter. You can always write entirely in past if the present doesn't really have any bearing on the story.

    "I was very pale, but it was only spring, and I would be tan before the fall" (pale in the past, not in the present/future) vs "I am very pale, and that spring was no exception" (pale in the past and the present/future).

    I guess it depends on how much editorializing your narrator does from their future perspective? If they don't do much I'd stick to past.
     
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  3. Seren

    Seren Active Member

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    I don't tend to make them speak as if they have a future or even a present, to be honest. (Though the future thing does occasionally happen.) I never let the reader catch up with the point from which the narrator is telling the story or really hint at what point that is. Your examples make sense.
     
  4. Wreybies

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    So, the difference I feel between these two versions has to do with distance from the POV character. Since her paleness is an ever-present quality that is only mitigated by a tan, they both make logical sense. When she tells me about her paleness in the present tense form (the second example), I just feel her closer to me, temporally. She's recounting the story to me now. Now now. We're going out for Pinkberry after this chat. I don't get that same feeling with the first example. It's further from me. She's not here here.
     
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  5. BayView

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    It was a kind of writerly epiphany for me when I began to understand the stuff that @izzybot is referring to in her post. My framework now is that there are three times we need to be aware of when we're writing... the time the story is happening, the time the narration is being recorded (according to the fictional structure the author establishes) and time the book is actually being read. I guess there's a fourth time, the time the book is written, but I don't think this is too significant unless we're looking beyond the story itself).

    Often, we seem to treat the second and third periods as more or less the same time - it's like we pretend that someone is telling us a story verbally. But of course they don't have to be. There can be three separate times, like if we're reading the first person, past tense story of a character based in the nineteenth century. There's the story's time (say, Spring and Summer of 1818) the narrative time (sometime later, with the narrator reflecting on past glories with amusement) and the time the book is being read (January 2017).

    We don't often make these time frames explicit in our work unless we have a very prominent narrative voice, but I think it's often useful to keep them in mind.

    All of which is a long way of saying... I agree that either of your examples could work, but you'll want to be consistent within your story so that if you set up a distinct time for the narrative you stick to it.
     
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  6. Lifeline

    Lifeline Out of the Night Supporter Contributor

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    The second example: I am very pale and that spring was no exception set up a time from which the narrator recounts the story. We, the reader as well as the narrator, are sitting somewhere and he tells the story as it happened. Have you had a grandfather as a kid, who told you stories? This is the feeling I get from this example. The rest of the story, which the narrator tells me, can be exclusively in past tense or not ('The Princess Bride' comes to mind), but it doesn't matter. What matter is, as @Wreybies has rightly said, that the distance between the story and the reader shrinks to nothing, even if it is only for the one moment.

    So that is the one I vote for, but it's your story. :)

    As a sidenote: Be careful with using too many personal pronouns. Too many of them can get old very quickly and annoy the reader. Find ways to express what you want to say in another way. And don't start every other sentence with them. ;)
     
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  7. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    A nitpick--the original "pale...only spring" communicated to me that the character was pale from winter, and that they would tan as the spring and summer progressed. So in this specific case, removing that ambiguity with the various suggestions presented in the thread seems particularly important. Also, I might have gone with "...have fair skin..." rather than "...am pale.."
     
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  8. Wreybies

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Random Memory:

    I goofed with that word years ago at work. A coworker's sister came to visit her at work and had her two children with her. The kids were like 1 and 3 years old. They were just this side of albino. "Wow, they're really pale." I don't know what I was thinking. It just came out. Mom was decidedly nonplussed.
     
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  9. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll Dark, is it not? Contributor

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    Was is past tense. This is basic stuff. :p
     
  10. Seren

    Seren Active Member

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    Thanks, everyone! I understand now. :)

    Thanks for pointing that out. I realise now that the original sentence could have been completely misinterpreted.
     

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