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Past Tense & Present Tense Blunders

Posted: October 3rd, 2010, 10:29 pm
by Jaya
I was reviewing my last chunk of pages on a WIP and I realize that I am all over the place with my "tenses". I jump from "she mumbles...." to " she stared". And worse? I'm not even sure what the right way to do it is?
Is this a shining example of my amateur and untrained ways? Or is it common? Should it be addressed right now, or should I continue to plod through and worry about it much later?

Re: Past Tense & Present Tense Blunders

Posted: October 4th, 2010, 12:18 am
by Holly
I would correct them now before writing that way becomes a habit. But really, just have fun. Try to find your self-confidence and enjoy what you are doing.

Re: Past Tense & Present Tense Blunders

Posted: October 5th, 2010, 10:08 pm
by Beethovenfan
I do that to. I tend to write exactly how I think, otherwise I forget and don't get my thoughts out on the page quick enough. Then I go back and edit specifically for tenses because I know in advance that they're going to be messed up. As for right or wrong tense, I don't really think there is one, so long as you are consistent. If you begin in past tense, then stay in past tense.
There. That's my 2 cents. :)

Re: Past Tense & Present Tense Blunders

Posted: October 7th, 2010, 11:17 am
by paravil
I do this too. There's no right or wrong, but the present and past tenses have an effect on the way a piece reads. Present tense (obviously) makes it more immediate, and gives it a sense of urgency. I guess my point is that there's no right or wrong, but the two tenses are not equal.

Re: Past Tense & Present Tense Blunders

Posted: October 7th, 2010, 11:20 am
by Margo
Whatever tense you choose, just be consistent. I can't tell you how annoying I find when I'm trying to get into a story I'm reviewing and the tense shifts every other paragraph.

Re: Past Tense & Present Tense Blunders

Posted: October 7th, 2010, 6:39 pm
by Louise Curtis
I strongly recommend past tense, unless you're writing for children (the rest of us generally find present tense annoying).

If you want to discover for yourself the "correct" (ie sellable) way, go to a bookshop and take out ten of the strong sellers (published this year - classics sometimes sell only because of nostalgia, ot skill) in your genre, crack them open, and see whether it's past or present tense.

I changed one of my books from first to third person, then first again. WIth tense, you'll mainly focus on the verbs.

Re: Past Tense & Present Tense Blunders

Posted: October 8th, 2010, 11:48 am
by Ermo
Jaya -

I think most people probably suffer from this at least a little bit. Pick a tense (almost always past tense) and be consistent. My preferred method is to write my story down and then go back and read it aloud. The tense changes (along with a zillion other things) will stick out to you and you just correct them then. Good luck!

Re: Past Tense & Present Tense Blunders

Posted: October 8th, 2010, 3:57 pm
by polymath
The writing strengths of tenses helps me to stay on time. Present past tense for higher objectivity, less unreliable, less biased reporting. Present tense for immediacy of unfolding action, though objectivity, reliableness, and bias come into play, which is what present tense is good for, calling readers' judgment into play for engagement, resonnace, rapport, and dramatic irony purposes.

Thomas Harris' Hannibal Rising and others of the Hannibal saga switch tenses from present past to present during scenes where a sociopathic character perpetrates a deviant behavior.

Re: Past Tense & Present Tense Blunders

Posted: October 8th, 2010, 4:57 pm
by ljkuhnley
Polymath,

I've recently become interested in the reasons/methods writers use in regards to switching tenses. I was wondering if you might recommend some further reading on the topic.

Re: Past Tense & Present Tense Blunders

Posted: October 8th, 2010, 5:43 pm
by polymath
ljkuhnley wrote:Polymath,

I've recently become interested in the reasons/methods writers use in regards to switching tenses. I was wondering if you might recommend some further reading on the topic.
I'm sorry, ljkuhnley, I can't point you to a source on reasons/methods for switching tenses. My writing opinion wisdoms on the topic come from investigating their usages in narratives where tense shifting occurs and from compiling and conflating a broad range of discussions on tense applications. In general, though, the conventional principle is don't shift tense, unless necessary.

When unnecessary tense shifts occur, as in Thomas Harris' Hannibal saga, I've analysed what purpose and effect they have. My sense in those cases is they're for shifting into a closer narrative distance from the immediacy of present tense, and so that readers are vicariously in the minds of the deviant sociopath characters without feeling too creepy, though they are creepy. Maybe that's the effect Harris was after. If so, he succeeds admirably. I expect other emotional reasons for changing tenses might apply equally.

The Hannibal movies don't get as close in narrative distance as the novels. If filmmakers could they would. I feel filmmaking can't do that the way narrative does, though through camera perspectives and other filmmaking methods the filmmakers did attempt to and partially succeed reproducing the effect.

Re: Past Tense & Present Tense Blunders

Posted: October 8th, 2010, 5:55 pm
by ljkuhnley
Thanks, Polymath.

A couple weeks ago Nathan posted a link to an article discussing Phillip Pullman's objection to the present tense as limiting. Perhaps I misunderstood, but to me that implied that there are reasons for shifting tense within a narrative. I didn't necessarily understand why writing the present tense presented those limitations in a way that past tense wouldn't but as you said, the conventional wisdom is to not shift tenses and so I had never actually considered it before.

On a somewhat related note, I once read a book where during a fight scene the narrator referred to the protagonist in the past tense, "He did this, he did that," but when he referred to a secondary character he wrote, "She was doing this. She was doing that." I'm not sure if that constitutes a tense shift but it seemed a little odd to me.

Re: Past Tense & Present Tense Blunders

Posted: October 8th, 2010, 6:14 pm
by polymath
ljkuhnley wrote:A couple weeks ago Nathan posted a link to an article discussing Phillip Pullman's objection to the present tense as limiting. Perhaps I misunderstood, but to me that implied that there are reasons for shifting tense within a narrative. I didn't necessarily understand why writing the present tense presented those limitations in a way that past tense wouldn't but as you said, the conventional wisdom is to not shift tenses and so I had never actually considered it before.

On a somewhat related note, I once read a book where during a fight scene the narrator referred to the protagonist in the past tense, "He did this, he did that," but when he referred to a secondary character he wrote, "She was doing this. She was doing that." I'm not sure if that constitutes a tense shift but it seemed a little odd to me.
Present tense does limit reporting to the here and now of a scene. Due to the principle of not shifting tenses, writing present tense limits reporting to the here and now of an entire narrative as well. However, Harris uses tense shifts for good effect. What would otherwise in many readers and writers' rulebound prescriptive conventions be a vice comes out as a virtue for its rhetorical enhancements.

The "He did this, he did that" and "She was doing this. She was doing that," is indeed tense shifting, from present past to present past progressive. Those two tenses can be auxilliary to each other, though, or for purposes of close narrative distance for the purpose of the narrator staying in touch with the viewpoint character through distinguishing his reported actions in present past and reporting his sensation of her actions in his voice in present past progressive. Whether it works or not is another matter, and whether the effect rises above the distraction factor is open to question.

Re: Past Tense & Present Tense Blunders

Posted: October 8th, 2010, 7:28 pm
by ljkuhnley
Thank you Polymath. I understand now.

Re: Past Tense & Present Tense Blunders

Posted: October 8th, 2010, 9:29 pm
by Jaya
Really helpful responses here. Thanks everyone. Basically, I keep goofing up. But I noticed the error when I started seeing the "she did" and then " he is" type of thing. Its hard to catch because then I start wondering what tense I'm aiming for or that makes sense. Past tense seems to come easier.

Re: Past Tense & Present Tense Blunders

Posted: October 19th, 2017, 2:20 am
by scott154