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Graeme

Past, present and future

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I have a question regarding the correct tense to use in different situations. I've been told that generally, when writing in first person, a past tense should be used, even when describing current events.

eg. "I saw him lift his arm" instead of "I see him lift his arm"

I'm not sure if the same rule applies when writing in third person. For example, when describing a place, should I use:

The hall is large and dimly lit, the worn dark stained wood floor reflects the soft light emanating from light fixtures spaced around the room. The walls are made of a similar aged wood, but are covered with the awards and campaign trophies representing over 100 years of triumph and defeat.

or should it be:

The hall was large and dimly lit, the worn dark stained wood floor reflecting the soft light emanating from light fixtures spaced around the room. The walls were made of a similar aged wood, but were covered with the awards and campaign trophies representing over 100 years of triumph and defeat.

I feel the second one is more "correct", but I'm not sure if that is simply because I've been done some much first person POV writing.

Graeme

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"I have a question regarding the correct tense to use in different situations. I've been told that generally, when writing in first person, a past tense should be used, even when describing current events."

~Aussie

I don't know that one is more 'correct' than the other...but i think the past tense is the one we're all the most familiar with...a rather old convention that probably arose in the oral history tradition of storytelling. I think it may afford one a lot more flexibility in the telling, and it prevents your audience from rushing off to do something about whatever it is you're telling about in the more dramatic moments.

However, these may be entirely culturally based biases, and i think it would be an amazing challenge to write even a short story entirely in the present tense, just as it is incredibly difficult to write a story in the second person, in either past or present tense...using the pronoun "you" instead of "I" or "he/she." The problem being, of course, that we're trying to tell the person who's reading the tale that you, the reader, actually did these things, when you know damn well you didn't. That's a lot of disbelief to suspend.

But the present tense story...i could see that working, though it would be most unusual to read.

cheers!

aj

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I feel the second one is more "correct", but I'm not sure if that is simply because I've been done some much first person POV writing.

It's kind of funny...I was thinking about the exact same thing yesterday, but in reverse. I've almost always written in past-tense 3rd person, and was wondering how present tense would sound in a first person story.

"I'm going to write a novel in fifth person. Every sentence will start out 'I was told by a guy who heard from somebody...'"

-Dmitri Martin (slightly butchered, most likely)

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OK, that's actually more than one question, because there's a little more to it than what you asked about.

First off, you asked about which tense was more "correct." It's about which one is more common or easier to keep track of, than correctness. Both your past tense and present tense examples were OK and could fit. It's just easier to talk about how John did this and then Mary did that and then Jim did that other thing, all past tense, in telling a story. Rarely, the story teller will have them do something within the past of the story that was in the present tense at that time, like has needed to happen a few times in Falls Creek Lessons or in New Brother, for instance.

What you want to avoid, and what causes editors or beta readers to send back strange comments :twisted: is when you change tense when you're talking about things that all happened in the same sequence in the story. For example, saying that Juan did this, then Maria does that, and then Jaime did that. Did you notice how Maria does something in the present, instead of the past? Sometimes we skip around in time like that in conversation, but in writing, in order not to confuse the reader, it's better to be more careful about it. -- Unless we're talking about time travel. :grin: -- In which case, "temporal mechanics always gives me a headache." :lol: Actually, there are times when you may move between times and places and narrators in the story, but those are usually marked with written cues to the reader, even if it's just a section break.

It is possible, and perfectly OK, to tell a story in present tense narrative, it's just harder to make it work a long time without tripping up. Jean does this, Marie does that, then Jacques does that other thing. (What is that other thing those guys are doing, anyway? I'm starting to wonder.)

There's something called "historical present tense" that people sometimes use in telling someone, usually in a quick conversation, about something that happened. It goes like this:

"So he says, 'I can't believe you'd do that!' and I say to him, 'Hell, what did you think I'd do?' and then he says...."

Notice how that works. The narrator is recounting the story in "historical present tense" and the quoted dialogue happened to be about the past. Notice how, if I substitute, "and I says to him, I says," that it suddenly sounds like two neighbors talking across the fence. The "I says" bit is very casual and not technically "proper" English, but I'll bet you've heard it, just like you've heard "ain't" or "he don't."

-----

Second question: This is a style issue, something you introduced when you rewrote the two passages in past and present. In the second example in past tense, you switched from the "floor reflects" to the "floor reflecting" instead of "reflected." If you'd simply redone it in past tense, you'd have used "reflected." But you edited and used "reflecting" instead. In that case, your original would also have had "reflecting" there for the two passages to be identical. Why? Because "reflecting" switches that part of the sentence to a dependent or parenthetical clause. It's subordinate but gives some important information about the room or hall you're describing. It is reflecting in present tense, it was reflecting in past tense, but what turns it dependent or parenthetical or subordinate, is that you omit the "is" or "was" before the "reflecting." That switches it from an independent verb phrase to a dependent clause. That's just fancy grammar techno-babble to say that you couldn't put that part in a separate, standalone sentence. And you thought computer compilers gave back cryptic error messages! :grin:

-----

Third and last question: Your editor's syntax checker would've kicked it out long before it got to the higher level stuff like tense and style. Why? Commas, dude, commas. Where? See:

the worn dark stained wood floor

There should be a couple of commas and maybe a hyphen in there somewhere:

    [*]the worn, dark-stained wood floor

    [*]the worn, dark, stained wood floor

      Use one of those. They are an adjective sequence (which is why they need commas) that modifies the wood floor. Wood is also a modifier there, but it's considered almost a unit, "wood floor." Or if you wanted to be really picky, you could add an optional comma between wood and floor.

      -----

      OK, so by now, you're muttering under your breath about editors being picky know-it-alls.

      What interests me most as a reader isn't so much the technical details of the grammar. Great stories have been told with purposefully non-standard grammar. (Notice I didn't say "bad" grammar.) Tom and Huck warn't no English schoolmarms, but they shore did have some powerful good tales they was a-tellin'. Sorry, I got sidetracked.

      What interests me about the example you gave is where this room or hall is, who's in it, what's going on? From what you wrote, I wonder if the floors and paneling are stained dark from wear by constant touch of feet and hands, or if the floors and walls were stained dark (probably so) originally, and then had the added patina of being worn down.

      Heh, see, I got descriptive there too. Notiice that as a reader, I also added something by inference that you didn't state: I presumed the walls were similarly worn. Maybe they weren't even touched, but the floors were worn.

      But that's for the next paragraph.

      Don't let your editors get you befuddled about your tenses. Think about the order of events, and that will tell you which verb forms to use. Besides, your editors aren't about to send a pack of dire-wolves after you just for mixing your verb forms every now and then. Our editorial brains are just bent (or unhinged) in the English grammar direction. Call it an occupational hazard. :laughs: We wouldn't read or offer corrections if we didn't care about what we read. If we get too uppity, just remind us that Shakespeare didn't get bothered about grammar too often. He used whatever he wanted to, and he seems to have done alright by it.

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Blue covered a lot of ground in his answer, so there is little I can lump onto it. However, you bring up an interesting point.

Isaac Azimov and Robert Heinlein both tried a fatal experiment in short stories. I say 'fatal' because it caused brain bleed in the reading audience. Each attempted, in their own way, to write a future tense story told in 2nd person. Heilein at least had the grace to nod his head to James Joyce and the disturbingly complex "Ulysses". For one reason or another, your question, GW, brought this to mind. Now, for my take on the issue.

I had an English professor who once told me: "The narrative perspective is the one best suited to telling the tale, but it must be intelligible." 3rd person, past tense tends to be the most intelligible for Western readers and writers, and perhaps I mean comfortable (as Blue stated). One of the issues that is not addressed in your question, but one that requires due consideration since it is related, is the omniscient state of the narrative voice: full, limited, or non-existent. This is important when deciding the tense you are going to use. A full-blown omniscient narrator will know everything that is going on. A limited omniscient narrator will only know what is going on in the head(s) of the main character(s), whereas a non-omniscient narrator is reporting only the actions and events that anyone would see if present... but not thoughts or feelings.

Here is a general guideline I follow:

Full Omniscient Narrator: Past Tense, 1st or 3rd Person

Limited Omniscient Narrator: Past or Present Tense, 1st or 3rd Person

    Non-Omniscient Narrator: Present Tense (real time), 1st or 3rd Person

    Psychotic Writer: Future Imperfect, 1st or 2nd Person

    The main problem we writers face is that we are accustomed to thinking in past tense when telling a story. We are actually conveying history (as Blue noted). Thus, you often run the risk of mangling the tense as you write. I believe this what you are trying to avoid. If this is the case, then I would suggest you experiment with a short story, so you can practice writing in an unfamiliar tense variant and a different narrative perspective. Also, keep in mind the omniscient state of the narrator and see what that does to the story and how it effects the tense you want to use. There is an odd correlation between the two.

    Drake

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Guest rusticmonk86

You should expriment to find what you feel comfortable with. And get a book on the mechanics of grammar, I think that will help a lot. ;) But tense is mostly a style thing rather than a technical thing. Eventually, all writing falls on style, rather than mechanics. Of course, mechanics will help prevent an editor from pulling out his hair, don't worry about it as much as it seems like you are.

Put on your "me" hat and write something that happened to you. A short story. A little annecdote. Your day.

Then do it in present, like it's happening to you right now.

Now, put on your third-person hat and write it.

Then, write it from an outsider's POV in first person.

As you read in Blue's comments, style is the thing that shows the most. His corrections to your sample were based on style.

Don't trip on it, dude. Just let it flow. This is writing. You shouldn't worrying about editing when you write.

There's a quote from Dune I'll share now:

Fear is the mind killer.

Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.

It's from the "Litany Aaginst Fear" that was so oftly quoted in Frank Herbet's Dune.

Think of "fear" as your inner editor. It's there with you all of the time. And it's got nothing but bad things to say to you. Mine always tells me:

"You can't keep this going. You're writing something that won't fit later on. That's totally not believable. Where the fuck did you learn to write? It must have been something someone told you to make you feel better. Because this story sucks. It's boring. Why don't you just save yourself the trouble and throw the computer out the window? And learn to spell!"

Of course, that's when I start to get frustrated and I end up giving in and stopping. Your inner editor might not be so abussive. Or it might be more. It could constantly loom over you like your fifth grade english teacher and ask you if that is the correct tense usage. Which may make you feel insecure and question you ability. I know it makes me feel that way.

The trick is to not listen to your inner editor when you're writing. He/she or it will just provide reasons for you to stop, or worse, quit writing all together.

So my advice is: Just write! So what if you don't know everything about tense right now. That best way to learn is by doing!

Anway, if you want any help or anything. I edit quid pro quo.

--Gabriel[/i]

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At this point, I'll make a confession.

The issue came up when a friend sent me a draft of a story that they were writing. They had written in present tense, and when I read it, it felt "wrong" somehow. It's possible that there were mixed tenses, and while I didn't consciously see them, my subconscious did. We discussed it, without getting a concensus on what was "right", and I offered to put a post here to get advice. With the mixture of experienced editors and writers, I was hoping for a range of opinions and comments.

So, thank you everyone for your comments. I personally have found them useful, as this is something I also didn't know. Almost everything I've written to date has been 1st person, past tense. I want to try 3rd person at some stage (I've started writing such a story, but I keep putting it off).

If anyone else has anything to say, I'd love to hear it.

One thing before I go:

Here is a general guideline I follow:

Full Omniscient Narrator: Past Tense, 1st or 3rd Person

Limited Omniscient Narrator: Past or Present Tense, 1st or 3rd Person

Past & 3rd, Present & 1st - typically

Non-Omniscient Narrator: Present Tense (real time), 1st or 3rd Person

Psychotic Writer: Future Imperfect, 1st or 2nd Person

I would have thought that Full/Partial Omniscient would have to be 3rd person. Or is the case of alternating 1st person between characters what you mean by Full/Partial Omniscient 1st Person.

It's diverging from the original thread, but I'm still personally working out when, where and how to use 1st vs 3rd person POV.

Graeme

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Can someone give me an example of "future imperfect sense"?

I think Drake wrote a story once where he had discussions between a past and future "self". I've seen references to it, but I haven't read it myself (sorry, Drake -- I'll get around to it one of these days).

So, I think that was a tongue-in-cheek poke at himself as a psychotic writer....

Graeme

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Thougt this might be appropriate at this juncture (note example used is tailored to the audience here):

Progressive Tenses

The progressive tenses are the six tenses in English which show continuous or repeated actions. Sometimes the past progressive is called the imperfect.

The six progressive tenses correspond to the three basic and three perfect tenses. They are formed by the appropriate basic or perfect tense of the verb to be followed by the present participle.

Present Progressive: I am coming.

Past Progressive: I was coming.

Future Progressive: I will be coming.

Present Perfect Progressive: I have been coming.

Past Perfect Progressive: I had been coming.

Future Perfect Progressive: I will have been coming.

See? even grammar can be fun to read!

cheers,

aj

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In grammar, "perfect" and "imperfect" mean "completed, finite" and "incomplete, continuing."

The future perfect tense is: "He will have answered."

There isn't actually a future imperfect, unless I'm overlooking it somehow. I think he wsa just kidding.

It's a play on words, since the future hasn't happened yet, it isn't perfected or completed. :: groans from the audience ::

--> I think someone in another forum mentioned a humorous, irreverent book on grammar; not "Eats, Shoots and Leaves," though. I'll look again for that.

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Can someone give me an example of "future imperfect sense"?

I think Drake wrote a story once where he had discussions between a past and future "self". I've seen references to it, but I haven't read it myself (sorry, Drake -- I'll get around to it one of these days).

So, I think that was a tongue-in-cheek poke at himself as a psychotic writer....

Graeme

Joking aside a future imperfective would be:

I will be reading the book tomorrow

The action is incomplete and in the future. The book will not be finished.

A future perfective would be:

I will read the book tomorrow

Although English is not a strictly aspectual language, in this example it is at least possible and maybe probable that the speaker will finish reading the book together.

Perfective: the action viewed as completed.

Imperfective: the action viewed as ongoing.

Many a true question gets raised in jest.

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"I will have been answering this in a few moments." - Future Imperfect

"I will have answered this in a few moments." - Future Perfect

Brain bleed!

Douglas Adams loved playing with future tense. I am still sad he passed away.

Future Imperfect makes the assumption an action will take place, shows it using a present participle, but also includes a reference as to when the action will be completed. This is not a strict rule. It is imperfect because of the present participle. If the past participle had been used, then it would future perfect. The perfect variant makes the assumption the action will be completed successfully.

Anyway, Graeme commented on the topic of the omniscient state of the narrator and the PoV employed. 1st and 3rd person can be used in any tense, so long as the tense is kept straight. The "understanding" of the narrative voice concerning all the events, especially feelings and throughts, determines the omniscient state, but the PoV is truly up to the author. Conistency is item of the day in this regard. A 3rd person narrator may be just as clueless as the characters being described. It may be an outsider who watched the events unfold (and this could be a place where present tense is used). The narrator can also be involved in the action, a character in the story, and it reporting the events. The omniscient state determines how much the narrator knows. Ask this question: Is the narrator floating above the action in a god-like, all knowing condition with access to every shred of information?

I tend to to use a 3rd person, limited omniscient PoV where the narrative voice is an outside entity. Only the thoughts and feelings of the main character, possibly two, are known in full, and all of the events are filtered through her/his eyes and mind. I have used a 1st person PoV. non-omniscient and past tense, in the same way, except the narrator was a character who did not divulge what he knew of futuer events. The intermingling of PoV, tense, and omniscience are the three elements that determine the amount of information told in the story, and how it is relayed.

If none of what I just wrote made sense, my apologies.

Drake

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