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PAST TENSE VS PRESENT TENSE IN WRITING – AN EXPERIMENT

10 May

In the previous post, I presented four basic grammatical constructions used in present- and past-tense narration.

As you’ll see below, however, it’s not all that easy to write in what looks to be a consistent tense when the narration references something that happened in the past.

I took the following bit of past narrative (it intentionally includes references to the ‘past past’) and tried it. Notice the bit of thought dialogue at the end muddles the tense question even further.

PAST

Terenik had been shocked when Gaelan had first awakened him in the healer’s tent.  But a rovinger was always ready, so leaving hadn’t taken him long despite his injury.  Still, he had to wonder what Gaelan did to upset the Commander into sending them away in the middle of the night.  He also worried for the Cataline and how she might react to find them gone.  She had grown so attached, especially to Gaelan. But then, he mused, it’s probably best that we left.

PRESENT “Equivalent” (ie attempt to convert to present)

Terenik has been shocked when Gaelan has first awakened him in the healer’s tent, but a rovinger is always ready, so leaving hasn’t taken him long despite his injury.  Still, he has to wonder what Gaelan does to upset the Commander into sending them away in the middle of the night.  He also worries for the Cataline and how she might react to find them gone.  She has grown so attached, especially to Gaelan.  But then, he muses, it’s probably best that we left.

Hopefully you can see that a simple exchange simply doesn’t work. It confuses what actually happened when. This is especially true when considering the past perfect vs the present perfect.  For example:

“Terenik had been shocked” vs “Terenik has been shocked.”

The first implies something that happened once and is finished, whereas the second implies something that potentially has happened more than once, eg “he has been shocked each time that…” and that it may happen again.

It had once been my hope that writing in present tense would alleviate the need to use past perfect, but the reality is that it only makes things more complex, not less — especially when attempting to convert prose originally written in past.

In doing so, one must consider each verb individually for original meaning and connotation. Notice in the follow example that much of it remains unchanged:

PRESENT with adjustments

Terenik had been shocked when Gaelan had first awakened him in the healer’s tent.  But a rovinger is always ready, so leaving hadn’t taken him long despite his injury.  Still, he has to wonder what Gaelan did to upset the Commander into sending them away in the middle of the night.  He also worries for the Cataline and how she might react to find them gone.  She has grown so attached, especially to Gaelan.  But then, he muses, perhaps it’s a good thing that we left.

So you see that, although simple past and past progressive forms change to simple present and present progressive forms, respectively, the majority of past perfect and past perfect progressive may have to stay the same in order to preserve the original meaning. Present perfect and present perfect progressive should only be used when appropriate for the connotation, which was true in the sentence, “she has grown so attached,” because it refers to something that may continue to happen, especially if they were to have stayed with her, for instance.

Not to belabor the point, but another possibility is do as in the above example, but in addition, to exchange past perfect/progressive for simple past.

Terenik was shocked when Gaelan first awakened him in the healer’s tent.  But a rovinger is always ready, so leaving didn’t take him long despite his injury.  Still, he has to wonder what Gaelan did to upset the Commander into sending them away in the middle of the night.  He also worries for the Cataline and how she might react to find them gone.  She has grown so attached, especially to Gaelan.  But then, he muses, perhaps it’s a good thing that we left.

But even in this example, some of the original subtlety of meaning is lost.  Can you also see how, considering either of the last two versions, it would not be immediately clear what tense was being used for the primary narration? Present tense doesn’t even occur until the second sentence, followed quickly by another past perfect (or simple past) construction. An agent or editor reading it might assume that the author doesn’t know what tense they’re writing in, or else has poor editing skills, and chuck it onto the reject pile. Therein lies at least one of the dangers of writing in present tense.

Have you ever tried to edit a piece from one tense to another? How did you go about doing so? Was it easy or difficult? Feel free to comment.

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3 Comments

Posted by on May 10, 2013 in Writing

 

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3 responses to “PAST TENSE VS PRESENT TENSE IN WRITING – AN EXPERIMENT

  1. caswebb

    May 31, 2013 at 2:48 am

    I followed your link over from Absolute write.
    Fantastic post, loved it 🙂

     
    • Willow.M.Stevens

      May 31, 2013 at 3:20 am

      Hey, glad you liked it! Thanks for the reblog, too. 🙂

       
  2. caswebb

    May 31, 2013 at 2:49 am

    Reblogged this on Cas Webb. Writer and Artist. and commented:
    Fantastic post by fellow writer Willow

     

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