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PAST TENSE VS PRESENT TENSE IN WRITING – AN EXPERIMENT

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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Posted by on May 10, 2013 in Writing

 

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The Dreaded “had had” Construction

I have heard that some agents/editors will immediately reject a manuscript either written in present tense (due to their personal preferences) or with inconsistent use of tense (based on the assumption of poor editing).

The latter (inconsistency of tense) may be attributable to the fact that, when writing in past tense, you are fairly restricted to four basic past tense forms. But when writing in the present tense, you have eight — the four basic present tense forms plus the original four past tense forms — because narrating in present tense does not remove the need to reference something that happened in the past. This leaves you with a lot of grammatical forms to mix and match, but it can potentially lead to confusion regarding what tense is being used for the primary narration.

When narrating in past tense, you have the following options:

(The majority of the narration will be in these two forms.)

1) Simple past: “He had a good time.”

2) Past progressive: “He was having a good time.”

Then you have your references to the “past within the past,” aka the dreaded “had had” construction.

3) Past perfect: “He had had a good time.”

4) Past perfect progressive: “He had been having a good time.”

Narration uses the last two forms when talking about the story’s past, ie something that happened in the story prior to the point in time currently being narrated.

Please note that this is different than going into a full-on flashback. For a true flashback, the reader travels with the narrator back to that moment, and the tense can either be kept the same as the regular narration (requiring a very clear delineation of when the flashback starts and ends) or else changed (eg primary narration in past tense, flashback in present tense, or vice versa) for effect, in order to emphasize the change. This is very different than a reference to the past, which I like to call a “thought-back.”

When using present tense narration, you have the following four options in addition to the four already listed above:

(These are now the primary forms being used by the narrator.)

1) Simple present: He has a good time.

2) Present progressive: He is having a good time.

So then one might assume that the following forms are now being used to refer to the “past of the present,” ie anything that happened prior to the present point in time being narrated.

3) Present perfect: He has had a good time.

4) Present perfect progressive: He has been having a good time.

One might also assume that converting a piece written in past tense to make it present tense is a simple matter of exchanging all past forms to their present equivalent.

In my next blog, I will take a short paragraph from my current WIP and demonstrate why the above assumption is inaccurate, why some agents/editors might assume the author is being inconsistent with tense when they really aren’t, and suggest some solutions for how to edit a piece currently written in past tense into a true present tense form.

For more information on use of different tenses, “Grammar Girl’s” blog was particularly helpful. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/present-tense-novel.aspx

Did you learn anything helpful from this post? As always, feel free to comment.

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2013 in Writing

 

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