Shift Storm: On How to Keep Your Tense Clean

I am sat here yesterday, and I write an article for you to read tomorrow. (Hey… hey you… make sure you pronounce “read” as “red” to get the full effect of that stinky sentence. HSBK must have possessed my computer! Sorry!)

I know what you’re asking, and the answer is, “Yes, we do have to write articles about tenses, shifting tenses, and how to spot it in your writing.” The reason for this is because tense is part of the foundation of your story. Think of it like building a house. The tense you use is as important to building your story as nails, glue, and cement is for building a house. If you fuck it up, the house will fall apart, right? Okay, maybe the walls won’t come down and perhaps it’ll maintain its structure for years to come because you didn’t totally skimp when creating your house, but that doesn’t mean should try to get away with it, because you can’t. No one can, and no one should try.

Tense can either turn your story into a cohesive string of thoughts or a disaster waiting to happen. Do you remember reading the first line of this article? If you didn’t, did you just reread it? Do you have a headache now? Now you know how your reader will feel when you have an entire book that shoots all over the tense spectrum. Here are some useful tips to keep your tense in line.

Three most basic types of tense:

Present Tense

Present is a tense that tells a story as it unfolds. The main character(s) deal with the events as they happen right along with the reader.

Example:

The officer standing in front of me doesn’t look impressed. In fact, his face looks as though he’s suspicious of me. I suppose that’s true since I’m the one that robbed the bank, but can he know that? If he does, what am I going to say to throw him off the trail? Well, I don’t know, but I know I need to figure out some story otherwise me and my bro are heading for the clink.

Past Tense

Past is storytelling of events that already transpired. Think of the main character sitting outside a bank that someone just robbed and he’s telling an officer what happened.

Example:

“Well, officer,” I begin, and run my hand through my hair to play it cool. “We was in the bank just minding our own business when these ruffians came in and pulled out their guns. Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘what kind of gun?’ Well, they was big ones. The kind of guns that’ll fuck you up. Me and Mort didn’t want nothin’ to do with that, so we dropped down and shut the hell up until it was over.”

Past Perfect Tense (Pluperfect)

This isn’t very tricky. Just think of it as the past of the past. Think of all the shit happens before the story that happened before what is happening now. Confused? Me too. No, I’m only kidding. Think of what the main character is telling the officer about how he was right in the action, but then he cuts away from that to tell the officer something he remembers before that point in the story. Rather than confusing the officer, he uses past perfect to clarify when that event happened. I underlined the important text to show the past of the past.

Example:

“You know, now that I think about it, Mort had told me before we left that we should stay home. I had made some rude remark that we was just goin’ to the bank, but he had warned me that it wasn’t a good idea. See, when we was younger, Mort got, like, the sixth sense or some shit. He don’t see dead people, but had had this since age twelve that told us when danger was about to happen. I guess lookin’ back, I should’ve listened to him.”

Which tense should I use?

I don’t personally know, but figuring it out is your first important step. What does the story tell you? When I write a story and I have to decide tense, I always figure out what the story needs. Most of the time, past tense works very well. You generally can’t go wrong with it. However, there is a good reason you might choose present tense over past.

First of all, it has nothing to do with the fact that Divergent Games: Catching the Allegiant Mockingjay uses it. I can’t tell you how many writers go with first person present tense simply because a book made millions using it. If you ask me, both of those series would work perfectly fine in either present or past tense. They are terrible examples of when you really should be using present tense.

So when should you? When you want the reader to bite their fingers down to the wrist about what’s going to happen next. It doesn’t really work in third person, but consider first person present tense. The main character tells his or her story as it unfolds, and shit gets crazier and crazier until you realize it’s first person present tense and you have no clue if he will die or not. That’s the huge difference.

With first person past tense, you can safely assume 99% of the time the character will live at the end. Otherwise, who the hell is writing the story? That’s not to say you should always write first person present tense just to mess with your readers, because most of the time, if your writing is strong enough, if doesn’t matter if it’s present or past because the story is that eff’n awesome. Sometimes, though, even when it is that awesome, you just want to add that much more fuel to the fire you lit under their booty.

Can I mix tenses?

Most of the time, no. Some people will argue that style dictates otherwise, but generally, you don’t want to mix tenses because you’ll just confuse the reader. You always want to avoid that like the plague. There are, however, times when you can use it safely, though. For instance, suppose I’m telling you a story about the girl I met, and how I am embarrassed to say I made a real ass of myself. See what I did there? I’m currently embarrassed about what I already did earlier. There, mixed tense. Use it wisely.

How do you handle your tenses? Do you shift tenses as if someone slipped you a laxative or do you carefully consider your tense with each sentence you write? Let me know in the comments below or find me on twitter/Facebook to tell me I’m completely wrong! Happy Writing!

Advertisements

On Writing in First Person: No ‘I’ or DIE!

I read a critique once that said the writer used too many I’s in a first person story. I’ve heard English teachers tell students not to use too many I’s in their story. I hear people parrot this information all the time but I never see a good explanation for such advice.

“How am I supposed to write a first person story with less I’s damn it?!”

How would you do it, indeed. Well, first, you absolutely cannot write a novel in first-person point of view without them unless your main character is one of those annoying bastards that refer to himself or herself in third-person. Please, oh, please never do that.

So, I believe what they mean by using less I’s is actually not about the number of personal pronouns you use but rather how you use it (I think you women will agree with me there heh-heh-heh). Anyway, you need to ask yourself two questions: 1) am I showing or telling, and 2) do I need to use ‘I’? Consider the following passage carefully:

It’s not easy losing your mother when you’ve just turned twenty. Okay, to be fair, I don’t think it’s easy at any age, but when you’re young and the worst problem you’ve ever had was agonizing over whether or not the hot guy at the coffee shop will ask you out, you get quite the shotgun into reality. When my mother died, I thought it would be the worst thing I ever experienced. That was true until she told me something that changed my life forever.

I arrived at her room a little after noon that day and sat on the uncomfortable metal chair next to her bed. The heart monitor remained quiet, only showing a graph of her life’s energy peaking consistent but slow. The clinical smell of the hospital’s solvents made me nauseas, but that wasn’t the only thing that bothered me. My mother, once a vision of beauty, laid against an absurdly white bed. Her mottled and darkened skin hung slack as if someone had draped a thin wet towel over a skeleton. Her hair had been full for years, which I’d inherited from her, but now it was wiry and faded. You never really understand how greedy Cancer can be with someone’s life until you see a loved one withering away on a bed in front of you.

Sitting there, it seemed liked I’d only just learned she was sick. I remember getting the message when I was dancing at friend’s wedding. The speakers thumped something jubilant, and as I moved, I felt the tickle of sweat trickle down my back. When the music died, I tore off my pumps and listened to a friend tell a joke. The ensuing laughter was strong and it felt good. When we got back to the table, we tasted the delicious cake as she told me another one. That’s when I checked my phone and found a text message from my father. It was the longest one he’d ever written, and by far the worst.

In that example, there’s a special effort there to take some of the focus off the main character and tell the story as well. Sure, you can use ‘I’ all over the place and have the MC talk about herself, herself, and—oh, right, herself. Maybe that would work if the MC were Regina George and overly narcissistic, but really that doesn’t work very often. Therefore, a very good balance of the character telling you about herself and showing you the world in which she lives is what I feel you need to make the prose POP! in a first-person narrative.

Do you have your own interpretation of the “No ‘I’ or Die!” rule? Comment below or find me on Facebook or Twitter and let me know what it is!