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View Full Version : Verb tense consistency? Hard/fast rule?


willfs
11-08-2009, 06:36 AM
I have seen some mention on the forums that you need to keep the same tense. Is this rule to keep people from writing sentences and paragraphs that don't make sense?

"Jill ran past the school and slows down."

Or are they saying that you shouldn't change tense at all in a story?

"Charlie Brown is a confused adult but don't judge him too quickly. His parents never spoke a word of English while he has never understood anything other than English."

As long as it makes sense, can't I change verb tense as many times as I feel nessesary?

It's just that I have a story where I introduce a character.

"So and so is a ________ and does _______ and has _____________."

I then tell a story about so and so.

"So and so used to ___________ and _______. Until one day he __________ed. From then on he _______________ed."

What's wrong with these changes in tense? If there is something wrong with this type of change then what are the rules? Is it an art?

C.bronco
11-08-2009, 06:40 AM
I have seen some mention on the forums that you need to keep the same tense. Is this rule to keep people from writing sentences and paragraphs that don't make sense?

"Jill ran past the school and slowed down."

Or are they saying that you shouldn't change tense at all in a story?

"Charlie Brown is a confused adult but don't judge him too quickly. His parents never spoke a word of English while he has never understood anything other than English."

As long as it makes sense, can't I change verb tense as many times as I feel nessesary?

It's just that I have a story where I introduce a character.

"So and so is a ________ and does _______ and has _____________."

I then tell a story about so and so.

"So and so used to ___________ and _______. Until one day he __________ed. From then on he _______________ed."

What's wrong with these changes in tense? If there is something wrong with this type of change then what are the rules? Is it an art?
It's all pretty logical, really.

willfs
11-08-2009, 06:50 AM
I know the Jill sentence is incorrect. I am asking if you are allowed to change verb tense in a story or if all this "verb tense consistency" talk is just to keep writers from writing illogical sounding stuff like the Jill sentence.

kaitie
11-08-2009, 06:59 AM
I've never read a slushpile, but I worked in a writing lab in college, so I can't speak for publishing in general, but just for what I used to see in school. Other people here are vastly more knowledgeable than I am.

However, I think what they're referring to is not changing tenses within the same paragraphs or separate paragraphs. I saw an awful lot of things like:

Jill walked up to Jack and waved.
"Hi," Jack says.

It's an easy mistake to make, and honestly a lot of people really haven't been taught how to maintain tense in a work. So I think what they're talking about isn't so much within sentences, but as a consistency thing as a whole. It's more common than you'd think, from what I saw anyway.

backslashbaby
11-08-2009, 01:23 PM
I think they mean what kaitie is referring to, as well as not changing tenses arbitrarily for one chapter or something. If there is a good reason, it's fine, but random tense-changing confuses the reader.

Your example is just using tenses correctly to show the effect of time, I think. So you will always be in one main tense, but other tenses used purposefully show what came before or after, etc. The 'other' tenses differ depending on the main tense you are in. That is all entirely legitimate. It would be wrong to get that wrong, actually.

ETA: I'd better give an example, but I woke up way too early, so it'll be lame ;)

I eat the turkey with glee. Yesterday, the turkey was too dry.
^^^ Main tense: present.

I ate the turkey with glee. The day before, the turkey had been too dry.
^^^ Main tense: past.

bonitakale
11-08-2009, 03:47 PM
"Charlie Brown is a confused adult but don't judge him too quickly. His parents never spoke a word of English while he has never understood anything other than English."

As long as it makes sense, can't I change verb tense as many times as I feel nessesary?

It's just that I have a story where I introduce a character.

"So and so is a ________ and does _______ and has _____________."

I then tell a story about so and so.

"So and so used to ___________ and _______. Until one day he __________ed. From then on he _______________ed."

What's wrong with these changes in tense? If there is something wrong with this type of change then what are the rules? Is it an art?

The Charlie Brown thing is fine, and so is the "So and so is a..." as long as you realize that, if the story is told in the past, that line of present tense at the beginning tells us the person is still alive. Depending on the story, that could be a problem or not.

(It could also make the story seem like a 90,000 word flashback.)

The more usual thing, if the story is past tense, is to start it that way, also. "Jane was a hairdresser. She was the best damn hairdresser in town, she told herself."