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Thread: Problem with Tenses in First Person

  1. #1
    figuring it all out
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    Problem with Tenses in First Person

    I don't usually have problems with tenses, but that's because I usually write in the third person. This is my first time writing in the first person and I've become really conflicted with my tenses. I'm confused, they all sound right one way or the other. I don't really know how to describe it, so here are a few examples:

    Here's the intro (don't judge please ):

    If a man came up to me right now, with a dark ski-mask gripping his head and a gun wrapped in his fingers, and if he asked me if I had any last message for anyone at all, I’d tell him one thing, and one thing alone: fuck you. Not to him of course, I’d have to explain, while feeling the cold barrel pressed so sweetly against my terrified temple. But for everyone. For everything.
    And many times, I wondered where my gun-wielding masked Zorro was, because God knows I’d be too craven to ever pull that trigger. Craven, you see, because that was my word of the day. It helps keep things interesting around here, having a word of a day. Not that you could ever use any of those words in everyday conversation, because there’s only two possible outcomes for that: either a), whomever you’re talking with understands the strange word you just used, and assumes you’re probably just being pretentious (which no one wants to be), or b), they don’t understand the word, and you’ll have to explain it or just say a simpler one.
    It’s really just a giant waste of time.
    I included the first paragraph because I thought it'd help set the voice so you guys could see where I'm coming from here. It's the first line in the second paragraph that I've changed a hundred times. Should it be "I wonder where my... ...Zorro is" or "I wondered where my... ...Zorro was"? Should it be "because that was my word of the day" or "because that's my word of the day"? I'm really confused with how it should be handled when the narrator is speaking to the reader in first person.

    And then of course, would it be "It was really just a giant waste of time" or "It's really just a giant waste of time"? (And yea, I understand that the answer to one of these questions would dictate the answers for the rest, I'm just asking to stress the point).

    Can someone explain?

    Another example I have that illustrates my problems is this:

    My feet backtracked while my body followed unwillingly. I went into the kitchen and flashed a smile, wide and fresh like always. To my brother, with his mouth full of overcooked chicken skin and undercooked rice, I stuck out my tongue, as he is young and still enjoys the silly things.
    Would it be "...as he was young and still enjoyed the silly things" or as it is written there? And whatever the answer is, could you explain why, so I can properly understand the rule?

    I have a strong feeling that it should all be in the past tense, which would mean I'd end up with sentences like "It helped keep things interesting around here" and "because there'd only be two possible outcomes for that". Would that also mean that the next sentence would be "whomever you're talking with understood the strange word you just used, and assumed you're probably just being pretentious"? That's where it sounds off. I'm just so befuddled.

    Last Edit:

    Am I screwing myself over and actually setting it in the present tense by starting the first sentence with "right now"? By using "right now" does that mean the rest of the narrative has to be present tense?
    Last edited by dogpie; 11-16-2012 at 02:04 PM.

  2. #2
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin EthanCullen's Avatar
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    I've run into that issue while trying to write first person present tense. I'd find myself shifting to past tense in mid paragraph because that's what I'm used to.

    The Zorro portion sounds fine tense-wise. It may be the structure of the line itself that is throwing you off.

    in keeping with the past tense, the word of the day line is also right, but the follow up line throws that off. In line with the past tense, the next line should read "It helped keep things interesting around here."

    If the giant waste of time line is referring to your explanation of the word of the day, then it falls under the same tense of that description and seems fine to me (could be wrong on that) but it's following the same feel as the rest of that thought, if that makes any sense...

    and the last part would be "...as he was young and still enjoyed the silly things"...

    That's my take on it...
    Ethan Cullen - aspiring somebody - writer of horror, fantasy and hardcore erotica.
    http://amazon.com/author/ethancullen

  3. #3
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    If the giant waste of time line is referring to your explanation of the word of the day, then it falls under the same tense of that description and seems fine to me (could be wrong on that) but it's following the same feel as the rest of that thought, if that makes any sense...
    Okay I think I'm starting to get it. So if it's a thought that I'm trying to explain, it's in the present tense, and since the "giant waste of time" line is still a part of that previous thought, it should be in the present tense too. And everything else in the past.

  4. #4
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin EthanCullen's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dogpie View Post
    Am I screwing myself over and actually setting it in the present tense by starting the first sentence with "right now"? By using "right now" does that mean the rest of the narrative has to be present tense?
    Ah, I missed this part of your post. This could be part of the issue as well. maybe by changing it to "If a man had come up to me right then" that might help?
    Ethan Cullen - aspiring somebody - writer of horror, fantasy and hardcore erotica.
    http://amazon.com/author/ethancullen

  5. #5
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin EthanCullen's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dogpie View Post
    Okay I think I'm starting to get it. So if it's a thought that I'm trying to explain, it's in the present tense, and since the "giant waste of time" line is still a part of that previous thought, it should be in the present tense too. And everything else in the past.
    It works in that context. Of course I invite anyone to correct me if I'm wrong in this (please... anyone?) but it does show it as being a separate thought...
    Ethan Cullen - aspiring somebody - writer of horror, fantasy and hardcore erotica.
    http://amazon.com/author/ethancullen

  6. #6
    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    You are talking to me in the here and now, no? You would mix your tenses if you were talking to me and I was standing next to you -the main thing is that I follow what you are saying.

    It's only a problem if I get confused.

    If I follow what you are saying I wouldn't interrupt you every other sentence to pick you up on how you are telling me whatever it is you are telling me.

    You have to decide if you wish to tell me what happened in the story or what is happening as the story unfolds, and you are free to pop in any thoughts you wish.
    Last edited by Bufty; 11-16-2012 at 04:00 PM.
    Everything yields to treatment.

  7. #7
    Tell it like it Is Susan Littlefield's Avatar
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    Dogpie,

    You need 50 posts to get critiques on your work. I would suggest getting those 50 posts and posting the the Share Your Work forums.
    Susan

    Please visit my website: http://www.susanlittlefield.blogspot.com/


  8. #8
    figuring it all out Josie Cloos's Avatar
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    I’ll give it a shot.



    The thing about craven should be in present tense because there wasn’t any scene that took place where the narrator used that word. They are telling you now that they would be too craven to…so craven IS the word of the day-not was.


    If it was something like, …and then I told her I would be too craven…then craven WAS the word of the day.


    I’m not judging but the beginning of the second paragraph is kind of awkward no matter what but whether or not it’s stated in past or present depends on whether or not the character is still wondering. But it really should be restructured. Something like I used to wonder where my masked zorro was. Or I still wonder where my masked Zorro is… the last part of the sentence is fine for either tense.


    There’s no need to bring the rest of it into the past tense. The narrator is just talking to whoever, telling them what they think about the word of the day thing. They aren’t imparting anything from the past.


    My feet backtracked while my body followed unwillingly. I went into the kitchen and flashed a smile, wide and fresh like always. To my brother, with his mouth full of overcooked chicken skin and undercooked rice, I stuck out my tongue, as he is young and still enjoys the silly things.


    For this one it depends on how far back in the past we’re talking about. If it was ten years ago then it would be was and still enjoyed…if it was only far enough back where his being that young is still relevant then it’s fine.


    I hope you found this helpful.

  9. #9
    I agree with Roxxsmom.
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    " ... I stuck out my tongue, as he is young and still enjoys the silly things."

    To get a handle on what tense to use, try another example to see the logic. Here's one:

    "In order to fit in, I put a statue of Jesus on my dashboard, because Christians really love their Jesus."

    It would be weird to write:

    "In order to fit in, I put a statue of Jesus on my dashboard, because Christians really loved their Jesus."

    After all, they still do.

  10. #10
    practical experience, FTW
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    I've wondered would be better, imo.

  11. #11
    That hairy-handed gent
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    Tense issues are no different in first-person narrative than they are in third-person. I find, most often, that when I run up against a tense confusion, it means the sentence structure is awkward, and needs to be rephrased.

    caw
    "Badger! Badger! The weasels have stolen my motor-car!"

    "Frankly, Toad, I don't give a damn."

    -- Gone with the Wind in the Willows

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