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Thread: Description in present tense vs past

  1. #1
    all the feels, ALL OF THEM itsaplane's Avatar
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    Description in present tense vs past

    I'm here a lot with my silly questions lol. Currently in one of my WIPs, though written in past tense, I had the character description in present. (My mind's logic was going, 'well, she IS such and such, not WAS because she's still alive...)

    I hate to pull the "so and so did it card" so I *won't* but I have seen it done before... I know you shouldn't switch tenses, huge no-no, but if it is a description of someone or talking about something that still happens, is using present tense *ok*?

    Hope this makes sense. Thanks in advance haha.
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  2. #2
    ~~~~*~~~~ backslashbaby's Avatar
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    There are different theories on it. I like everything to remain in the same tense as much as possible, but there are certainly some 'constants' that could sound strange phrased in the past.

    A character description should probably be in the past if the book is written in past tense. So, 'she was lovely, with eyes so green they stole your concentration.'

    OTOH, there are descriptions that can sound like they've stopped when that's not what you mean to imply: 'Oxford was known for its rigorous academics.' Some people like those sentences better in present tense even though the bulk of the passage is in past.

    eta: I'm sure there is a better example than my last one, but I can't think of one now I lean heavily toward keeping everything in past, so it's hard for me to come up with a good one!
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    The Crazy Man in the Sun. Feel me. WillSauger's Avatar
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    You can do what you wish.

    Personally, I would chuck the book at the wall after I would read that. Tense has to stay constant because that's where the story is being told from as to reference of time. You might think its telling the past, but to the reader, its telling the present (not in the tense sort of way). It works in the same way as grammar, I expect a certain consistency and when I can fully expect it, it makes reading easier. Shake that consistency up, and I grow cautious and scared, ready to jump out.
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  4. #4
    practical experience, FTW MatthewWuertz's Avatar
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    I don't think switching tense is a good idea either. Consistency matters. Even if you found an example of it, I'd be really hesitant in doing it. To me, there would have to be something that ties the character back to the present at another place in the story - and it would need to be done with surgical precision to not throw a reader. But just based on what you've described, I think you should stick with past tense.

  5. #5
    Likes metaphors mixed, not stirred Chris P's Avatar
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    I tried to write descriptions of places in present tense (The Pyramids stand on the Giza Plateau, and the smallest is dwarfed by the larger two) and every beta reader flagged it as distracting.
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  6. #6
    Huh. kkbe's Avatar
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    itsaplane: I know you shouldn't switch tenses, huge no-no, but if it is a description of someone or talking about something that still happens, is using present tense *ok*?
    My thinking is, you can do whatever you want, just like Will Sauger said, as long as you do seamlessly, non-obtrusively.
    MatthewWuertz: . . .it would need to be done with surgical precision to not throw a reader.
    Yeah, that's what I meant. But what about inconsistency?
    WillSauger: Tense has to stay constant because that's where the story is being told from as to reference of time . . . Shake that consistency up, and I grow cautious and scared. . .
    You certainly don't want to give your readers the heebie jeebies!

    (Personal Anecdote Alert!!! Beware!!!) My latest did just that--wait, let me rephrase --my latest novel switched tenses, only in my case, it was ass-backwards: written in present tense, referencing past events. So, for example:

    (Mature Subject Matter!!! Beware!!!)
    Who am I kidding? I’m just saying that because the thought of seeing Steve again is bugging the crap out of me. Why? Because I was naked and helpless when he did that shit and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it, absolutely nothing I could do about it, and I liked it. He dominated me and I liked it. He scared the crap out of me and I liked it.

    I loved it.
    From CHERRY:
    “He started saying all this bad stuff about you and I got mad and told him to cut it out, and then he—”
    “What? Then he what?” Fuck.
    “Then, he—”
    “What?”
    “He—”
    “Stop.” I had to get out of there before I suffocated or had a heart attack or something.

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  7. #7
    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    To the OP.

    The fact the character is still alive is immaterial unless you wish me to know you are talking about the here and now instead of the point at which the information is relevant, namely when the tale itself is taking place...presumably in the past.

    POV also comes into play as evidenced by kbbe's illustration.

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  8. #8
    Just pokin' about Anna Spargo-Ryan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kkbe View Post
    (Mature Subject Matter!!! Beware!!!)
    This is just your average retrospection though, a little flashbackery. The tense change doesn't jar at all.

    I've been pondering this myself tonight. I have a couple of chapters in my otherwise past tense WIP that are almost soliloquies in their style. They lose all of their impact in past tense, but I haven't yet figured out how to incorporate them without giving the reader a head injury.
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  9. #9
    Huh. kkbe's Avatar
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    annaspargoryan: This is just your average retrospection though, a little flashbackery. The tense change doesn't jar at all.
    Huh? Wah? Flashbackery??!! I'm trying to show--

    At least the tense change doesn't jar. Let me see if I can find a better example.
    I think I’m in dire straits here. Maybe I’d better rewind a minute to clarify what the hell is going on.

    Try to picture the scene: I’m driving in my car, thinking about nothing in particular; just cruising along on autopilot, listening to my Best of The Kinks CD and savoring that sweet, delicious cigarette—

    Sidebar: In keeping with my “truth theme,” I confess that I was on the road yesterday, not because I had to buy toilet paper (although we did need some; we were almost out), but because I had to fulfill that nagging urge to sneak a Marlboro out there on the road, away from the loving but watchful eyes of my husband.
    Nope. How about this one?
    Just remember what I told you about truth: it’s esoteric; ergo, this must remain between you and me.

    Seriously, folks.

    All right. Once upon a time (you enjoy that, don’t you?), I sat myself down and wrote a delicious little story.
    Or how about this--more in line with what the o.p. was talking about, I think:
    A commercial came on: the one with the guy who owns that ritzy grocery down on Main. He’s always pitching some new product in this “down-homey” kind of way, like he’s Garrison Keillor or somebody—

    “When I was a young’un,” he starts, I wince, “my mother told me, ‘Little Joe, everybody’s got problems, but here’s something your Grandma taught me years ago: any problem you ever face in life can be solved by one fantastic gingersnap cookie.”

    I’m thinking, Did he just say what I think he said?
    ETA: Nope. Missing the mark. Sorry. I shall leave this and not delete. Feel free to ignore this. In fact, I urge you to ignore this.
    Last edited by kkbe; 12-29-2012 at 05:35 PM.
    From CHERRY:
    “He started saying all this bad stuff about you and I got mad and told him to cut it out, and then he—”
    “What? Then he what?” Fuck.
    “Then, he—”
    “What?”
    “He—”
    “Stop.” I had to get out of there before I suffocated or had a heart attack or something.

    My little blog: /this-that/
    Rep'd by Brent Taylor @ TriadaUS Literary Agency.




  10. #10
    Tyrant King jeffo20's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by backslashbaby View Post
    There are different theories on it. I like everything to remain in the same tense as much as possible, but there are certainly some 'constants' that could sound strange phrased in the past.

    A character description should probably be in the past if the book is written in past tense. So, 'she was lovely, with eyes so green they stole your concentration.'

    OTOH, there are descriptions that can sound like they've stopped when that's not what you mean to imply: 'Oxford was known for its rigorous academics.' Some people like those sentences better in present tense even though the bulk of the passage is in past.
    I've seen this sort of thing done, and it generally doesn't bother me when it's done well. I'll have to see if I can find good examples of it somewhere....

    Quote Originally Posted by annaspargoryan View Post
    I've been pondering this myself tonight. I have a couple of chapters in my otherwise past tense WIP that are almost soliloquies in their style. They lose all of their impact in past tense, but I haven't yet figured out how to incorporate them without giving the reader a head injury.
    I had this problem, too. I really liked the idea of them, but I know I ended up cutting one of them out as it was too long and too...something...for the work. I really liked it when I was writing it, but once I saw it in the context of the rest of the manuscript, it had to come out. Ultimately, call it one of those things I needed to know, but the reader didn't. Or something.

    I also had another spot where the character is describing a particular place of significance to him. It's a real place in the world, and I found myself writing it in the present tense, on the notion that it's 'an ongoing condition' or something like that. It just felt right to write it that way. Unlike Chris P, I don't remember anyone flagging it for removal. (Then again, maybe I dumped it, now I'm not so sure. Another thing to check on.)
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  11. #11
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by itsaplane View Post

    I hate to pull the "so and so did it card" so I *won't* but I have seen it done before... I know you shouldn't switch tenses, huge no-no, but if it is a description of someone or talking about something that still happens, is using present tense *ok*?

    I'm curious to see a published example of where you've seen a switch to present tense for a description.

    Even though a story is told in past tense, the assumption is that the action is taking place now, as the reader reads. It's a convention. Don't break the trance by suddenly switching to present tense describe someone.

  12. #12
    resident curmudgeon
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    Past tense narrative and present tense dialogue are perfectly fine, and are not inconsistent, or even a switching of tense. People, past or present, often speak in present tense. But don't switch tense in narrative, unless the narrative is present tense, and you use a past tense flashback.

  13. #13
    That hairy-handed gent
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    Narration of activity can be in past tense, because it's about incidents that have happened, actions completed. Description of static conditions ("Oxford University is justly famed for its record of academic prowess") in present tense is appropriate, because it is about something that continues to exist. If you were to say "Oxford University was justly famed for its record of academic prowess", you imply that's no longer true.

    A combination of "Oxford University is justly famed for its record of academic prowess. I enrolled for that reason." doesn't constitute a switch overall narrative tense.

    You won't have to work too hard to find usages of this sort in many books by many excellent writers. An example of this exact principle, from John D. MacDonald, one of the best narrative writers I can think of:

    Five time zones is a long way. Here it wasn't yet time for lunch.

    (The Turquoise Lament)

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  14. #14
    practical experience, FTW courtneyv's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by itsaplane View Post
    I'm here a lot with my silly questions lol. Currently in one of my WIPs, though written in past tense, I had the character description in present. (My mind's logic was going, 'well, she IS such and such, not WAS because she's still alive...)

    I hate to pull the "so and so did it card" so I *won't* but I have seen it done before... I know you shouldn't switch tenses, huge no-no, but if it is a description of someone or talking about something that still happens, is using present tense *ok*?

    Hope this makes sense. Thanks in advance haha.
    It's not a no-no necessarily. You can totally switch tenses while in First person when you're giving commentary or saying anything that is still true from the point in time in which you're telling the story. Thoughts and any commentary can be present.

    i.e. I couldn't stand cake (he'd be dead then) ... vs, I can't stand cake, so as they brought out that hellish thing with its mountain of frosting, I snarled. *** The commentary is present tense because it's still true, while the action verbs are all past tense.

    In Third person you shouldn't switch tense.


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  15. #15
    That hairy-handed gent
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    Quote Originally Posted by courtneyv View Post
    In Third person you shouldn't switch tense.
    I don't think even that is categorically true, in the sense of the examples I posted above. I could easily switch that Oxford example from "I enrolled" to "He enrolled" with no violation of overall narrative tense.

    caw
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