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Thread: Past vs. present tense as it applies to prose

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    Past vs. present tense as it applies to prose

    Hi all. Just a quick question on what everyone's opinion is on how to describe the action. Is it better to use present tense to describe a flashback, and then use present tense for the current action?

    For example, "Johnny boy was running to his office, because his alarm clock was jacked."

    Compared to:

    "Johnny boy ran to his office, because his alarm clock was jacked."

    Just pointing this out, because I have been doing some research on this very issue, and some out there have a broad preference to present tense. Any thoughts on this?
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    Misbehaving and stuff Beachgirl's Avatar
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    Both of those examples are past tense, though the first half of your first example is passive voice. Present tense would be:

    "Johnny boy is running..." or "Johnny boy runs..."
    Last edited by Beachgirl; 10-27-2013 at 07:17 AM.



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    Quote Originally Posted by Beachgirl View Post
    Both of those examples are past tense, though the first half of your first example is passive voice. Present tense would be:

    "Johnny boy is running..." or "Johnny boy runs..."
    Oops, you're right. Yes. "Johnny boy runs/Johnny boy is running to his office, because of his broken alarm clock.

    Well, you get the picture.
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    Misbehaving and stuff Beachgirl's Avatar
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    I realized I forgot to answer your question. Personally, I prefer past tense for both current action and flashbacks, both when I read and when I write. I know people who love present tense, but I'm not one of them.



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    Feeling like an old timer rainsmom's Avatar
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    "Was running" isn't passive. It's past progressive tense, and it indicates continuing action.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Beachgirl View Post
    I realized I forgot to answer your question. Personally, I prefer past tense for both current action and flashbacks, both when I read and when I write. I know people who love present tense, but I'm not one of them.
    I know. My writing flows so much better when everything is in past tense. The only problem, is that I really want to engage my reader, and I've heard present tense is really good at that sort of style. I dunno. I just want to make a good impression considering I've never had anything published in my entire life.

    I feel like that creepy middle aged dude who's never gone on a date before, and this is his first real shot at a relationship. I just don't want to screw anything up.
    Here is my twitter: https://twitter.com/JackBruns1

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    Misbehaving and stuff Beachgirl's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jackbruns28 View Post
    I know. My writing flows so much better when everything is in past tense. The only problem, is that I really want to engage my reader, and I've heard present tense is really good at that sort of style. I dunno. I just want to make a good impression considering I've never had anything published in my entire life.

    I feel like that creepy middle aged dude who's never gone on a date before, and this is his first real shot at a relationship. I just don't want to screw anything up.
    I don't find present tense engages me any more than past tense. Write the story the way you are most comfortable writing it. Trying to write it in a way that doesn't feel natural will come across in the prose.


    Quote Originally Posted by rainsmom View Post
    "Was running" isn't passive. It's past progressive tense, and it indicates continuing action.
    Oops. And this is why I tend to hide under chairs and babble to myself when everyone starts talking technical.

    *runs away in panic*



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    The Crazy Man in the Sun. Feel me. WillSauger's Avatar
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    Both of your examples are in past tense. "runs" would be present tense, so using "ran" is past, and "was running" is past progressive/continuous like rainsmom said.

    Tenses are interchangeable. It's been shown that a reader doesn't interpret present tense as more active because it's still being told to use from the past, and past tense can be just as "active" or however you believe it as present tense. It might seem one or the other is better/worse at somethings when you start reading, but after a while you forget about the tense and the verbs only matter from there. It all depends on how the writer uses the tense.
    IMO, choose one tense to tell a story in unless there's a particular reason why the other should be included (like a small journal entry written in both, within the story).

    Because of that, changing from past to present to show what is backstory and what isn't is gimmicky, IMO. Just choose whichever you feel most comfortable with.
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    Quote Originally Posted by WillSauger View Post
    Both of your examples are in past tense. "runs" would be present tense, so using "ran" is past, and "was running" is past progressive/continuous like rainsmom said.

    Tenses are interchangeable. It's been shown that a reader doesn't interpret present tense as more active because it's still being told to use from the past, and past tense can be just as "active" or however you believe it as present tense. It might seem one or the other is better/worse at somethings when you start reading, but after a while you forget about the tense and the verbs only matter from there. It all depends on how the writer uses the tense.
    IMO, choose one tense to tell a story in unless there's a particular reason why the other should be included (like a small journal entry written in both, within the story).

    Because of that, changing from past to present to show what is backstory and what isn't is gimmicky, IMO. Just choose whichever you feel most comfortable with.
    Lol. It's funny you say that, because my protagonists back story is told through past tense, with the story in present.
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    The Crazy Man in the Sun. Feel me. WillSauger's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jackbruns28 View Post
    Lol. It's funny you say that, because my protagonists back story is told through past tense, with the story in present.
    I don't know how that's funny; I just told you I find that gimmicky.

    Whatever.
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    I have only come across one book in present tense I enjoyed. For the most part it drives me bonkers, but I say if you can keep it consistent anything is plausible.


    BTW: Your FB link doesn't work.
    Last edited by Nina Kaytel; 10-27-2013 at 08:21 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by jackbruns28 View Post
    I know. My writing flows so much better when everything is in past tense. The only problem, is that I really want to engage my reader, and I've heard present tense is really good at that sort of style. I dunno. I just want to make a good impression considering I've never had anything published in my entire life.

    I feel like that creepy middle aged dude who's never gone on a date before, and this is his first real shot at a relationship. I just don't want to screw anything up.
    Don't force it. It won't sound right. Write what comes to you naturally and what feels best for the story. I like writing in present tense because I do it naturally and it works well for my brain, but if my character wants to tell the story in past tense, I'll get over it.

    Past progressive works well for a flashback. ^_^

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    Quote Originally Posted by katci13 View Post
    Past progressive works well for a flashback.
    That's not the use of progressive tense, but of past perfect tense--if it's summary flashback, and not a separate scene.

    A separate flashback scene can be written in any tense, and IMO should be written in the book's original tense.
    Don't Fear Failure.

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    Benefactor Member Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jackbruns28 View Post
    Hi all. Just a quick question on what everyone's opinion is on how to describe the action. Is it better to use present tense to describe a flashback, and then use present tense for the current action?

    For example, "Johnny boy was running to his office, because his alarm clock was jacked."

    Compared to:

    "Johnny boy ran to his office, because his alarm clock was jacked."

    Just pointing this out, because I have been doing some research on this very issue, and some out there have a broad preference to present tense. Any thoughts on this?
    Both of these are past tense. The first is past progressive tense, and the other is simple past tense.

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    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    Yiou won't engage your reader at all until you know the difference between past and present tense.
    Everything yields to treatment.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nina Kaytel View Post
    I have only come across one book in present tense I enjoyed. For the most part it drives me bonkers, but I say if you can keep it consistent anything is plausible.


    BTW: Your FB link doesn't work.
    Agreed. The current trend towards present-tense writing drives me loopy.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bufty View Post
    Yiou won't engage your reader at all until you know the difference between past and present tense.
    Well, I'm a product of the American "education" system, so we get a pass.
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    Quote Originally Posted by jackbruns28 View Post
    Well, I'm a product of the American "education" system, so we get a pass.
    You're a writer. No you don't.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Beachgirl View Post
    Oops. And this is why I tend to hide under chairs and babble to myself when everyone starts talking technical.
    It's strange that so few people know or were ever taught English tenses and conjugations. I myself never was taught any of this stuff in school. And yet half a page could name and list them all with examples. But I suppose the page must be out there someplace.... (pause for google) ...and there it is:

    http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/gramm...nse_frames.htm

    Looks like it was made back in the 90s. Early 90s. But it works.

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    When I went to school, people mostly learned their English grammar in foreign language classes, because the foreign language teachers had to teach it to us in order to communicate more easily about the foreign language. And they were typically frustrated that we had not learned this stuff in English.

    If you don't have mastery of your tenses, it's generally a bad idea to write in present tense. It's much easier to slip in and out tenses accidentally than when you are writing in past.

    Present tense feels more immediate to me, but past tense feels more traditional and less obtrusive. I used to loathe present tense. As I have now written two novels in present tense, I guess I don't hate it anymore. What I like about present tense is that it's easier to do flashbacks or talk about the past, because I'm just switching to past tense and I don't have to worry about all that had had had.
    Last edited by Ralyks; 10-28-2013 at 05:32 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ralyks View Post
    When I went to school, people mostly learned their English grammar in foreign language classes, because the foreign language teachers had to teach it to us in order to communicate more easily about the foreign language.
    Exactly my experience. The only grammar I ever learned by instruction was in high school Spanish. Very strange.

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    Quote Originally Posted by blacbird View Post
    You're a writer. No you don't.

    caw
    I write stuff that interests people and how well the flow works. You can find plenty of grammar mistakes in mainstream articles like Reuter and Associated Press and no one really makes a fuss.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Telergic View Post
    Exactly my experience. The only grammar I ever learned by instruction was in high school Spanish. Very strange.
    The only thing I learned in the public education system was how evil the student body and faculty were in general. You may criticize me for use of grammar, but until you actually research just how terrible the educational facilities are in California, then it's easy to pass judgement on other writers who came from that.
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    Quote Originally Posted by jackbruns28 View Post
    I write stuff that interests people and how well the flow works. You can find plenty of grammar mistakes in mainstream articles like Reuter and Associated Press and no one really makes a fuss.
    It's possible you will find a fiction editor with the same attitude.

  25. #25
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    Quote Originally Posted by jackbruns28 View Post
    I write stuff that interests people and how well the flow works. You can find plenty of grammar mistakes in mainstream articles like Reuter and Associated Press and no one really makes a fuss.
    Then go ahead and make as many as you want, as it's obvious that's the permission you're asking for. Why the hell did you even start this thread?

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