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Old 06-07-2009, 06:26 AM   #1
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Switch tenses?: story + general observations

Two examples. First "switches" from past to present, second stays in past.

Emily sunk lower in her chair, strobe lights dancing across her face. I honestly felt bad for her, the one girl no one wanted to dance with. There are always those people at high school dances: the ones who are magnetically attracted to the corner, the ones who don't even bother congregating as one rejected group. They give up hope.

Emily sunk lower in her chair, strobe lights dancing across her face. I honestly felt bad for her--the one girl no one wanted to dance with. There were always those people at high school dances: the ones who were magnetically attracted to the corner, the ones who didn't even bother congregating as one rejected group. They gave up hope.

The first one sounds right to me. The second makes it sound like high school dances are a thing of past, when no, there are still dance rejects hanging out in corners at this very second.

BUT, the first one switches tense for the "life observation," which according to common writer sense is a bad thing.

In this situation, is staying in one tense still a hard and fast rule?
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Old 06-07-2009, 06:40 AM   #2
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Personally, if the POV character was talking about their school dances specifically, I'd keep it past, but if talking about dances in general, I'd make it present. And argue with myself about it.

I have gotten advice on AW that said to switch and not to switch, so the answers should be interesting.
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Old 06-07-2009, 06:50 AM   #3
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Either works. Which you use depends on the tone you want to set, I think.

The first sounds to me a little more conversational, and like someone repeating or asserting universal truths. The second is more reflective, perhaps noticing and pointing those same truths but with more emphasis on the instance in which they were observed.
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Old 06-07-2009, 06:50 AM   #4
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When a character is thinking, especially in generalities, the present tense is perfectly all right -- as long as it is clear that the character is thinking, and not about specific incidents in the past
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Old 06-07-2009, 06:51 AM   #5
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Sage: Yeah, if it was "There [be] always those people at Northview High School dances" I'd definitely say were. Since the speaker could hypothetically be writing the book after she left high school, and thus she'd be looking back on her high school's dances. But high school dances in general continue to happen...

Thanks, Matera and Extortionist.
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Old 06-07-2009, 07:41 AM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by peachiemkey View Post
Emily sunk lower in her chair, strobe lights dancing across her face. I honestly felt bad for her--the one girl no one wanted to dance with. There were always those people at high school dances: the ones who were magnetically attracted to the corner, the ones who didn't even bother congregating as one rejected group. They gave up hope.
As a reader, i have less issues with the second one than the first one, but either could work, depending on context and the overall voice of the novel. It's all about being consistent, really. And i think, but don't quote me on this, and i'm sure someone will correct me if i'm wrong, but 'sunk' should be 'sank'--'sank' being the simple past tense, 'sunk' being a past participle (Emily had sunk lower...).

I actually wonder if the second one could be tightened (or changed about) a little more to give you a third option:

Emily sank lower in her chair, strobe lights dancing across her face. I honestly felt bad for her--the one girl no one wanted to dance with. There were always people like this at high school dances; magnetically attracted to the corner, they couldn't even congregate as one rejected group. They gave up hope.

ETA: you could also look to change around 'There were always people like this at high school dances' to something like: 'People like this always existed/floundered/*insert other option here* at high school dances...'

Last edited by Izz; 06-07-2009 at 07:51 AM.
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Old 06-07-2009, 08:08 AM   #7
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Lol, thanks, Isaac. This isn't actually from my WIP - I just pulled it out of a hat - but I do need practice with tightening The tone of my story is very casual, so I'm glad I can use present use.
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Old 06-07-2009, 08:18 AM   #8
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One thing to notice with the way i've tightened/changed things about is that all bar one of the words that made the tense stand out (was, were, didn't) have been eliminated--particularly if i were (:P) to transpose my last sentence suggestion into the actual paragraph suggestion.

Personally, as a reader, I prefer if the tense remains consistent throughout the work. This is the case even with character thoughts, because i do get jarred if they're in a different tense and not somehow italicized or noted to be thoughts. Probably the best way to avoid tenses being a reader-jarring issue is to minimize the use of words that highlight the tense (was, were, is, are, etc). While the examples you provided may not technically be passive, they can easily be rewritten to be more active and engaging for the reader.
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