Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mixing Tenses

Previously we looked at how to use a blend of pluperfect tense and past tense to integrate flashbacks. Today we will look at mixing past and present tense.

Deliberately Mixing Past and Present Tense

I've read some interesting stories using a mixture of tenses. One book involved a current investigation that triggered constant flashbacks for the protagonist to a previous investigation. The author handled this by separating the two stories and writing the main narrative in present tense, alternating full scenes of present tense and past tense reflecting the present and past respectively. It helped to clarify for which case clues were being processed.

Another story was written in first person past tense in a confessionary style. When the narrator spoke of scenes that were emotionally "present" to him, he slipped into present tense narration. Take care with this technique, as you need to have a good handle on your own grasp of tense.

Inadvertently Mixing Tenses

Some writers find they unintentionally mix their tenses. There are two main reasons for this. One is not being able to separate dialogue from narrative in your mind. Past tense creeps into the characters' words, and when the quotes close, the narrative continues in present tense for a few words.

The other reason is the tendency to tell someone about a past experience using the present tense: "So, I ordered the fish, and it arrives, and it's still got the head on, and I absolutely freak." Listen to yourself in conversation next time - do you drift back and forth from past tense to present tense in your speech?

But if you want to train yourself so that you have the choice of which tense you use and when, try some dialogue and action exercises. Write the dialogue in present tense, then immediately follow it with past tense action. You might even want to try monitoring your own speech and "correcting" yourself when you use present tense to describe the past - just to help yourself gain awareness of the differences.
---------------------------------------------Elsa Neal
Elsa Neal owns HearWriteNow.com, an online magazine for writers. Read her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog. Elle is based in Melbourne, Australia.

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  1. Tense shifts - in oral or written English - are irksome and can occasionally confuse the reader (listener).

    I think people do this in speech because it's easy and there's enough context/immediate feedback from the listener/facial expressions/etc. to clarify meaning, but this is not the case in writing.

  2. Thank you thank you thank you - tense changing is my bete noir! Your examples and strategies are very helpful.

  3. I've critiqued a lot of manuscripts with tense problems and I'm never quite sure whether the writer doesn't understand the difference or whether, as you suggest, she slips because of habits with real and written dialogue. That's an interesting and helpful observation. Thanks, Elsa.

  4. Elsa I think you're reading my mind. At your blog it's POV and here it's tenses- my two Achille's heels. I drift around in my rough drafts always- it's only until about the third or fourth round of edits that I get things sorted.
    Good post!

  5. Memories can create havoc in a book. You really do have to pay special attention to how you handle them - they can be the focus of one read-through rewrite/edit.

    Straight From Hel

  6. I like Jill's explanation about context in speech - makes sense of accidentally mixing first and third person narrative too, but it really doesn't work in writing.

  7. Jill,
    Mixing tenses really can pull the reader out of the story, but it's so easy for it to slip past the writer. Thanks for visiting.

    Glad this was helpful.

    I think it is very easy to slip if a writer is used to speaking that way, even if he/she does know the difference.

    Thanks hun. It's good that you know what to look out for when you edit yourself.

    Indeed, flashbacks and memories are quite tricky to write about effectively.

    Mixing narratives is also something that can slip past the writer very easily, especially if the writer doesn't hear the characters' voices clearly or can't differentiate from his/her own voice.

  8. Thanks for this helpful post. I am not sure if I will ever try to mix tenses, but it is good to have these guidelines.

  9. Tenses are tough to figure out sometimes. It seems there's a growing trend to try and write everything in the present tense. It takes some getting used to when you read a book like that, but if it's done well I'll keep reading.

    Morgan Mandel

  10. Great tips! I'll have to give them a try. :)

  11. Great post, Elsa. I've found tense to create problems for a number of my writers. Tense issues even crop up in my own writing when I'm not paying attention.

  12. I totally agree with Maryann. Guidelines are fabulous to have for any writer, new or older, and it is going to be very handy for me in the future. Thank you!

  13. Great advice and good things to keep in mind.

    Great post!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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