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Author Topic: Tense
Patrick James
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A common practice in novels is to change tenses at the beginging of a chapter. This seems to be much disparaged around here. In the example I will give below it gives a cinematic feel to the story-telling. Now I do not post this to start a fight. I just thought it might be a useful conversation for writers to have. (Infinitely more useful than the limericks and other nonsense I usually post.)

Chap. 8

George paced across his office as he spoke, feeling frustrated because there was no feedback from the person he was adressing.
"I know you don't owe me anything, Dr. Smith," he was saying. "but if you could see your way clear to helping me on this I would greatly appreciate it."
George looked up to the Dr. There was no change in his expression.
"I'll personally pay all your expenses and add a big bonus if you are successful." George said.

The chapter began in the middle of a conversation. Did you notice the first tense was different than the next. First George was saying, then he said. The rest of the chapter returned to he said she said format.

Any thoughts any of you have are welcome.

[This message has been edited by Patrick James (edited December 14, 2008).]


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snapper
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I think I am tired of my football team losing.

(You did say any thoughts were welcome)


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Christine
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Both of those are in past tense. One is past simple and one is past progressive. There is no problem with this, as long as they are used correctly, which they are in this case:

Note that in the first sentence, they set the stage by telling you that George was speaking. It's not until the next sentence that they tell you what he said, so it says he "was saying" to keep you in the moment set up by the first sentence. Using a "was" like that, aside from being a progressive form of the verb, is also static. It gives a sense of standing still. To move forward, you use the simple form of the verb, ie said.

Here, I found a page that very simply talks about the different tenses:

http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/grammar/tenses.html

As long as you understand what you are doing and why, you can change tenses, but you have to be careful, especially when changing between past, present, and future tenses. Most stories are told in the past tense.

Also, the progressive (static) form of the verb is something that is usually a good idea to avoid because most of the time, you want to move the story forward, not hold it still. When you intentionally want to have a moment, like in the example, that is when you can make good use of the static form.

[This message has been edited by Christine (edited December 14, 2008).]


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philocinemas
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The word "tense" basically means time.

Among regular verbs, there are five forms of past tense:
Past - (-ed)walked, played, etc.
Present Perfect - (have -ed)have walked, have played, etc.
Past Perfect - (had -ed)had walked, had played, etc.
Past Progressive - (was/were -ing) was/were walking, was/were, playing, etc.
Past Perfect Progressive - (had been -ing) had been walking, had been playing, etc.

Since the Present Perfect is "still happening" it is not typically used when something is written in past tense. However, these are all considered active verbs where the subject is doing the action. Forms of "be" and "have" do not always mean passive.

In the example you gave, there is also a participle phrase - ...he spoke,feeling...", which remains in the context of past tense because it is referring to something about George while he was acting in the past.


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Patrick James
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I did not know that the difference between Past tense, and past progressive was an inappropriate subject to have a heading like 'Tense'. Thanks.
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philocinemas
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Patrick, I was not commenting at all on the title of this thread. I was simply stating the "tense" means time and nothing else. I'm not sure what you read into that, but I am very sorry for the misunderstanding.
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Patrick James
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Sorry, philocinemas.
What movie are you screening this month?

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Cheyne
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Patrick,
I found the use of the progressive past was warranted in your example. I agree with others that in most cases you want to avoid using it in your prose. It sneaks into my writing, I find, when I am not confident about what I am writing, or if I am not sure of where it is going. The form arises as a sort of mental stutter or pause.
I don't know why it is better to say that ' he stood by the door' than 'he was standing by the door.' but to my ear it is stronger.
I avoid over using the progressive forms by doing a find/replace search for 'was, were, would' etc. I then examine each instance to see if it is how I want it to remain.

Again it was appropriate in your example, but I would still keep that kind of embellishment to a minimum.

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TaleSpinner
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I don't recall mixing tenses being disparaged, not least because, as philocinemas notes, tense is about time. Mixing tenses is necessary, often. For example:

quote:

Mary had been washing up, looking out of the kitchen window, when the aliens' funny little ship landed on her lawn. At first she had thought they were fairies, but when one started shooting at her with a laser pistol she knew they were bad news. When it shot her arm off, and she saw her own blood pumping all over the kitchen floor, she knew she was in serious trouble.

This example mixes past progressive, simple past and past perfect (I think). Mixing tenses is necessary to depict the sense of her doing something--washing dishes--when the event happens--the aliens landing.

The most common criticism here of tense mixups I can remember is of stories that mix present and past tenses for no more reason than that the narrator hasn't decided whether to tell the story in present or past tense, something like this:

quote:

Mary washes the dishes, looking out of the kitchen window, when the aliens' funnly little ship lands on her lawn. At first she thought they were fairies, but when one started shooting at her ...

I agree that past progressive can sound weak, amateurish even, if it's used as the dominant tense of story-telling, but cannot find a reference that says so :-( Certainly, most stories are dominantly either past or present tense.

Interestingly, flash-backs often start in past perfect or past perfect progressive, but slip after a few sentences into simple past tense, because the "hads" become tedious.

quote:

Mary had met the aliens on a late summer evening. She'd been washing up when they landed. When the shooting started and she lost her arm, she started fighting back. Quickly binding her useless arm to stop the loss of blood, she grabbed the Colt 45 from under the sink and started firing. First one, then another went down and soon the lawn was littered with little green men ...

Hope this helps,
Pat


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Interestingly, flash-backs often start in past perfect or past perfect progressive, but slip after a few sentences into simple past tense, because the "hads" become tedious.

It is my understanding that this is the recommended way to handle a flashback, because it lets the reader know that there has been a time-shift, and once the reader knows, the flashback can continue in simple past, especially if the flashback is long.

If it is a very short flashback (also known as a "memory"), it can stay in past perfect, but only if it's just for a few sentences.


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annepin
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Discussions about tense always confuse me. Each tense has a purpose and conveys a specific meaning. Therefore, progressive is necessary . For instance:

"He was washing the dishes when the ansible jangled."

Sure, it could be. "He washed the dishes. The ansible jangled." But that doesn't convey the same information. Nor does it flow as nicely.

So, each tense for its own purpose, no more, no less.


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philocinemas
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No problem, Patrick - I'm sorry you misunderstood. I'm taking a break from showing any movies this month - too much catch-up work from my day job.


Regarding the use of the tenses, what many people tend to forget is that there still exists a past, present, and future within the worlds we create.

These tenses are useful in representing the characters' understanding and actions within these worlds.

If I were to tell you a story face-to-face, I would begin by saying something like "I was walking down the street and..."
I wouldn't begin by saying "I walked down the street and...", because this would be too abrupt. There was no transition to let you know I was about to tell you a story; it is a matter of context.

This can be overused, and I have a tendency to do this. I often write a lot in Past Perfect and Past Progressive and then go back and change what I can to regular past.


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Christine
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annepin: Your first example can be perfectly reasonable, under the right conditions, but I think your second example misses the point. If you say, "He was washing the dishes when the ansible jingled" then you are telling rather than showing. This isn't always bad, as some would suggest, but it is something to keep in mind. It is missing, among other things, a state of mind or of emotion about the jingling of the ansible.

On the other hand...

He kept looking over at the ansible as he scrubbed the dishes. When it jingled he reached for it, oblivious to the soap bubbles dripping from his hands.

Or perhaps...

He frowned when he lifted the pan from the water. Of course the infomercials' promises had been too good to be true. The rice was still burned to the bottom of the pan. He didn't hear the ansible at first, over the sounds of his cursing and oaths to send nasty letters to the company.


My point is basically that context matters here. Putting a little more action into a scene, showing us a little bit more and telling us a little bit less, brings it to life.


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annepin
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And sometimes it's better to summarize. My only point was that tenses have their purpose. Know them, and use them appropriately. I don't think we disagree on that.
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