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Author Topic: Tense changes
Member # 8297

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Hi all. I've got a nearly complete short story that I've been struggling with to end for some time now. The problem is that the main body of the story is told in past tense, in first person. It isn't until the very end that it is revealed that it was all a journal entry written from the MC's prison cell as he waits to be hanged for the events he previously described.

My issue is that the last 250 words or so, where he reveals that it is the journal and that he will shortly be dead, reads better in present tense. Would this be too jarring for a reader after having already been through 5000 words of past tense? It is only a brief epilogue, but not something that can really be cut out, since it wraps up the character and his motivations in a necessary way.

I know it is generally taboo to switch tense, but does anyone have any experience where they've seen it work?

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Member # 8631

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I don't think there is a problem. As long as you make it clear. In fact, it would read weird to me if it wasn't in present tense.

Write it the way the MC would naturally write it. The readers will understand.

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Member # 8019

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I think the abrupt reveal at the end might be a larger area of concern than the tense shift, though apparently they go hand-in-hand. Five thousand words of reader investment in past tense seemingly telling the tale and then the payoff reports it's all been a journal could be frustratingly jarring.

Opening with the narrative is a journal, an epistolary narrative, is a best practice in order to avoid the sudden shock that readers have been tricked into thinking otherwise. Unless, there is an overriding and reader accessible artful reason for holding back that important piece of infomation. It's important because readers need to be aware of settings' times, places, and situations, not kept in the dark about where they are during the reading dream participation mystique.

Narrative voice and narrative point of view for an entire work should be introduced at a beginning and be coherent and consistent throughout a narrative. Otherwise, readers will be unsettled. Tense is both part of narrative voice and narrative point of view.

It is not taboo to switch tenses in creative writing. That's another of the many tediously tyrranical dictates of prescriptive grammarians and their theories of grammar propriety and piety. The principle actually being avoid unnecessary tense shifts. In creative writing, that means, when necessary, make time transitions seamless. Transition writing ends a scene with a setup for exit from a scene, then entry into a new scene.

Transition writing is challenging, perhaps more so than other writing modes: like description, introspection, action, narration, emotion, sensation, summarization, exposition, conversation, recollection, explanation, and transition. DIANE'S SECRET for a mnemonic prompt.

Other writing modes offer "windows" to smooth transitions. A visual sensation, for example, evokes a recollection, that in turn spawns a flashback. Though memory is more provoked by olfactory sensations. Or gustatory. Or tactile. Visual and aural less so, but still able to evoke memories. Window, step, step, step transition into the past, or step transition from the past back into the present. Narrative distance, another feature of both narrative voice and narrative point of view, by default is closest in present tense.

Thomas Harris' Hannibal saga switches narrative voice and narrative point of view deftly, tenses and grammatical persons.

[ March 08, 2012, 11:14 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Member # 8617

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Ambrose Bierce changed tense in the 2nd to last paragraph (and I mean IN not with) of An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge. Therefore, there is precedent (not that you need any, but it is reassuring). In any event, do what the story demands.

To add to this, is there a reason to keep the journaling a secret till the end? If there isn't, then perhaps the story isn't demanding the subterfuge.

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I'm actually having trouble envisioning what you mean by 1st person present tense. Are you saying you have 5,000 words of a story being told in narrative form, and then the last 250 are like an IRC chat log of the character describing things as they're happening to him?

For example: "I'm standing up now. They're making sounds out of their mouth. I'm understanding them as words. They're telling me to follow them to to the noose. I'm walking down beige hall."

Because if you don't mean that, if you just mean a more immediate past tense with some projections ("They've just told me to stop writing, but I'm going to keep this journal with me until the hood is over my brow, and even then I'll keep writing until I feel the snap.") then I don't really think it's all that jarring at all.

But it's possible I just don't understand what you're describing. I am notoriously bad at keeping tense consistent in my prose.

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Member # 8297

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Thank you all for your replies, it has helped clarify the issue for me substantially.

extrinsic, I can see your concern in how an abrupt shift would be a problem for the reader. I think, however, that I've done a fair job leading the narrative to a point where it won't be shocking to the reader. I will keep this in my mind as I do my edits, though, and make it a pointed question for my beta readers.

Tempest, below is the first paragraph of my epilogue. Hopefully that will clear it up for you. I'm certainly not doing an IRC chat log [Smile]

My cell contains a single window. One might think this a luxury, but I canít bring myself to look from it. I canít watch them build the gallows that I will hang from in the morning.

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Member # 5137

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Tempest - it's the difference between:

I stood up. They told me to follow them down the hall. I walked behind the biggest one.


I stand up. They tell me to follow them down the hall. I walk behind the biggest one, wondering where he buys his shoes, they're impossibly large.

It's quite a thing right now, actually, to tell stories in first person present tense (Hunger Games is told like this and several other current YA bestsellers.)

So I tend to agree with extrinsic on the fact that the tense itself isn't a problem, the change isn't even a problem, but you have to be darn sure that the reader isn't pissed at the change, that's all. So long as it's clear, and if you're doing it in an epilogue that's formally marked as such or demarcated from the rest of the text in some very obvious way, I think you're probably in the clear.

Try it sometime, the rest of you, to write a story in present. It's HARD to get your head around it at first, but then once you do, it's hard to un-get it (I can't switch between editing my present tense story and writing or editing something in past tense. I have similar issues working between first and third person - I unconsciously slip into a 'mode' of either first or third and it is very difficult for me to work on multiple projects that cross over the mode.)

Good luck with this Bycin!

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