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When to use present tense in a past tense story

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AndyDibble
(@andydibble)
Posts: 90
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Topic starter
 

I struggle with verb tense in my past tense stories (which is almost all of the b/c I haven't figure out how to write in present tense well). And I haven't really gotten consensus on when I'm doing it wrong and when I'm not (there was a point where Dave edited my WotF story, switching a few present tense sentences to past, and I had this visceral reaction, "What are you doing to my beautiful prose!?").  Obviously, in dialog it's fine to use present tense in a past tense story and within italicized direct thoughts, but there seems to be a lot of disagreement about when, if ever, it's okay to use present tense otherwise.

I'm interested in your thoughts. 

If an example is helpful, I sold my novelette "Migration" this year to Inked In Gray for their What Remains anthology. They were super into editing my story which is great. But they suggested switching all present tense outside of dialog to past, which I just couldn't do.  Here's the first scene with present tense in bold:

 

Miriam stood hunched near the peak of the sloping cavern floor, driving a chisel against the bone ceiling.  A scrim of pale dust coated her shoulders, sleeves, and the front of her vine-weave shirt.  Her snarled hair, entwined with blackberry sprigs, fell slipshod to the small of her back.

Rain struck the floor of the cavern above.  When last it rained, a month ago, the ceiling was khem, dark and porous, so drinking water just trickled through.  But the clan had to eat.  They planted blackberry in the fertile ceiling, let it grow, harvested.

But nothing comes free.  Grow crops in black khem, and it becomes white and unyielding.  It becomes bone.  Now nothing would ever grow in the ceiling again.

Miriam cursed as the chisel slipped in her sweaty grip.  This wasn’t her job.  She told Sippora to open a route for rainwater a week ago, but the slack woman dodged the work until it was almost past doing.  Miriam could delegate to someone that would obey, but he would grumble.  That wouldn’t do.  She was only clanleader until morning.  Then her six-month term would be over and leadership would revert to her husband Aaron.  Making demands in the eleventh-hour was no way to bow out.

It seemed everyone would rather laze about than do what it takes to survive!  Only two others in the clan wore vine-weave.  Everyone else flashspun fabric with alkhemy: drawing slip-signs on khem to make it flake into layers and flex-signs to make it hang.  Scrawling signs is easy, but why squander khem when there’s vine chaff at hand?

More than once, she fancied ordering everyone to wear vine-weave, and they’d obey but only because Aaron would.  And everything would go back to how it was when leadership reverted to him, and she would only have her neighbors’ grudges to show for it.

 

 

First Place, Q1 Vol 36
Articles Editor, Speculative North Magazine

 
Posted : October 29, 2021 4:56 pm
Physa/ Guthington/ Amy
(@physa)
Posts: 289
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To me, the present tense items in bold reads like internal dialogue and internal dialogue can be present tense. One possible quick fix is to italicize those sections and link that to internal dialogue of your main POV character. 

Another take is those sections in bold could be from a narrator telling the audience what he or she thinks.

Another take is that these sections are true no matter if it's set in the present, past, or future.

But in general, this seems to be part of your writing style which is your unique signature as an author.

Hope this helps a little bit. You are lightyears ahead of me regarding this contest and writing for profit in general. So do take my comments with a grain of salt. happysigh  

Amy

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Posted : October 30, 2021 6:54 am
AndyDibble
(@andydibble)
Posts: 90
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Topic starter
 

@physa thanks for your response!

First Place, Q1 Vol 36
Articles Editor, Speculative North Magazine

 
Posted : October 30, 2021 12:12 pm
Disgruntled Peony
(@disgruntledpeony)
Posts: 1283
Platinum Member
 

I think if you italicized the sections that are bolded for your example, they'd make perfect internal narrative. If they're left the same as the rest of the text, though, it could seem like a tense slip rather than a purposeful decision.

Generally speaking, I'm under the impression that it's best to keep a story in the same tense throughout a story (excluding dialogue and internal thoughts). There are exceptions, of course--if you're using a frame story, for example, the frame can be present tense while the story being told is in past. It's more of a grammar rule than a writing one, in my experience--the goal is basically to maintain clarity with regard to the progression of time.

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Posted : October 30, 2021 5:29 pm
Joe Benet
(@joe-benet)
Posts: 74
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Posted by: @andydibble

Rain struck the floor of the cavern above.  When last it rained, a month ago, the ceiling was khem, dark and porous, so drinking water just trickled through.  But the clan had to eat.  They planted blackberry in the fertile ceiling, let it grow, harvested.

But nothing comes free.  Grow crops in black khem, and it becomes white and unyielding.  It becomes bone.  Now nothing would ever grow in the ceiling again.

It seemed everyone would rather laze about than do what it takes to survive!  Only two others in the clan wore vine-weave.  Everyone else flashspun fabric with alkhemy: drawing slip-signs on khem to make it flake into layers and flex-signs to make it hang.  Scrawling signs is easy, but why squander khem when there’s vine chaff at hand?

More than once, she fancied ordering everyone to wear vine-weave, and they’d obey but only because Aaron would.  And everything would go back to how it was when leadership reverted to him, and she would only have her neighbors’ grudges to show for it.

 

It reads like internal dialog built into the narration, which is touted and encouraged by (some / many) because it closes the psychic distance between the reader and the character. "When will those numbskull clansmen learn? Grow crops in black khem, and it becomes white and unyielding." You accomplished it smoothly, fluidly. Well done!

 

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SHMx1 (Q2'22)

 
Posted : November 3, 2021 4:14 pm
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