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III. Goodreads Readers > Present sprinkled past-tense

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message 1: by Melissa (last edited Jan 22, 2015 09:36AM) (new)

Melissa Veracruz (melissaveracruz) | 96 comments Ok, this feels kinda strange as I've been an AVID reader my entire life--in fact, I didn't play 'house' as a child as often as I played 'Librarian'-- but I have a question.

Recently I've noticed several books (all Indie) written in past tense that switch into the present tense mid-sentence. Is this normal? Or is it an Indie-only trend? I did do a grammar look-up and saw that if it's a fact past-present-future, a writer could throw it in as present tense. And I know some of them are 'thoughts' which would normally be tagged as, 'he thought' or 'she thought' in third person. It just feels... awkward.

I'll give a few examples:
I focused on schooling my features. I just have to act calm. -Nocturnal Fate

I had the social worker's number on speed dial... We all know he's more than a handful for me. -Reckoning

He clearly wasn’t human, and if past experience was to be believed, non-humans aren’t very fond of helping humans. -Reckoning


These are far from the only examples, but let those above suffice. Sooo, maybe I'm neurotic, but it's been throwing me lately. Could just be me. Could just be one of the idiosyncrasies of first person POV?

Don't publicly flog me or anything. Only looking for clarity as a reviewer. So, help a girl out, ok? And also, does it bother anyone else?


message 2: by Ken (new)

Ken Doggett (kendoggett) If it's a character expressing a thought, then it seems proper if the context is clear. If it's the author's omniscient voice, as it seems to be in your third example, then it's wrong.


message 3: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Veracruz (melissaveracruz) | 96 comments Ken wrote: "If it's a character expressing a thought, then it seems proper if the context is clear. If it's the author's omniscient voice, as it seems to be in your third example, then it's wrong."

Yeah, that's what the article I read seemed to state...


message 4: by Abigail (new)

Abigail Sharpe (abigailsharpe) The trend isn't mixing tenses. The trend is poor editing or people who don't realize they need an editor.


message 5: by Christine (new)

Christine Hayton (ccmhayton) | 324 comments Melissa wrote: "...These are far from the only examples, but let those above suffice. Sooo, maybe I'm neurotic, but it's been throwing me lately ...help a girl out, ok? And also, does it bother anyone else?..."

I feel your pain. I've been accused of being a "Grammar Nazi" but when I hit a SPAG (spelling, grammar and punctuation) error in a book it stops me cold and I have to correct it in my head before moving on.

Unfortunately many SP books have not been edited and I have hit several I just couldn't get through. I only read SP books now if they are recommended to me by a friend.

The flipping between tenses is also an issue in SP books because of the lack of pro editors. If you like the story skim over the goofs and keep reading. You will drive yourself crazy worrying about these errors.


message 6: by R.F.G. (new)

R.F.G. Cameron | 443 comments People used to wonder why one of my aunts wouldn't promote a child to the next grade until they were ready.

At least her students could read and write before they left her classroom.


message 7: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Veracruz (melissaveracruz) | 96 comments Christine wrote: "Melissa wrote: "...These are far from the only examples, but let those above suffice. Sooo, maybe I'm neurotic, but it's been throwing me lately ...help a girl out, ok? And also, does it bother any..."

I do the self-correct-in-my-head thing... And I do like the books I'm reading, but it takes me so far outside the story sometimes if it's not done right. I did SP a book and realize that there are a few errors, none serious. But I'm a perfectionist.


message 8: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Veracruz (melissaveracruz) | 96 comments I may have just answered my own question as far as trend and correctness is concerned. I cannot believe I forgot about him!!

I just thought of The Hobbit that I had been reading to my boys. Here's an example (parts not necessary for understanding removed to get to the meat--verb tense--and so I don't accidentally butcher Tolkien in my typing.)
"There in the shadows...sat a tremendous goblin...and armed goblins were standing around him carrying the axes and the bent swords that they use. Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted." pg. 69

But to note, this is FAR from an isolated event in Tolkien's conversational tone. He establishes the tense changes early on, the second page of my edition. "This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure..." and "...well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end." pg. 4

I think still, if it's not introduced as the author's style early on, it irks me. Tolkien waxes into the present tense often and for entire--and lengthy--paragraphs.

With that in mind, does it still drive you crazy?? Many people are not fans of Tolkien's voice.


message 9: by R.F.G. (new)

R.F.G. Cameron | 443 comments I like Tolkien's work, though I tend to doubt his work would be published if he were starting as an unknown today, or if it were it wouldn't be The Hobbit or LOTR we know.


message 10: by Ken (new)

Ken Doggett (kendoggett) I've never read LOTR or anything else by Tolkien, but if the story's narrator is a part of the story, or just relating things he's seen and heard from the other characters in the story, mixing present and past tense is perfectly fine as it's used in the example you gave. The narrator is using past tense to tell what happened, and present tense to tell what is still true at the moment he tells the story. If the narrator is an omniscient author, then mixing the tenses is incorrect.


message 11: by Dwayne (new)

Dwayne Fry | 349 comments Melissa wrote: [Tolkien wrote]: "There in the shadows...sat a tremendous goblin...and armed goblins were standing around him carrying the axes and the bent swords that they use. Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted."

It's been a while since I read any Tolkien and I am not familiar with the books you quoted earlier. If I knew the context for sure, I would be able to tell if this is really a problem of tense mixing or not.

In this example, the way I read it is that Tolkien is simultaneously telling us what happened to Bilbo (past tense) and about goblin culture (present tense). This is assuming the culture of goblins didn't change after the Hobbit finished.

If we make it all past tense it looks like this:

"There in the shadows...sat a tremendous goblin...and armed goblins were standing around him carrying the axes and the bent swords that they used. Now goblins were cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted."

It would seem to indicate that the goblins no longer use axes and swords and are no longer cruel, wicked and bad-hearted.

Or, we could do this:

"There in the shadows...sits a tremendous goblin...and armed goblins are standing around him carrying the axes and the bent swords that they use. Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted."

It kind of works that way, I suppose, but I prefer the way Tolkien wrote it.


message 12: by Shomeret (last edited May 25, 2015 07:56PM) (new)

Shomeret | 138 comments The tense switching examples given in this thread are all similar to the Tolkien example. The events happened in the past. The switch to present is an indication that a situation has continued into the present. There is nothing wrong with doing this.


message 13: by Dwayne (new)

Dwayne Fry | 349 comments Shomeret wrote: "The tense switching examples given in this thread are all similar to the Tolkien example. The events happened to the past. The switch to present is an indication that a situation has continued into the present. There is nothing wrong with doing this. "

Agreed. That's how I'm seeing the Tolkien examples. It's how I see two of her three original examples, but without knowing the context and the story I can't be sure if the tense change is used correctly or not. The only one that looks a little odd to me is this one:

I focused on schooling my features. I just have to act calm. -Nocturnal Fate

But, again, without knowing the story or the context, it's hard to say if it's right or wrong.


message 14: by Jim (last edited Jan 24, 2015 10:51AM) (new)

Jim Vuksic | 1043 comments Authors often mix tenses for the purpose of clarification when narrating events that took place in the past, but are no longer relevent, versus those that are still taking place.

The correctness lies not in the practice itself, but whether it is intentionally done for a logical reason or unintentionally, due to the author's lack of knowledge regarding proper grammar. The latter would be corrected by a competent copy editor.


message 15: by Christine (new)

Christine Hayton (ccmhayton) | 324 comments Melissa wrote: "I think still, if it's not introduced as the author's style early on, it irks me. Tolkien waxes into the present tense often and for entire--and lengthy--paragraphs...With that in mind, does it still drive you crazy?? Many people are not fans of Tolkien's voice..."

Tolkien writes in 2nd person narrative POV. He addresses the reader in present tense, but describes the action of the story in past tense. His style is unique, but is correct English. It is not commonly used in fictional stories, but is definitely a correct method of writing.

VOICE will override rules of English. It is the exceptions that create a writer's unique style. I find basic SPAG errors very annoying, but I have no problem with a unique voice developed by an experienced writer. I enjoy Tolkien and have no problem reading his work.


message 16: by K.P. (new)

K.P. Merriweather (kp_merriweather) | 276 comments i have cheap human editors so they occasionally make mistakes. i know perfection is key, but even trad books have the occasional error. i try to limit to 5 in a whole. it's impossible to have a flawless work.


message 17: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Veracruz (melissaveracruz) | 96 comments Y'all are awesome. I love Tolkien myself and, like I said, his POV is introduced in the beginning and continues throughout.

The examples in the original post are like out-of-left-field, not intro'ed as the POV style, and I felt jarring to the reading experience. I just don't like not knowing if I'm dead wrong in my opinion and if I'm all alone in expressing it.


message 18: by Groovy (new)

Groovy Lee | 1 comments I am soooo glad I'm not the only writer with this handicap. Even the best ones are guilty of it. But it is something I'm working very hard on to correct in my mind.

Some readers have gotten on me about this, and I really appreciate them pointing it out.


message 19: by A.M. (new)

A.M. Rycroft (amrycroft) | 35 comments I realize this discussion is some months old, but I'm new to these boards, and seeing this topic, one my spouse and I have had long discussions over, peaked my interest.

I absolutely agree that tense changes within the same sentence is jarring to the reader, and in most cases, it shouldn't happen.

Where it is stylistically legal is an 'as you know, Bob" situation. I, apparently like Tolkien (I wasn't aware he did this), will break out of the past tense and use the present tense when presenting the reader with world backstory. I call this the Professor voice. It drives my mother-in-law, a former English and Composition teacher mad, but it is an acceptable writing practice.

I will echo what other people have said, though, that if a writer is going to use this tense change style, it should be established early in the book. I do this as well, for the comfort of the reader.

- A.M.


message 20: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Veracruz (melissaveracruz) | 96 comments :) Good to have another opinion anytime. I'm with ya. If you just toss it in there mid-book, as when present tense character's thoughts are presented as text and not in italics or mentioned as thoughts. I'm with your MIL for the most part. Heheh


message 21: by Martyn (new)

Martyn Halm (amsterdamassassinseries) | 916 comments I have betas who will point out if I use present tense where I should be using past tense.

I have written a book that shifts between the protagonist sitting in an alley with gunshot wounds in his belly (present tense) between chapters showing how he got there (past tense). In the past tense chapters, the narrator sometimes explains stuff in present tense, but I try to avoid that whenever possible.


message 22: by Al (new)

Al Philipson (printersdevil) | 88 comments Martyn V. (aka Baron Sang-Froid) wrote: "I have betas who will point out if I use present tense where I should be using past tense.

I have written a book that shifts between the protagonist sitting in an alley with gunshot wounds in his ..."


Interesting way to handle it. Most people would have used past tense for "current" scenes and past perfect to start off previous scenes. And perhaps date headers like "Present" and "5 days ago".


message 23: by Brenda (new)

Brenda Clough (brendaclough) | 361 comments I am tinkering with tense in one section of the book only, to indicate that the character is losing his mind.


message 24: by Martyn (new)

Martyn Halm (amsterdamassassinseries) | 916 comments Al wrote: "Interesting way to handle it. Most people would have used past tense for "current" scenes and past perfect to start off previous scenes. And perhaps date headers like "Present" and "5 days ago"."

The immediacy of the present tense interludes becomes more and more poignant because of the 'distant' past tense recounting of how the protagonist ended up in his precarious situation.


message 25: by A.M. (new)

A.M. Rycroft (amrycroft) | 35 comments I like Martyn's handling of the present tense/past tense issue. I agree it adds a sense of immediacy to the story when the tense shifts from past tense back to the present tense.


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