Thursday, March 08, 2007

It's a Tense Situation

My writing group got on the subject of "tense" the other night. I was talking about the piece I'm working on in present tense, and was mentioning some of the strengths and weaknesses of it that I was finding. One of our members, Laura Joh Rowland, pointed out some interesting things. She said that when she was feeling her way through a scene that she'd not previously planned out that she typically wrote in present tense, because to her it was "happening now." I realized that I often did the same thing when talking out a scene in my head. As I'm creating a scene I typically think about it in present tense, then I write it in past tense as I describe on the page what I've already seen. Also, Laura pointed out that we often tell stories verbally to people in the present tense. I don't know what all this means, for sure, but it got me to thinking. I do know there's a lot more to be discussed on the issue of tense. It's not just another word for stressed.

11 comments:

etain_lavena said...

I sometimes jump too much between tenses.....:(

JR's Thumbprints said...

Sometimes when my story isn't going the way I want it to, I switch tenses, which in turn, may shift the focal point of the story. I think there's been an increase in stories being told in the present tense.

Sidney said...

I'm with etain in that it's sometimes a struggle in present tense. It requires some little mental gymnastics to say, do a flashback in a present tense narrative.

Of course perhaps tomorrow I shall have conquered that problem, the future being perfect and all. :-)

Lucas Pederson said...

I have a problem starting off a snetence in past tense and ending it in the present. Don't ask me how I do it, I just do. Or sometimes everything just gets all mixed up. It's craziness I tell ya!

Stewart Sternberg said...

I am surprised when people struggle with tense. I always think POV is more difficult to maintain. Maybe it's because third person past tense is so ingrained in me and most of what I read. And sometimes first person past tense.

I really can't remember the last time I read anything in the present tense that ran so for more than a few paragraphs. It's interesting reading that JR switches tenses. I am not sure how that would work in a short story. I know how jarring it can be when people shift POV several times in a narrative, I can't imagine switching tense. Although I am sure it's done with plot.

Sheila said...

I suck with tense. I always jump around and end up having to fix a lot.

Emily said...

When my literature students write about their reading, many of them have trouble with tenses. They know that they're supposed to retell story plots in the present tense, but they shift around between past and present. I don't know whether it's a lack of writing experience, or a feeling that part of the story is still happening (present tense) and part has already finished (past).

Emily Toth

Susan Miller said...

I've really had to let go of so many rules when writing. We can always go back and "fix", huh? What I found with me is that some of what others see as my best work was done in a frenzy. If I attempt to control too much as it's happening then something is lost. Something very pure is lost.

But then I think this must be the beginner in me. More established writers can actually write purely and with rules all at the same time.

For me it's all about second and third and so on drafts.

Danny Tagalog said...

Were you taught 'grammar rules' at school? Often native speakers learn about grammar when studying a foreign language. My generation weren't taught tense - we were expected to figure it out for oursleves.

I guess that you are always jumping tenses when moving from prose to narrative - the grammars of written and spoken English being different...

JR's Thumbprints said...

Stewart's got it all wrong. I switch tenses to get the story back on track, to get the focal point where it needs to be. That doesn't mean my story goes willy nilly from past tense to present tense; it doesn't. It's just a way for me to explore the plot.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sid wins the award for the funniest, or is that lamest, pun. "Future Perfect Tense." Thanks everyone for posting. I've not explored tense that much in my own writing but I want to and that's a project I'm into now.