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Be a Better Writer--WRITING IN DIFFERENT TENSES

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--WRITING IN DIFFERENT TENSES

Postby glorybee » Sat Sep 20, 2014 7:52 am

In this week’s lesson, I'll discuss choosing a tense in which to write your story, and keeping your tense consistent (except when you don’t really need to).

For the purposes of this lesson, I’ve written a sample paragraph four different ways, in different combinations of tense and POV. I’ll give my own thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of each, then invite you to do the same.

A. 3rd person, past tense

Jan walked into the house and her jaw dropped. The floor was strewn with trash and ripped sofa cushions. A lamp lay on its side, shattered. Fido sat in the middle of the carpet, wagging his tail. “Bad dog!” Jan cried.

This might be considered the default setting for fiction writing. Past tense is “storytelling” mode, and it works for any genre. It can be recognized by its use of –ed verbs (and irregular past tense verbs like brought and swam) and verb ‘helpers’ like was.

Advantage—this is easy to write and easy to read. It’s familiar to your readers, and very versatile. It’s great for children’s and YA writing, for action, adventure, mystery, allegory, and historical fiction.
Disadvantage—3rd person may lack emotional intimacy, and past tense also may distance your readers from the action. It’s not the best choice if your story needs immediacy.

B. 1st person, past tense

I walked into the house and my jaw dropped. The floor was strewn with trash and ripped sofa cushions. A lamp lay on its side, shattered. Fido sat in the middle of the carpet, wagging his tail. “Bad dog!” I cried.

The 1st person puts it a bit closer to the reader—as if you’re taking the reader into your confidence.

Advantage—It’s a natural way to write, and like the above, will be very familiar to your readers. It works well for romance, humor, and any story in which you want to relate not only events but feelings and reactions. Past tense gives your writing a sense of realism: this actually happened, and I'm telling you about it now.
Disadvantage—Some people have expressed hesitance to write in 1st person past tense, lest what is fiction be mistaken for memoir.

C. 1st person, present tense

I walk into the house and my jaw drops. The floor is strewn with trash and ripped sofa cushions. A lamp lies on its side, shattered. Fido sits in the middle of the carpet, wagging his tail. “Bad dog!” I cry.

The present tense can be recognized by its verbs: it uses the un-suffixed forms of verbs (walk, cry). You’ll see is ____-ing frequently in present tense works, and the –s suffix rather than –ed.

Advantages: I love this style for intimate, serious stories that take place in a very limited time span. It’s a literary style of writing that has become increasingly popular in the last couple of decades.
Disadvantages: It really doesn’t work for stories told in a child’s voice, or for pieces that take place over long periods of time. It’s not as natural to write in nor to read, so it appeals more to serious and sophisticated readers.

D. 3rd person, present tense

Jan walks into the house and her jaw drops. The floor is strewn with trash and ripped sofa cushions. A lamp lies on its side, shattered. Fido sits in the middle of the carpet, wagging his tail. “Bad dog!” Jan cries.

You’ll see this style often in plays, skits, dramas—in the narrative parts between bits of dialogue and in the parenthetical instructions to the actors. It’s less common to read entire works of fiction written this way, however. It’s unusual, grown-up, and if done well, very interesting for your reader.

Advantages: It’s unique—your readers won’t likely have read much in this style, so they may read it more closely. It’s good for a “you are there” sort of feel.
Disadvantages: May tend to sound ‘gimmicky’, or unfortunately, like stage directions. This doesn’t really work well for many genres—I’d expect it in a serious piece with not much intense action. If done poorly, it sounds like a person telling a joke. (“A priest, a clown, and an otter walk into a bar…”)

It’s quite likely that you’ve used some or all of these styles of writing. What additional advantages or disadvantages have you found? Which is most comfortable for you to write? Why? Which do you prefer to read? Why?

Once you’ve decided which tense (and POV) you’re writing in, it’s important to stick to that tense (which some exceptions, which I’ll get to in a minute). Switching tenses is one of the most common Beginner’s errors, where you might see something like this:

Jan walked into the house and her jaw dropped. The floor was strewn with trash and ripped sofa cushions. A lamp lay on its side, shattered. Fido sits in the middle of the carpet, wagging his tail. “Bad dog!” Jan cries.

However—there are times when you may need to switch from present to past tense and back again. Consider the following:

Jan walks into the house and her jaw drops. The floor is strewn with trash and ripped sofa cushions. A lamp lies on its side, shattered. Fido sits in the middle of the carpet, wagging his tail. “Bad dog!” Jan cries. (a present tense paragraph)

She realizes that she should have seen this coming. Just yesterday, Ben had told her that Fido was out of control. “He ate my work boots,” Ben had said. (mostly past tense)

And now Fido is looking at her with those ridiculously innocent eyes…(back to present tense)


See how for that brief little flashback, I slipped into past tense? That’s okay—in fact, there’s no other way to indicate events in the past, when you’re writing in the present tense.

I’d love to have your input on tense.

Homework: Respond to the bolded question(s) above. OR ask a question about tense. OR tell how you decide which tense you’re going to write a story in.

If there's a tense/POV style that's your default setting, consider trying a new one in the upcoming quarter.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--WRITING IN DIFFERENT TENSES

Postby rcthebanditqueen » Sat Sep 20, 2014 6:34 pm

glorybee wrote:It’s quite likely that you’ve used some or all of these styles of writing. What additional advantages or disadvantages have you found? Which is most comfortable for you to write? Why? Which do you prefer to read? Why?

Homework: Respond to the bolded question(s) above. OR ask a question about tense. OR tell how you decide which tense you’re going to write a story in.

If there's a tense/POV style that's your default setting, consider trying a new one in the upcoming quarter.


For me, 3rd person past tense ("he said, she did") is my default in which to write, and my preferred one in which to read (although I have a few well-liked 1st person books). I've experimented with 1st person past tense, in my writing past, and it always fell flat. For some reason, 1st person always felt less natural to me than 3rd person. However, I've improved since that point in time, and I ended up writing 2 stories for this quarter's Writing Challenge that were in 1st person, one past tense and one present tense! That was a MAJOR accomplishment for me!

And yet it feels like a contradiction, because I strongly dislike reading things that are in 1st person present tense, or 3rd person present tense. Go figure!! But it worked for these pieces because they were so short. Like you said, over a very short time span, and very serious and intimate.

I think 1st person is easier for getting inside a character's head, and 3rd person is easier (for me) for showing rather than telling. But it depends on the individual story, too.

Something I've played around with a little bit in the past - haven't done it lately, but thinking about doing it again - is when I'm writing a story and trying to tweak and tighten it (either the whole thing or just a troublesome scene), I will write the same scene over, everything exactly the same, except for changing the POV. I.e., f it's 3rd person, I make it 1st person. For some reason reading the scene in a different POV helps me spot weak points in the dialogue, prose, descriptions, etc.

It seems that 1st person ends up needing to be "simpler" than 3rd person, which helps me tighten my 3rd person writing.

For example:

"Sam galloped his lathered, exhausted horse over the uneven, boulder-strewn desert floor. The canyon walls rose up on their left and right like looming guards, cutting them off from all hope of escape from the sheriff's posse. Heat reflected off the sheer red walls as Sam squinted in the sunlight blazing down from a cloudless azure sky. Far ahead through the canyon, he could see the Colorado river, a bright dazzling ribbon tossing its way along, a ribbon that meant the Arizona border and freedom on the other side."

86 words. That is an example of how I tend to get maybe a little too wordy and grandiose (and it's nothing compared to the way I used to write. Hehe!). I am working on honing my prose and making every word count (thank you, Writing Challenge!!!).

Then I would change that to 1st person and re-read.

"I galloped my lathered, exhausted horse over the uneven, boulder-strewn desert floor. The canyon walls rose up on our left and right like looming guards, cutting us off from all hope of escape from the sheriff's posse. Heat reflected off the sheer red walls as I squinted in the sunlight blazing down from a cloudless azure sky. Far ahead through the canyon, I could see the Colorado river, a bright dazzling ribbon tossing its way along, a ribbon that meant the Arizona border and freedom on the other side."

To me, that feels a little clunky. So I'll edit while in 1st person, and see how it can be honed, both to trim extraneous words, and to (hopefully) make the reader feel more caught up in the action.

"My played-out horse wouldn't last much farther over this rough ground at such a pace. The high canyons walls seemed to press in, crowding me, as I wondered how soon that angry posse would catch up. Heat bounced off the sheer red rocks, and the sun blazed down till I had to squint to see. Far ahead, a bright ribbon of river beckoned me toward the Arizona border – and freedom on the other side.”

Seems more streamlined, and only 74 words. Now I'll swap back to 3rd person (if that is the intended POV; or I might find that the whole story works better in the new POV).

“Sam's horse stumbled in the rocks, almost throwing him from the saddle. As the exhausted animal scrambled to its feet, Sam squinted his eyes against the blazing sun, and wondered how soon that angry posse would catch up. The high canyon walls seemed to press in, crowding him, bouncing heat off the sheer red rocks. Far ahead, a bright ribbon of river beckoned Sam toward the Arizona border – and freedom on the other side.”

Still 74 words, and I've ended up with something that seems (to me, anyway) tighter and more to-the-point, which is the goal for Western writing, maybe less so for other genres, I don't know.

A bit of a corny example. I usually don't change things quite that drastically, either. But I wanted to make this one a little exaggerated.

I am curious to hear your thoughts, Jan. What do you think of the POV-switching exercise? Have you done it before? Would you have edited that paragraph so drastically?

Do you think there actually should be a difference between the prose of 3rd person and 1st person? Or does it not really matter? I know it depends in large part on the individual story and the individual character.

Just wondered, and curious to hear your experty thoughts. :)

...After re-reading your post, I hope my post qualifies for this lesson, because I realized it is more about POV than tense, and you were talking mostly about tenses...but I spent so long writing it that I don't want to not post it... :sofa

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Re: Be a Better Writer--WRITING IN DIFFERENT TENSES

Postby glorybee » Sat Sep 20, 2014 7:07 pm

rcthebanditqueen wrote:I am curious to hear your thoughts, Jan. What do you think of the POV-switching exercise? Have you done it before? Would you have edited that paragraph so drastically?


I think it's a wonderful exercise, especially since it got you from a paragraph that was a bit too wordy to one that was far more streamlined and readable. It's not a process that would be do-able in any practical way for an entire MS, and it would be very time-consuming even for something as short as a Writing Challenge entry. But for a paragraph or two, here and there--I say go for it! Perhaps after doing this exercise a few times, you can skip the intermediate steps. But really...I'm all for whatever helps a writer to hone their craft.

And I'm happy to read that you've experimented a bit with different tenses. Like you, I used to dislike reading things written in present tense--and I STILL object to them if it doesn't seem to match the mood and the genre of the piece. But when done well, it's very effective, and I've come around. Present tense is now my preferred tense for most of my writing. Except when it's not.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--WRITING IN DIFFERENT TENSES

Postby rcthebanditqueen » Sat Sep 20, 2014 7:53 pm

Well, the other reason I do it sometimes is just because I have fun with it. :lol: And I guess I don't usually consider time constraints when editing a manuscript, since I have always just written for myself, with no deadlines. But yeah, I probably wouldn't take time to do something like a Challenge entry, unless I was really having trouble with it. :P

Ah well. It works, and it's fun. :)

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Re: Be a Better Writer--WRITING IN DIFFERENT TENSES

Postby Anja » Sat Sep 20, 2014 8:37 pm

I prefer to write 1st Present, and you mentioned two of the issues I have discovered with it.

1. It doesn't work as well in a child's voice.
2. Care must be taken to speak in the past, properly, when it IS the past.

And then oddly, though it's my preferred writing choice, I don't care to read 1st Present, unless it is exceedingly well done. I recently read a novel that skipped back and forth, yet it was MOST effective. There was absolute clarity as to who was speaking, and his/her time frame within the novel. (I thought of mentioning it to you at the time, Jan, but life happened.) I was in awe of the author's ability to keep it together.

I usually start a story in 1st Past or 3rd Past, but often switch to Present, if it's not carrying the message/punch I want. 1. Having to do with the intimacy, I think, as there's only so much even an Omniscient Observer can really know, at least to me. And 2. Sometimes, writing in Past gives away more than I want it to, if that makes sense, especially in a tight story.

I have read several books in 2nd Past. The one that comes to mind is Angel Unaware by Dale Evans.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--WRITING IN DIFFERENT TENSES

Postby glorybee » Sat Sep 20, 2014 10:21 pm

Anja wrote:I have read several books in 2nd Past. The one that comes to mind is Angel Unaware by Dale Evans.


Now THAT would be interesting--and I feel like it would be off-putting. Was it? i might have to look for that, just to see what it's like.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--WRITING IN DIFFERENT TENSES

Postby RachelM » Sun Sep 21, 2014 1:51 am

Last year, I wrote the rough draft of a novel. I started the book in 3rd person past tense, but when I got stuck about halfway through the manuscript, I decided to switch to 1st person past tense.

I'm ready to go back and rewrite the novel, but I'm not sure which POV to go with. My gut says to go with 1st person because I want it to be emotionally intense, but I think you need to be quite skilled to pull off 1st person. I just don't know if I'm there yet. I love a well-written book in 1st person, but if it's poorly done it stinks. I recently read a 1st person novel, and I felt like the author was talking to me throughout the book. Very annoying.

What do you think, Jan. Does writing a novel in 1st person require more skill?

I love to write in 1st person, present tense when it's a short story with a single scene.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--WRITING IN DIFFERENT TENSES

Postby JudySauer » Sun Sep 21, 2014 10:41 am

Thank you for this 'pot of gold' need-to-know information. Tenses are my Achilles Heel. I will refer to this often.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--WRITING IN DIFFERENT TENSES

Postby Anja » Sun Sep 21, 2014 11:19 am

Jan, it's been a few years since I read Angel Unaware, like 30+, so my memory is a little sketchy; it may even have been 2nd Present. It was written by Dale as an address to one of their children that died, a little girl. (They also had a son that died.)

It was very intimate, as a broken-hearted mother to her child, and if I hadn't had a baby that died, I probably would have found it terribly off-putting. In the moment, it was appropriate, you know? Probably wouldn't feel the same about it today.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--WRITING IN DIFFERENT TENSES

Postby glorybee » Sun Sep 21, 2014 1:17 pm

Ann, I went to Amazon and read an excerpt from the prologue, written in the voice of the little girl who died. It was sweet and lovely. Thanks for pointing me in that direction.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--WRITING IN DIFFERENT TENSES

Postby glorybee » Sun Sep 21, 2014 1:20 pm

RachelM wrote:What do you think, Jan. Does writing a novel in 1st person require more skill?



That's a hard question to answer, because I don't think such a generalization can be made. I think for some people 1st person is harder, and for others who may be more comfortable with telling stories as if the stories happened to them, 3rd person may be harder.

Whichever is easiest for any given writer--in my opinion they should occasionally try the other thing. It's a great stretching exercise.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--WRITING IN DIFFERENT TENSES

Postby pheeweed » Sun Sep 21, 2014 4:58 pm

This isn't the assignment, but I thought it would be interesting to add that I recently overheard my 6 year old granddaughter playing pretend with her brother. She narrated her actions in first person, past tense.

"I went to the barn and fed the chickens and then I closed I fed the pigs. I was wearing in my new rubber boots."
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Re: Be a Better Writer--WRITING IN DIFFERENT TENSES

Postby DeeRedeemed » Wed Oct 01, 2014 9:49 pm

Thanks for the lesson. I have been on a roller coster with this one. :lol:

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Re: Be a Better Writer--WRITING IN DIFFERENT TENSES

Postby glorybee » Thu Oct 02, 2014 11:53 am

Glad to help. Let me know if you have further questions!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--WRITING IN DIFFERENT TENSES

Postby JudySauer » Tue Oct 13, 2015 3:38 pm

My exposure to writing in other tenses than 1st person, present tense, is limited.[I want to write very limited but thought the very was not needed.] My lack of depth in other tenses makes me feel ill-equipped to comment on advantages and disadvantages. First person, present tense feels comfortable to me because I'm writing in the now despite relaying events that happened in the past. Hope that makes sense.

I enjoyed reading this lesson, and found 1st person, past tense as the approach with the most appeal to me based on the advantages given.

My sight issues have kept me from reading books. I don't think I have a preferred writing style to follow. When I could read books, seven years ago, I enjoyed biographies and spiritual books. I'm guessing the biographies were past tense with some in 1st person POV, and others in 3rd person, depending on the author [biography vs. autobiography]. Spiritual books seem to be in present tense - some 1st person, others 3rd person.


Since you have challeged me to write in past tense, I will. I've been mulling it over, and just need to try. I feel as if my protective casing has been cracked, and I'm suppose to hatch.

Thanks.
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