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Jan's Master Class--TENSE

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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Jan's Master Class--TENSE

Postby glorybee » Sun Mar 29, 2009 12:16 pm

This week’s term, unlike most of the others in this series, is not a literary term or device, but a grammatical one. Don’t worry, though—I’m not planning on a lesson that covers present pluperfect tenses and past imperfect participles (I don’t even know if such beasts exist, being an intuitive grammarian rather than a learned one). Instead, I’m going to write about choosing a tense in which to write your story, and about keeping your tense consistent (except when you don’t really need to).

For the very simplified purposes of this class, I’m going to write 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. The numbers in parentheses by each tense type were obtained by doing a random sampling of Writing Challenge entries in the Masters level.

A. 3rd person, past tense (54%)

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 “story telling” 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 and had. Again, these verbs and verb phrases have grammatical labels, but I’m trying to keep the grammar out of this, so that I can concentrate instead on the art of using the right tense for your story.

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 (27%)

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.

This is the second most common type of fiction writing in the Challenge. 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 (13%)

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 increasing 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 (6%)

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 rare 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.

Well, this has gone on too long, I think. 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.

Oh--and if there's a tense/POV style that's your default setting, consider trying a new one in the upcoming quarter. Str-r-r-r-r-e-e-e-e-tch!


Seems like this just happened a week or so ago, but next week’s lesson may be delayed by a week. Daughter #2 is visiting from Tuesday through Sunday this week, and unless I get the lesson written before she gets here, it’ll have to wait. We’re planning some long-overdue Girls’ Time along with Daughter #1.

So if I'm not quite as quick with my responses to your posts this week, be patient. I'll try to check once a day or so after Monday. In the meantime, you class 'regulars'--please feel free to lead the discussion.

Next week: Maybe “Theme”. Maybe “Title.” I dunno.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Pat » Sun Mar 29, 2009 1:45 pm

If you need any example of what NOT to do, please feel free to use any of my work. :wink:

Tenses are, were, have been, will always be, the bane of my existence. :mrgreen:

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Postby Kid Denver » Sun Mar 29, 2009 8:09 pm

I have a real problem with tense maybe you can help me with.
I get real Tense before I hit the submit button with an entry and I am not sure if it is a past tense because I never fair very well in the judging part and know I will be dissappointed, or a present tense because I know the entry needs more work, or a future tense because I know I will look at it the next day and screem, "WHAT!!!!!!!!!!! was I thinking?".
And sometimes when I enter, I am past, present and future tenses all at the same time?????!!!!
So, thank you for this topic. When it comes to the correct tense in submitting, I am a mess. :mrgreen:


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Postby glorybee » Sun Mar 29, 2009 8:57 pm

Pat, your tenses is fine.

Henry, you made me laugh--I knew someone would be the first to make a pun, and I'm delighted that it was my favorite, under-recognized poet.

Got a tense poem for us?
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Postby Symphonic » Mon Mar 30, 2009 12:02 am

Until very recently, 3rd person, past tense was my default for fiction–-and if I ever varied from that, I used 1st person, past tense. But this past Challenge quarter, I found that I could write an effective story in the present tense. The immediacy and realism of following the narrator’s journey made it easier for me to add details and description to the stories without making them sound like research papers. I liked present tense so much, in fact, that I had to make a deliberate choice not to use it for my “Kingdom of God” entry.

I used 3rd person, present tense for Three-Movement Concerto. I had originally planned to write this in 1st person, past tense... but in that case, I think it might have skewed toward melodrama. The story of China’s Cultural Revolution is a painful one in and of itself (and also a rather personal one for me, because I’ve met musicians and composers who were affected by it). Third person, present tense allowed me to tell this story without superimposing excess emotion upon it... and I think it worked.

I also experimented this quarter with purposely shifting between tenses (especially in my “Europe” and “India” stories).

Here’s another idea, though I’ve never tried this. It might be possible to write a Challenge entry in future tense. It’s another of those techniques that would probably work best with a familiar story (perhaps from the Bible). Take, for example, the story of the destruction of Sennacherib’s army (Isaiah 37). Wouldn’t it be amazing to write a 1st present, future tense story, from the viewpoint of an arrogant Sennacherib as he imagines how he will conquer Jerusalem? (Tomorrow we will go to battle, and Hezekiah’s citadel will fall as the others have fallen... ) It would be complicated and require a lot of research and detail to make it come alive, but I think it could work. What do you think, Jan?

Thanks for another great lesson, and enjoy the week with your daughters!

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Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 30, 2009 6:48 am

Carol, I'd be very interested in reading a story written entirely in future tense. I wonder if all the 'will's would get tiresome. Is there another way to write in future tense?

I didn't mention future tense in this lesson just for that reason--it's so unusual for fiction--but if it'd work anywhere, it'd be in the ultra-short fiction of the writing challenge. And if anyone can do it, you can!

Tell you what...give it a shot some time in the upcoming quarter. We won't know it's yours...of course we won't.

I love what you had to say about choosing one tense because the other would tend to be melodramatic. That's the sort of thinking I'd love to encourage in all writers--making deliberate choices about tense and other writing techniques so that they match your message.
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Postby dandelionflower » Mon Mar 30, 2009 8:01 am

Before I wrote seriously (ha ha), I felt that third person past was the "legit" tense for a "real" writer to use. There's a classification of literature called, "K-Mart" fiction and I lumped first person present squarely into that category.

Then I met Jan, and my world just opened up!

Then Jan emailed me last quarter to ask if I had gotten myself into a first-person-present-slump. No--I was merely in the middle of a torrid first-person-present-love affair.

The last several entries I've switched it up.

The other tense I try to avoid is the conditional--I think that's the name of it--when writing about a memory.

As in: I would wake up in the morning and brush my teeth, thankful that Fido had kept watch over me in the night. He would wag his tail in greeting, and I would pat his loyal brow. We would be equally happy that this was a "feline-free" house.

When the "woulds" are overdone, it annoys me as a reader. I think: just say what you did--not what you would do.

Your sage thoughts?
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Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 30, 2009 8:04 am

My sage thoughts are:

1. You need a cat
2. I would agree; I would be annoyed if there were too many 'would's. It would be extremely irritating.
3. Similarly, I get annoyed at too many helping verbs. Instead of writing Miss Kitty was purring, write Miss Kitty purred. Instead of Miss Kitty had rubbed her sweet little head on my feet, lose the had.

With #3, there are subtle differences in meaning, so sometimes those little words need to be there...but if you're looking to trim a few words, start with was, were, and had.
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Postby Soren2007 » Mon Mar 30, 2009 10:23 am

I must say that I write in 1st person, past tense for a great deal of my FW writings and that my current challenge is to write in 3rd person, past tense. I enjoy writing plays and screenplays in 3rd person, present tense and enjoy adapting to and from this format. I think it is difficult to write an adaptation from play to novel for the reasons mentioned in this outline. It's much easier to drop the intimacy into present tense with action being the relation to the audience than to add intimacy from action into novel form. I've also been thinking about the issue with 1st person past tense and the concern of it sounding like a memoir and think my current challenge is to hide a memoir in a 3rd person, past tense novel. I've been thinking that this is what some really, really good authors do and it is why we can see into their lives, their thoughts, and their experiences through the characters in their stories.

I just finished, last night, the reading of "Go Tell it on the Mountain," by James Baldwin. It's still weighing on me today, this book. It was beyond amazing and it helped me see this embedding of one's life and views into third person in a way that I just sat in awe over - the amount of control this requires is incredible.

I have trouble with third person in longer works because I want to dive into the first person or take over the form for my own little purposes too often. Having the patience to let these characters introduce your mind at their pace and at their willingness, and having to deal with the possibility as you write that one or several of them may tell you, the author, "Sorry, Charlie, but you don't get to say that through me, or anywhere in this story," is painful.

As I stretch myself, this is the stretching I need to go through and I think it's an exercise many a writer can benefit from.

I remember writing two stories in the challenge around this point. The first was a piece written in 3rd person, past tense about a man and his wife and regardless of how it placed, I remember reading it after I was done and realizing that this was actually good writing. I'd figured out how to pull off the layering and embedding in a controlled way over 750 words and that was quite an accomplishment. Second, I wrote a story playing off of a James Baldwin short story, Sonny Sings the Blues, and I took the mood and even the MC's name, Sonny, and wrote something in first person, past tense where I wasn't the main character but more of a narrator giving context to Sonny as the MC - and this too was a huge accomplishment for me, regardless of placement, for I was able to (finally) control the pace of my first person through the life of another character and limit my words I wanted to say based on what Sonny would allow me to enter into his story.

the ending words of Baldwin's "Go Tell..." (his first book) were the best and the whole piece stood as a testament to the makings of a first book, a preparedness to enter the writing life and a demonstration of the carefulness and self-discipline required to be a great author. I'm nowhere near this place shown by such a writing-mentor in Baldwin, and I've got a lot of work to do in my writing, and in my reading, to come to such a place. We'll see if "Thin Blue Smoke" helps me continue this growth.

Great lesson, Jan.
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Postby Cleo » Mon Mar 30, 2009 11:37 am

Of the six entries I have done for FW, only four were stories.

One was a "letter" and one was a poem.

So far I have done

2---3rd person, past tense

1---1st person past tense

1---1st person present tense


It's good to look back on it. (and kind of embarrassing, too. Uggg :oops:)

First person present tense was the hardest.

Not only was I doing 1st person present tense but I was doing a "10-year old girl voice".

I was very unsure about it but for the most part I think it worked.

FW is a place to grow .. That's for sure! :)

Thanks Jan, as always.
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Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 30, 2009 2:28 pm

Soren, the Baldwin book is one that I've intended to read for a long time now. Maybe this summer I'll have time to read.

Cleo, glad to see that you've mixed it up a bit. Keep up the good work!
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Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Mar 30, 2009 3:07 pm

Jan, I just happened to be reading a book yesterday that interacted with your tense lesson. In one case, it supported your view 100%. In the other, it pointed out something that we as aspiring writers need to do that you were not attempting to do with your lesson, but that I thought I’d mention.

First the point of agreement. About third person, present tense, you wrote
May tend to sound ‘gimmicky’, or unfortunately, like stage directions.
I had just read the story of B. H. Friedman trying to find a publisher for his novel Circles. In the process, someone who read the book told him he had to re-write the book which was originally written entirely in the present tense. She told him “You’ll never sell it that way. It sounds like stage directions.”

However, in the same book, I read seven Do’s for authors who want to be published. The FIRST “do” was “study and master English grammar . . . .” It went on to say that if you can’t, you need to hire someone who has mastered English grammar to correct your manuscript before you submit it. For most us that will be impossible, so the only real choice is to master grammar. Now I know you didn’t say we shouldn’t do that; you only indicated that you would not be using a lot of grammatical terms because you wanted to concentrate on the ART of using tenses. That probably makes your lesson a lot more useful to a lot more people. I just want to make the point that anybody who wants to get published, take a serious writing class, or join a serious writers group will likely have to master English at a grammatical level.

And I’m sure there are lots of writing classes and writers’ groups that people have participated in in which they did not have to do this, so I’ll apologize now if I insulted your class or group. Perhaps “serious” is in the eye of the beholder, but I’ve seen the advice to master English at a grammatical level from many publishers, editors, and authors. I expect it of my students, but I teach legal—writing where a missing comma can mean a million dollar lawsuit. I mean that literally, not hyperbolically.

However, as some of the comments by Lisa, Tom, and you (in later posts) show, you really can’t master the art without mastering the grammar. How can you argue with an editor over whether to keep or delete a “had” or a “was” unless you know WHAT each tense does and where they overlap and where they don’t. Obviously I’m not talking about the simple present, past, or future, but rather, for example, the simple past vs. the other 3 past tenses.

For example, some editors would tell you that your example is wrong:
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.


An editor might say you can get rid of the “had” in “Ben had told . . . ’ or “Ben had said.” But you are correct, even though it requires knowledge of the various past tenses to argue why. In fact, the only SIMPLE past in your example is “was” and it is being used in a specific way.

Similarly, how can you do the sophisticated things that Tom is talking about—and get it consistently right—if you don’t know the grammar. You’d have to be INCREDIBLY intuitive or understand the concepts without knowing the labels. But even then, how can you talk about these things to other writers or to editors.

Or take Lisa’s example. The use of the so-called conditional, which is really, ACCORDING TO MODERN GRAMMARS, the past subjunctive (I think these grammars are wrong; it is really the past POTENTIAL, but he potential has almost completely dropped out of English grammars since the 19th Century)—thus involving both tense and mood. We may know intuitively or just from taste that it is annoying, BUT what if Fido were dead? Well, we could do a straight flashback, BUT if we wanted to stay with the characters PRESENT thoughts about the past, we could switch to the conditional progressive (AGAIN USING MODERN TERMINOLOGY)—probably just once, depending on exactly how you set up the re-write: “I would wake up in the morning and brush my teeth, thankful that Fido had kept watch over me in the night. He WOULD BE WAGGING his tail in greeting, and I would pat his loyal brow. We would be equally happy that this was a ‘feline-free’ house.” You might get that touch just right intuitively, but you will more likely get it right if you know what the subjunctive/potential past progressive DOES.

Now I know, Jan, that you were trying to avoid all these terms. But I write all of this to make a point. For those who hope to be published someday—especially those who hope to publish a novel someday—only a very few of us may be able to get by without mastering English at the grammatical level or without paying someone to fix our work prior to submission. Seriously ungrammatical work will so distract that it doesn’t have much chance of getting a contract. BUT, it is not that hard to master English grammar. If you try to learn what the terms mean instead of just memorizing them cold, it all makes sense.

Anyway, your lesson was great as always. My post was not to indicate otherwise; it was just to add a completely different point.

Now to try to answer one of your questions. Tenses are very important in non-fiction writing. I can illustrate with the genre I know best, legal writing. This also applies to other categories of technical writing. If you are describing facts, use the past tense unless there is a significant ordering of events in which case you will need to use a combination of past and past perfect (or another of the past tenses): “The defendant struck [past] the plaintiff’s car at 45 miles per hour. Before getting behind the wheel, the defendant had drunk [past perfect] six beers.” Or “The defendant struck [past] the plaintiff’s car at 45 miles per hour. Before getting behind the wheel, the defendant had been drinking [past perfect progressive] for three hours.” The same is true for describing case precedent: “In Smith vs. Jones the court held [past] that the defended was liable.” But ““In Smith vs. Jones the court held [past] that the defended was liable because he had ignored [past perfect] the plaintiff’s requests.” You would be surprised how many beginning law students write “In Smith vs. Jones the court hold [present] that the defended was [or “is”] liable.” It is a little trickier because when describing what we call the RULE of the case, which has ongoing force, the present tense IS correct: “In Smith vs. Jones the court held that a defendant who ignores a plaintiff’s request is liable.”

However, I can also illustrate with another genre I know well: fund raising letters. You will want to tell the reader something that has happened in the past. But—especially if that something is a victory—you must also tell the reader something that is ongoing (the present progressive tense) or that you will do in the future (one of the future tenses). Why should they send you money for something you have already accomplished?

As for my Challenge articles, I have several pieces that are all or virtually all dialogue or monologue. Other than those, all my pieces are in third person past, except for a prose poem which is in first person present and a devotional piece which has mixed tense/person. I think both of the latter worked especially well for their genres. Without trying to check, I’ll bet a lot of devotionals used mixed tenses. So I guess a special consideration for these is to do it well (i.e., purposefully) and not in a way that distracts (i.e., accidentally).
Steve
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Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Mar 30, 2009 3:12 pm

P.S. I know that a comma is a punctuation issue, not a grammar issue--it was just an easy illustration about the perils of legal writing and why we expect students to master the English language. Unfortunately, many never do! Judges complain about lawyers' writing all the time.
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Postby hwnj » Mon Mar 30, 2009 5:33 pm

"What additional advantages or disadvantages have you found?"
Due to the disadvantage of the concern that first person past might be perceived as a memoir, I have found that I like it for historical pieces, since it clearly cannot be autobiographical, and lends a freshness to the story that a history book never could.
Although I have tried a couple of pieces in first person present, and do kind of like the intimacy and immediacy that it gives, I am having trouble getting past the question of how I am eavesdropping/spying on these scenes, which are obviously past, or they could not yet have been recorded in written form--kind of like your question about first person stories where the MC dies. I mean, unless the first person thing they are doing is writing, and I am looking over their shoulder, it happened in the past. Even diary entries use past tense. Only live news reports, real time blogging, or something like a sports broadcast would have someone else narrating third person actions. First person present might be a demonstration, such as a cooking show, or some other type of instruction. Perhaps talking to someone I miss on the phone would prompt us to tell each other what we're doing, besides talking on the phone, of course. Come to think of it, I think there are some disreputable people who get paid for describing what they're doing to someone on the other end of a phone connection, but let's not go there.

"Which is most comfortable for you to write? Why?"
Most of my writing is in third person past. As you said, it is comfortable, and avoids all those troublesome things I just mentioned.

"Which do you prefer to read? Why?" I don't really have a preference, as long as it is engaging.
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Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 30, 2009 5:53 pm

Steve, I agree with everything you said...even when you (kinda) disagreed with me.

I especially wanted to clarify my use (or non-use) of grammatical terms. Most of that was because, as I've said, I don't really know them very well. I had to read your post reallllllly carefully because the kinds of tenses you mentioned aren't something that I've ever learned. I guess I'm fortunate that correct grammar has always come naturally to me.

But you're certainly right that writers should learn and master grammar. If it doesn't come naturally to them, they should study it so that they can do it right--or hire a good editor.

My illustration is one I've used before: the pianist who plays by ear and the one who follows notes. I'm a weak-ish pianist: I need those notes on the paper. My friend Bob can only read music a little bit, but he can play very well, even when given just a melody line.

But when it comes to grammar, I'm the one who doesn't really need the notes. I just get it. But those who seriously want to write should either get it, or learn to read the music.
Jan Ackerson

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