Monday, February 23, 2009

Present tense within literary past

Most novels are written in "literary past," that is, they are in grammatical past tense but are presented as if the scene is happening right in front of us. It's so conventional that we seldom have to think of it or consciously choose past tense.

But I use the term "that is" far too often in real life, and it creeps into my writing, and so do other present-tense terms, especially in deeper POV, when presumably this is being narrated by the POV character.

Here's an example:

She pushed the rewind button-- well, it had some other name, but that is what it did, rewind the video.

That's pretty easy to change to "that was", but what about when you use "that is" in that explanatory way, as "for example" or "what I really mean is" or "let me see if I can word that better this time" (as I did in the first sentence of this post). And whenever I do that, I think I should word it better the first time, but you know, sometimes in deep POV, I might want to show that whatever this is is difficult to explain, or maybe hint that the narrator has some problem being open about this.


The world didn't work that way, that is, he was wrong again.

Groan. It's late and I can't find a good example. But anyway, when "that is" is used in its conventional sense (i.e., I guess), and you're writing in literary past, do you change it to "that was"? Sounds very weird.

Another -- you know, I am really reductive tonight... actually focusing on one word-- is. -- another example of present-in-past is when you're describing something that exists in the real world, like:

He found himself on Adams Street, staring up at the Sears Tower. That is 110 stories of black glass...

Well, it's true. The Sears Tower IS whatever it is, because it's real. Or would you say, That was 110 stories.....

I notice some writers, when they're talking about something real, often use present tense.

He took her to Emeril's that night, that is, a seriously expensive tourist destination--

Alpha Centauri is the nearest star to the solar system, and that's where Tom was headed in his space cruiser....

The Hope Diamond has always been a treasure coveted by felons---

Well. I know, when I edit, I usually change these to past tense. Why call attention to something being "real" (note the quote marks around "real"-- I mean, really, what is real, huh?) and thus implying that all in past tense is, you know, fiction?

But it's sort of silly for us to pretend that we made up the Sears Tower or Alpha Centauri, and isn't that what we're doing when we put mentions of them in past tense?

There are things that are... uh, kind of universal, generalizations we make. Let's say the heroine of your new story is, mirabile dictu, an editor! (Let's pass on the issue of whether a novel has to be interesting. :) And you have a scene where she's reading a submission done entirely in present tense (I actually am more adaptable in my own reading than poor 20th Century Emily... I don't have much trouble with present tense stories):

Emily was a paragraph into the first page before she realized why she was so disquieted. The opening scene was in present tense. Most novels are written in "literary past," that is, they are in grammatical past tense but are presented as if the scene is happening right now. And this book, well-- she flipped to page 237, and it was still present tense.

She shivered. There was something wrong with the night. She closed the manuscript and went to the window. Were there demons out there? Present-tense demons?

She felt very alone.

There is a generalization that is true, and not just in the World of the Book, but in our world too. So do you show that it is True with a capital T by using present, or what?

Okay, so I'm obviously searching for items to prove how Very Difficult it is to edit. :) But really, have you ever come across this issue as you write? I tell you, every time I edit something that has this issue, it presents an existential dilemma.
Alicia who obviously needs something more important to worry about


mikandra said...

I come across this all the time, not so much when I'm writing, but when I'm reading or critiqueing other people's writing. I'm glad you bring this up, because I thought I was crazy getting annoyed at these tense switches. I've tried to come up with a reason why it annoys me so much. I think it is because at the time the writer stops writing in past tense and flips to present, the writer jumps out of the POV of the character and starts lecturing at the reader. At that moment, the writer stops the story and says: hey, here's a bit you need to know before I go on.

Lisa said...

This problem has troubled me when writing, though in a slightly different situation. What happens when my first person narrator, in the context of relating what happened at the time of the story, describes something that continues to be true at the theoretical future time that the narration is being recounted? Something like:

A spider crawled out of the box, and I screamed. I'm terrified of spiders.

Changing that to "I was terrified of spiders" doesn't feel quite right, as it suggests the narrator is no longer afraid of spiders and sets up an expectation that something in the course of the book will result in an overcoming of the fear.

Or maybe literary past is always used in this situation and I never even notice it when I'm reading, just stumble over it when writing or editing my own work.

Thanks for any advice. I'm right with you on the existential dilemma.

Edittorrent said...

Mikandra, what do you do when you see that? I just shift it to past tense, but "Blue, that was, sort of a turquoise," doesn't really sound right to me, but neither does "that is.

Lisa, I did a book in first-person and had that same dilemma! I finally decided that the reader and I would engage in a polite deception that the events were actually happening as they were related, and the narrator didn't know what was going to happen-- wasn't narrating in retrospect. I just couldn't write it otherwise. Most first-person books are like that, but some do accept the reality (well, fictional reality) that the narrator is telling this from the future. Proust does that in In Search of Lost Time (Recherche, etc.), and Elizabeth Peters really has fun with it in her Amelia Peabody books, like saying that her readers are smart enough to realize that the narrator must have survived this incident, as she is telling the story.

How about "I have always been terrified of spiders?" I don't know, that sounds right, though of course it's present perfect tense. But the progressive aspect of perfect ("have") works somehow with the idea of a connected time.

Laura K. Curtis said...

I tend to eliminate as many of the "that is" type of thing I can because I do find them awkward.

The world didn't work that way; he was wrong again.

But when I have to leave them in, I will still leave them in the past tense. I do it with real buildings, too. (How do I know they'll still be there when the book is published, after all? But that's rationalization.) But again, if there's any way to take them out entirely, I'll do it.

He found himself on Adams Street, staring up at the Sears Tower. 110 stories of black glass, it loomed over him... (or whatever the rest of the sample would say)

Lisa's example I find myself struggling with a lot more. But again, I opt for the past tense. And I didn't always. But I have been so disgusted by the tense-flipping in modern books that now I am religious about leaving everything in the past. The misuse of the words "ago" and "may" in books I am reading, both of which are present-tense use words, has really changed the way I write.

Edittorrent said...

Laura, I guess we could use "i.e." instead of that is! Of course, that sort of Latin abbreviation is generally frowned on in publisher style manuals. :)

"Ago" is one I've struggled with. "Her mother had died" (and there's that past perfect that has its own issues in literary past...) "twenty years ago." Twenty years EARLIER. Or BEFORE.
Right? Is that how you fix it?

And "may" is present tense-- "might" is the past tense, though "might" is also used in present tense (I think it has a slightly different connotation... less likely than "may," maybe?). But using "may" would be like using "He goes" rather than "he went". :)


jwhit said...

I'm with Laura's solution and was doing the elimination trick in my mind as I read them.

Alicia, your comment item about 'ago' is the one I notice in my own and others' writing and always want to change. My head trips when I read it because to me it is a reader's time relative word. I think 'earlier' is better because it makes the relationship to the events inside the story, earlier than that thing, rather than relative to the time of the reader. Having said that, 'earlier' feels like arcane language somehow, or maybe requiring a 'than' qualifier: earlier than xx. Same with 'before'.

Re 'might' and 'may', I tend toward 'may' as the local style of speech. But I'm not sure it's correct to use them interchangeably. That might depend/may depend [take your pick] on where you live in the world. 'May' could be taken to mean 'allowed to' rather than a situation where there is a possibility that an action would be taken or something might occur.

Another local usage pair is something I used above: 'as' and 'because'. I often interchange those two, also.

Isn't English fun?!? :-)

Wes said...

What do you think of the following passage? My goal is to get into deep POV of the boy facing death in the desert and regretting that he left home. All comments are welcome.

......The boy hunkered in shade cast by the high bank of a dry creek. He hid from the scorching sun, but he couldn't escape the heat or his maddening thirst. Worse was the wind blowing across the prairie. It was like the hot breath of the devil himself parching the life from a man. A mind couldn't rest for want of water. Any would do. Cool sips from the spring back home or slurps from a mud hole on the plains. After two days without water, sweat wouldn't come.........

Edittorrent said...

Wes, didn't we see this paragraph back when we were doing first paragraph posts? I could swear I've seen this before. The back half is too vivid to be forgotten.

The back half is interior monologue, which is one of those places (like dialogue) where a little slipping and sliding can occur. I wouldn't fret over it too much. It's a good paragraph.


mikandra said...

Alicia, I'm not sure I use 'that is', or 'that was' ever. To me, it feels like superfluous verbiage.

With your example, there are other ways of putting the sentence. I would go for something like:
- Blue, or rather, a shade of turquoise.
I'd use 'rather' over 'that is' because blue is not the same as turquoise, and the words 'that is' imply it's equal. The non-technical term for turquoise is blue-green.

Lisa, I don't think you need the sentence 'I am/was terrified of spiders' at all. I'd say it's pretty obvious from the character's reaction that he/she is terrified of spiders. In terms of consistency of narrative, I'd still go for the past tense. It is highly likely that when the person was terrified of spiders at the time of the story, that he/she is still terrified of spiders, but as soon as you say 'am' in present tense, you lift yourself out of the story to make a general statement: you're narrating. And readers might stop to wonder: hang on - if you *are* terrified of spiders, then where *are* you now? Are you telling us the story as something that happened in the past? I just think sticking to past tense is more elegant and doesn't allow the reader to wander off and think about these things.

The past/present problem is insidious especially in first person writing. I still believe that, even in first person, when you feel the tendency to put something in present tense, your infodump flag should be waving high.


Wes said...

Yes, Theresa, I sent a version of this when you were doing first paragraph posts. I didn't intend to run you around the block by sending essentially the same passage twice. But your topic today of present tense within past tense raised some serious questions for me about if I were mixing tenses in an inappropriate manner. Thanks for your feedback; I breathed a great sigh of relief. I've had no training in creative writing other than the hard knocks of critique group and reading Alicia's book on POV and a few others.

Cindy Procter-King said...

In literary past, I'd use "that was." "That is" would drive me crazy. That is, if I weren't already.

Lisa said...

Alicia, I agree that "I have always been terrified of spiders" sounds pretty good. I've probably even used that solution before, now that I think of it.

And Patty, you're quite right that the sentence really isn't necessary at all in my not-particularly-well-written example.

I love the various ways it's possible to play with the question of "when is the narrator narrating this?" in first-person stories, but yeah, unless you have something interesting to do with that, better to stick entirely with past tense.

Thanks for this fascinating writer-geek discussion!

Laura K. Curtis said...

Alicia -

I think you should do a post on "ago." Because every time I see something where the story is told in the perfect, and the past perfect/pluperfect is used with "ago" it yanks me right out of the story. In your example, "Her mother had died twenty years before/earlier/previously..." I'd be happy with any of those since they all indicate a time before the action of the story, not a time before the action of the reader's present. Maybe there's a justification for ago--I see it so often that I think there must be some copyediting *style* involved rather than just a single mistake.

It's the same with "may." The usage I see all the time is, with the story told in the past tense, "He had done the right thing, no matter how it may turn out." However it might turn out. And again, in the past year or so this has become so prevalent I begin to think it's in a publishing house's style manual.

Edittorrent said...

Laura, I'll have to think through "Ago"-- I know I usually change it to "earlier". Do you think it matters how deep you are in POV? If you're very deep into a character, speaking with her voice, would you go with "ago" rather than "earlier"? I don't generally use that deep a viewpoint, so I don't know what would "feel" right. What do you think?

Katrina Stonoff said...

Laura, "ago" drives me crazy too. I always want to throw the book across the room. Ditto with words/phrases like "yesterday" or "last week" that are also relative time references. I'd love to see a post about this because those kinds of words are misused all the time.

As far as present tense in literary past, it's a POV problem to me. If the authorial voice feels like a specific, external narrator speaking, I don't notice the tense change because it's the way the narrator would speak naturally. Your "Emily" paragraph works for me because of that. But if the voice is more objective and impersonal, then it sticks out.

In first person, it depends on when the narrator is telling the story from. The writer needs to know at what specific point in time the narrator is speaking, and the changes in tense are subtle clues to tell the reader when that is.

I don't think I use "that is" in this way much at all, either in speech or written language, so for me, it really sticks out whether you use the present OR the past tense.

Great discussion! Thanks!