Tenses

Althain's Warden

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Hi to all,
I am an aspiring writer that has begun a short (ish) story that follows a few characters i know in the SWG game and chronicles some of their more daring exploits. My question is this; can anyone recommend a good explaination of the hows and whys of when to swith tense and view point. It seems like a basic question yet i feel that how well an author does these switches is critical to how the prose moves and the direction you get in the story. If anyone has a book on this kind of topic that you could recommend i would be gratefull, either that or just your own personal insights from having written yourself.
Many thanks in advance
 

Peter Graham

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Your first job is to determine your narrative voice - who is telling the story? You might come in and out of narrative voice (in dialogue, for example), but the trick is to be consistent. It's very simple really.

If the book is written from the first person point of view and recounts events in the past, don't stray from that unless the plot demands it. If dialogue is always written in the present tense, stick to that whenever possible. Different scenes may need different treatment for dramatic effect, but overall your narrative voice should be rocklike in its consistency!

Point of view shifts should also be fairly easy. There are no "rules", but as a newbie, decide at the outset how many p.o.v characters you will have. A p.o.v character is any character whose head you will be letting us get into. Try and limit it to only a handful. Each p.o.v character needs to be as rounded and as deep as possible, so the fewer you have the better. And if a character is not a p.o.v character, we must only know what they are feeling from what they say or from what we can deduce from their actions.

And finally, avoid "head hop". Head hop occurs when two p.o.v characters are interacting and the narrator jumps from one to the other, giving us insights into their souls turn and turn about. Some writers can pull it off, but unless your name is Henry Fielding, Thomas Hardy or Jane Austen, avoid it until you fully understand the basics. Stick to one p.o.v per chapter, or use clear formatting breaks in a chapter (the line of asterisks is a favourite) to indicate that we have shifted.

Regards,

Peter
 

chrispenycate

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Think yourself a timeline; a bit like a road you're standing on, but since it's one dimensional, very straight, and very strait, and (as far as we know) invariably with a one way sign on it.

Where you are standing is, by definition, the present. When you are writing, occasionally you get so involved in the past you forget you're not actually there, and start describing it as if you were actually living it; this can enhance the immediacy of the action, or confuse the reader totally (Aaargh! When am I?) depending on how well it is done.

We have two main present tenses, present continuous "Is is raining" and – well, just sort of present "I open the door". These can be mixed and matched "It rains on me when I am opening the door" or "When I open the door it is raining" We have present conditional, where one action depends on another "It would rain if I opened the door."

Close behind you is the immediate past, with the perfect tense ("I have opened", "it has rained") which uses an auxiliary verb (to have) with the past participle of the verb (ordinarily an "ed" after the infinitive, but there are enough irregulars to keep anyone happy; assuming memorising lists makes you happy, that is. And different irregularities, too; I think, I thank, I have thunk doesn't cut it. But you know them; you use them in speech.) Then there's the imperfect : I closed the door, it rained (yes, with regular verbs it looks a lot like the past participle, doesn't it?) the continuous perfect (it was raining, I was opening the door) conditional perfect ("I would have opened the door" and I suppose the continuous form "It would have been raining {if I had been stupid enough to open the door}")

Then there is a region even further back on the line, with events that had already occurred when the ones you are describing take place ("it had been raining, but now the clouds were retreating") which I learnt as the 'pluperfect' but believe now has another label. This one is easy; there's only one form of it, and it stretches back to the beginning of history. Interrogative by inverting word order (Had it rained that afternoon?), no conditionals or subjunctives… I think we'll ignore subjunctives for the time being anyway, don't you? There are barely any pedants remaining hard-headed enough to insist on them. So, pluperfect is easy, and logical for flashbacks, but is quite clumsy to write in, and frequently, once the time period is set, an author will regress to simple past (to the expressed complaints of pedants)

Which leaves working out when to use perfect and imperfect (I was, I have been) and I can't think of a convenient rule for which I can't think of an exception. In conventional tale-telling mode, where generally one explains what has already happened, there is a lot more imperfect than perfect tense, but that is hardly a rule.

Future tense is another compound in English, "will" or "shall" with the infinitive of the verb. Future perfect, future continuous perfect, future conditional are all formed exactly as expected – it will have rained, will have been raining, wold have rained – and I'm not ready to explain exactly where they fall on the time line; generally a bit ahead of "now" but not necessarily "when you reach Grandma's house it will have been raining for six hours"

Change when you change place on the timeline, or when the action catches up to "now", and never change without a reason. Not everybody's as sensitive to tense as I am, but jumping around in time disturbs readers; they need timing clues to know when they are in a narrative, and the four time zones: now, then, longer ago and yet to come are the only indications we can give them.

Now, that must be about the most confusing explanations of time structure ever; but at least I didn't try and include time travel…

As I reign over the weather, I will rein in the rain.
 

Althain's Warden

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Many thanks to both of you, i will endeavour to keep these in mind. I am one of those avid readers and ideas kind of guys that has finally got round to writing some stuff down,i find that my skills in some basic areas are sorely lacking, it probably doesn't help that i don't tend to plan my work, i just sit down and start typing. Well thanks again and i'll come back to you if i confuse myself even further?! :D
 

The Judge

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That was incredible, Chris! I think you ought to start writing a style guide and persuade the mods to put it as a sticky at the top of critiques - and then we can all refer people to it as and when needed!

Only two things to add. The pluperfect is now - I think - called past perfect, as opposed to present perfect (ie the ordinary past tense). And although you obliquely refer to it, you don't give any credit to the historic present. This is usually limited to dialogue 'so it's raining, right, and I open the door', though Damon Runyon managed to write whole stories in it very successfully. (The only ones I've seen are written in the first person, which perhaps isn't so far removed from dialogue at that.) As a title, 'The Empire Strikes Back' is a kind of historic present as well, used to convey immediacy.

J

PS I would join an Honourable Society for the Preservation of the Subjunctive, were you to start one, Chris. For who shall save it, if we do not? Perish the thought that we should allow it to die - come what may, we will persevere!
 

Ursa major

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The pluperfect is now - I think - called past perfect....

That's right, J.



I'm old enough to have learnt about tenses from Latin. (Well, something had to stick in the brain after all those lessons, and it wasn't the Latin).

To help bring myself up-to-date on the current terminology and usage, I bought a copy of the Oxford Everyday Grammar, by John Seely. Chapter Six (Tense and 'tense') goes through the many 'tenses' (and the many different uses of some of them) in a relatively concise manner.
 

Zubi-Ondo

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Methinks Chris knows too much. Perhaps we should off him before he leaks all of the writing secrets to the enemy! Perhaps we could lure him toward a trap by having him think that he is pedantically editing some awkwardly written prose. Just then, we and dangle ^s in his POV, & capture him in (), throw superlatives @ him, and finally bury him with *'s. If that doesn't work, we could just keep him busy by having him proofread the Illiad and the Odyssey and a paperback copy of War and Peace. That should at least keep him busy for a day or so until we can come up with another plan. Doth I jest in vain?

I'm surprised we didn't get into the discussion about first, second, and third person limited and omniscient. I don't know of any famous novels that were written in second person. It probably only works for "how-to" books (i.e. You take a 2X4 an nail it to the other 2X4, then repeat. Now you have a frame.)

I prefer writing in third person limited, and letting on about others by their words, actions, expressions, etc. Being a relatively new writer, I often catch myself slipping into third person omniscient when I don't mean to. I'm sure it could be done right by a seasoned writer, but I just edit until there's no real omniscience. LOTR is one of those example of well written third person omniscient. I'm more into SF than Fantasy, and most of my favorites were third person limited, with a change in POV every once in a while.

That's my 2½ pence on the matter.

- Z.
 
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