September 11, 2003
Mudslinger Writer's Guide- Part 16
So - you want to write fiction for the Mudslinger?
Relax, you're too...
There are two simple rules about tense. The first is to choose one. The
second is to stick with it. What could be easier?
There are three tenses, and despite the fact that most people know the
differences between them, not many know the main ramifications.
Past tense is a comfortable one, one that has stood the test of time. Many
books have been written in past tense, and it lends itself easily to any
perspective you choose to use. I like to think of it as the familiar tense,
because most of what I read is writeen in it. It narrates from the point of
things that have already happened, setting them solidly in the reader's mind
as fixed and enduring.
Bob looked down at the puddle. A leaf floated across it, propelled by the
slight breeze that ruffled his hair. He sighed, the sight stirring memories
of other times.
Present tense is also popular, but for different reasons. I'll admit that
I've never been a fan of the tense, but I can write and read in it. Many
people who are learning to write will be best advised to use present tense
to start with, as it has a more limited scope, and therefore less room for
Bob looks down at the puddle. A leaf floats across it, the slight breeze
that ruffles his hair propelling it. He sighs, the sight evoking memories of
Present tense is good for conveying a sense of immediacy. Things haven't
happened - they are happening - and thus they happen to the reader. They are
there in front of the reader's mind. It's an essential tense for such as
television and film scripts.
As I said above, stick to one tense. You can swap between them if you are
good enough to get away with it. I am not good enough to do this, so I will
not attempt to explain how or why this should be accomplished. Occasionally,
you can find a narrative device to allow you to get away with it, but that
is uncommon. Decide on one of the two and stick with it.
Yes, I said that there were three tenses. The last one looks like this.
Bob will look down at the puddle. The slight breeze that will send a leaf
floating across the puddle will also ruffle his hair. The sight will stir
memories of other times and make him sigh.
Future tense. In a word, "ewwww!" It's hard to read and harder to write.
Leave it alone. I'll not thank anyone for sending me anything like that
unless I know that they are competent in the other tenses and styles first.
As I mentioned for perspective, dialogue follows the rules of common sense.
You can quite cheerfully swap between tenses in the same sentence if it is
spoken: "I passed the test when I was just older than you are now, and you
will take it when you are old enough." As I say above, things of this nature
should only be attempted in narrative when you are certain of what you are
Consider experimenting with different combinations of tense and perspective.
Third person in the past tense is what I consider to be the standard style,
but you could use first person instead, or first person with present tense.
You can try a few paragraphs of a story in any of these forms to see if it
fits. Some stories will work, and some won't.
In general, there is a long-standing tradition of telling tales in the past
tense. It works in so many ways on the reader, rather like third person
perspective, that it's pretty much indispensable. Present tense can be
useful to know, but it's often hard to keep things in that tense without
having them drift back to the previous style.
Next - Themes.
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