Medievia Mudslinger

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 errors.

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 other times.

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 doing.

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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