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For example, just something quickly made up:

Sam started to run from the house to the nearby forest. The freezing weather caused him to shiver, but the warmth from running very rapidly heated up him. Sam, son of a lumberjack, is/was 16-years-old this year.

Given a context like that or similar to that, for the bolded text, which is one is correct? On one hand, "was" seems to be the correct one as the narration is in past tense, so for consistency, everything should be in past. But on the other hand, "is" also seems to be correct because he isn't "was 16-year-old", he is 16-years-old.

Thanks in advance for any answers, and if possible, please point to a resource I can study.

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    In a story, the author can do anything they want to in telling it. There is no "correct". – John Lawler Oct 3 '15 at 18:28
  • @JohnLawler I just meant by grammar-wise correct. From what you've said, does it mean that either is fine? That it wouldn't matter if he used is/was here, despite the narration being in past tense? – john2546 Oct 3 '15 at 19:46
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    @john2546 Tense is the label for verb form; time is when your story takes place. To be a bit flip, tense is dictated by time and point of view. You're free to pick the time of your narrative and the perspective of your narrators and even to switch these around. The only "rule" (and it's not a grammatical one) is not to confuse your reader about what's happening when. Try using the google on the search terms "narrative voice" and "narrative tense." – deadrat Oct 3 '15 at 19:54
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    I'm afraid "is" would jerk you out of your narration and leave the reader to wonder if you are now talking about current time vs. the time the story takes place. – Robusto Oct 3 '15 at 20:51
  • "Correct" is getting some blowback, but "consistent" I think we can all agree on. You're moving out of the past tense and into the present with "is", so it's entirely valid for your readers to interpret that as "he is 16 now, but at the point in the story he was younger". – jimm101 Jun 12 at 18:13
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In my experience, in fictional narration of the past, using a past tense is generally the norm for narration of events or for indirect (reported) discourse. Direct speech, however, should take the tense that the speaker (or thinker) is actually using.

Contrast the following:

Indirect: Later that night, Sam thought about the fact that he was now sixteen years old.

Direct: Later that night, Sam thought to himself, "I am now sixteen years old."

There may be exceptions, but I can't think of any at the moment.

Note that in certain types of non-fiction, the rules may be somewhat different. For example, scholars in philosophy will say things such as: "In the Metaphysics, Aristotle again writes about matter and form." One reason the present is common in philosophy scholarship may be that the focus is on perennial ideas rather than on the fact that the actual expression of those ideas took place in the past.

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You are asking about the historical present. Even in conversation, the tenses must usually all be the same. If you choose to say "Sam is 16" you should also begin the paragraph with "Sam starts to run... , and use the present throughout the narrative. However, there are exceptions. The following article gives 2 examples of the historical present used in novels; in one of them, the writer shifts from the past tense to the historical present for dramatic effect. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_present

  • That Wikipedia article is terrible...someone needs to edit it, or completely rewrite it. – michael_timofeev Oct 4 '15 at 0:40
  • michael_timofeev, can you suggest a better citation for the Historical Present? What, exactly, about the article is terrible; is the information false or useless? – Robert Menuet Oct 4 '15 at 15:26
  • I don't have a better citation. My answer used a different approach. I'm not criticizing your answer...I think it is fine. I feel the article isn't helpful...it only has Copperfield as a reference...Atwood's book is mentioned but no quote is given. – michael_timofeev Oct 4 '15 at 15:50
  • I can't be sure but it is possible the OP is a Chinese native speaker...this topic comes up often in my ESL writing classes. The students switch tenses and aren't sure what information should be in present tense and what in past tense. – michael_timofeev Oct 4 '15 at 15:55
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I'm going to approach this from a different point of view. Your last sentence has "this year." To me (and others will disagree) using "this year" almost requires present tense. If you say he was 16 "this year" he now must be 17 because "was" says that at the moment this is not true. I feel the sentence is confusing. What are you trying to say? Who are you now addressing?

As I said, others will possibly disagree and give all sorts of reasons why "this year" is ok but honestly it is never the reader's fault if they are confused or think "that's weird." when reading fiction. Non fiction is different (but shouldn't be in my opinion.)

Leave off "this year" and write "Sam, son of a lumberjack, was 16 years old." I am using "was" because I feel the narrative is "better" that way. If you use "is" it calls attention to this fact. It sounds like an aside. I think "Ok, this year he's 16. And? Why is that important? I was just reading about the guy walking in the freezing weather away from a house, and now I need to consider that he IS 16."

If you would like more reading on this kind of thinking, John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction" is excellent. It's not an easy read, but will help you start making your own decisions and justifying them.

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