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For example, should I say, "Recently, I finished a novel that was called The Pyrates. The plot of it was that a hero called Avery was sent by the King of England blah, blah, blah."

OR

"Recently I finished a novel that is called The Pyrates. The plot of it is that a hero called Avery is sent by the King of England blah, blah, blah."

If the sentence should be a mixture of past and present tense verbs, be notify me. For example, it was called The Pyrates, the plot of it is that blah, blah, blah,

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  • The present tense is highly advisable in this case. The book is still around, and hopefully will stay around for quite awhile even though you're done reading it.
    – Ricky
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 22:57
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    Either one is okay. Depends on the context. If you are writing a paper for school, then probably the present tense since the book still speaks today.
    – NES
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 0:36
  • When in doubt, use the present tense. Do not mix tenses, unless you have a specific reason to.
    – Peter K.
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 2:45
  • There's even a name for the use of the presente tense is this situation: literary present tense. See this related question.
    – Jacinto
    Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 11:28
  • "Recently, I finished a novel; OR read a novel" is obviously what is meant. It was about etc. etc. etc. That refers to your experience of reading it. Your experience is over: past tense.
    – Lambie
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 12:55

3 Answers 3

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I am trying to think what kind of book I might describe using the past tense.

Certainly the plays of Shakespeare, which are still currently performed, albeit written 400 years ago are usually described in the present tense. I even looked at some reviews of Thomas More's Utopia, published in the early 16th century. And those were mostly, but not all, in the present tense.

I don't think you will ever go wrong by sticking to the present tense, when describing fiction.

However when it comes to history, it is a different matter. If one were describing, for example a biography of Queen Elizabeth I, I believe one would use the past tense. The Armada arrived off the south-west coast and was spotted from the look-out at St Michael's Mount.... I have also heard people tell stories from the bible in the past tense. And that is probably because they regarded it as factual history.

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All of the events which are written about in a work of fiction should be referred to in present active tense. I do not know why this is, but I was taught that the events in the book are constantly being read, and therefore constantly happening. You should only use another tense when the text refers to something which happened outside the scope of the novel, before or after the story took place.

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To retell the plot, describe specific actions, scenes, use as simple sentences as possible. Events can be retelling in the past tense or in the present, but it will be simpler and more logical in the present:

Harry Potter is ten years old. He lives with his uncle and aunt. They don’t like him. He doesn't know that his real parents were wizards. One day he is invited to magic school Hogwards.

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    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 9:23

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