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     Consider a present-tense sentence in which a story's narrator expresses a situation in which the character in focus is considering which of two alternative choices he or she should make in the near future. Such a sentence can be constructed as follows:

[a] Should he or she…, or should he or she…?

[b] Should he or she…, or would it be better if he or she…?

…, et cetera.

Here's an example of this kind of sentence:

[a] Should he eat the sandwich, or should he save it for later?

[b] Should he eat the sandwich, or would it be better if he saved it for later?

…, etc.

Now suppose the person who wrote that sentence and its surrounding text decided to change his or her work relative to the past tense. How would he or she then alter a sentence like the one presented above as an example to make it fit in right alongside his or her newly revised content without needless linguistic contortions on his or her part? Would the author use the 'future in the past' tense in some way, shape, or form? If so, then how? I haven't, for the life of me, been able to figure that out by myself.

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Your question is still confusing from my perspective, but I feel the answer is similar in that we use a variation of to do +/- past perfect.

Did Joe want to play soccer in the morning, or did he want to wait until later in the day?

Had Joe waited until the morning to play soccer, then he wouldn't have sprained his ankle in the dark.

In either case, you are using a past-tense auxiliary verb along with your action verb. In the first example, by adding an infinitive it brings your past tense "into the present," giving an illusion, if you will, of a future action.

It seems to me a problem you're having is leaving a semblance of mystery in a past-tense story frame. A primary reason most novels are written past tense is so the author can describe the action and describe the scene in a way the reader can take it all in.

You can't really write Did he eat the sandwich or didn't he? with any kind of interest unless that's the primary question of your mystery.

In third person, you have to be a little creative: Joe considered eating the sandwich. It sure looked tasty. But then he remembered the warnings, the rumors. Food was not be trusted from this kitchen. Should I eat the sandwich or shouldn't I, Joe thought to himself. He ate the sandwich; and it was a good thing, too. For that would be the last solid food Joe would eat for three days.

You can keep your basic premise by attributing to a thought or conversation, which is usually in present tense, of a past-tense story.

  • Well, I suppose that's one way to get around it! Since this method looks like it might work, I'll try it in the story I've been writing when I next settle down to make some more edits to it. Thanks a lot for your help. – RandomDSdevel Apr 24 '16 at 19:42
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Let's consider an example of a present-tense, first-person narration that considers a future action*:

[1a] I sit in the dark, holding a pistol as I realize that I will kill my wife because she cheated on me with my best friend.

[2a] I sit in the dark, holding a pistol as I realize that I shall kill my wife because she cheated on me with my best friend.

[3a] I sit in the dark, holding a pistol as I realize that I am going to kill my wife because she cheated on me with my best friend.

[4a] I sit in the dark, holding a pistol as I realize that I can kill my wife because she cheated on me with my best friend.

[5a] I sit in the dark, holding a pistol as I realize that I may kill my wife because she cheated on me with my best friend.

(There are some differences here. Depending on your tastes, one of [1a] and [2a] is the more emphatic. In [4a], can is the present tense, but it has an enduring sense: I've realized that I am able to kill my wife, I feel that way now, and will likely into the near future. The same goes for may in [5a], which for now, let's interpret as meaning that I have permission.)

All of these have a transposition to a past-tense narrative, with the future consideration placed in the past from the narrator's point of view but after the realization that came to the murderous protagonist.

[1b] I sat in the dark, holding a pistol as I realized that I would kill my wife because she cheated on me with my best friend.

[2b] I sat in the dark, holding a pistol as I realized that I should kill my wife because she cheated on me with my best friend.

[3b] I sat in the dark, holding a pistol as I realized that I was going to kill my wife because she cheated on me with my best friend.

[4b] I sat in the dark, holding a pistol as I realized that I could kill my wife because she cheated on me with my best friend.

[5b] I sat in the dark, because a pistol as I realized that I might kill my wife because she cheated on me with my best friend.

Notice the following:

  • [1b] and [3b] are proper transpositions to the past, having meanings that correspond to [1a] and [3a], respectively.
  • [4b] is ambiguous. It means either that I was capable of murder or that it's uncertain whether I was, with murder being only a possibility.
  • [2b] means that I had an obligation to kill.
  • [5b] is ambiguous. It means either that I had permission to kill or that it's uncertain whether I would.

The reason for the changes in meaning from present to past tense, is that these past tenses has a modal sense, i.e, they record an aspect of the verb's meaning that isn't related to time. You can see this because you can replace shall with should, can with could, and may with might in [2a], [4a], and [5a], respectively.

  • Thorough as your answer is, I'm afraid that it doesn't really answer my question. That's mostly my fault, though: I didn't express it very well. I'm going to go back and reformulate it more clearly, and then you can tweak your answer in response. – RandomDSdevel Apr 22 '16 at 22:50
  • OK, I've now reworked my question. – RandomDSdevel Apr 22 '16 at 23:18
  • Take my example As I sit in the dark, I realize that I should kill my wife. To transpose this into the past, I write As I sat in the dark, I realized that should kill my wife. Are you asking how to replace should in the second (past) version? – deadrat Apr 23 '16 at 0:26
  • No; what I mean is that your examples don't have anything to do with the sentence structure I'm trying to transpose into past tense. I'm not trying to rework a causal conditional like this; I'm attempting to portray a character's consideration of two alternatives at the same time in past tense. The best way I know of so far seems to be the roundabout method Stu W proposed at the end of his answer. – RandomDSdevel Apr 25 '16 at 1:17
  • @RandomDSdevel I've re-read both your question and StuW's answer several times, and I realize that I have no idea what you're asking. Sorry not to have been more help. If you're trying to portray a character's "consideration", then I don't know how you do that except in indirect discourse. – deadrat Apr 25 '16 at 1:57

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