I looked through the related questions, but I didn't find any concrete advice.

I understand that it's OK to do so. I'm not sure how common it is, but I'm a beginner writer and want to keep things as simple as possible. I can pick up that fancy stuff later.

To illustrate the problem, I'll use the following example, where first-person POV narration has present tense sandwiched between past tens in a single paragraph.

I wound through the corridors toward the center of Down 15. None of the elevators were nearby, so I bounded up the stairs three at a time. Stairwells in the core are just like stairwells on Earth—short little twenty-one-centimeter-high steps. It makes the tourists more comfortable. In areas that don’t get tourists, stairs are each a half meter high. That’s lunar gravity for you. Anyway, I hopped up the tourist stairs until I reached ground level. Walking up fifteen floors of stairwell probably sounds horrible, but it’s not that big a deal here. I wasn’t even winded.

From "Artemis" by Andy Weir

When I go through my texts, I see that I'm doing the same. I'm writing in first-person POV, past tense, but when it comes to descriptions (little info dumps) and the narrator's thoughts (comments) I often switch to present tense (without thinking).

The problem lies in the word "often". I don't do it consistently. Also when I find a spot like that I start to think can I really do that? If in the above example the Moon was blown up by the end of the story, would it still make sense to talk about the stairwells in the present tense? It's just too complicated to deal with all these logical traps. I want to keep it simple.

I can't just search for present tense (such as "are") in the word processor. As we use the present tense in the dialogues.

Is a good copy editor the only option?

Or is there maybe some mind trick that one can use? Like maybe one needs to pretend and always keep in mind that a story is told by a person who is at his/her death bed, the events happened years ago, and the storyteller doesn't know anything about current state of affairs (what happened to all these people and places). Can a certain mindset break a habit?

Any other ideas?

Please advice.

migrated from writing.stackexchange.com Dec 22 '18 at 0:24

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  • 1
    There are two kinds of "writing": (1) Writing a language as opposed to speaking it. (2) Writing as a profession of composing published texts. This question is about the first kind of writing, while this site is about the second kind. This question would fit better on English SE, as it is about learning the fundamentals of writing the language, while mastery of that is a prerequisite of this site. – user57423 Dec 20 '18 at 6:03

How to avoid it?

By Being Meticulous. There is no shortcut. You, as the author, are responsible for every word choice in your story. Every single one.

It reads fine to me to have the present tense as presented in Weir's snippet, but it could be clearer.

In first person (past tense), a thought can either be italicized and immediate (in which case it becomes present tense) or not (and remains past tense.)

You are the God of this world you have written, and you are responsible to know every detail of your creation. So go through it. Sentence by sentence. Figure out which thoughts of your creation are passing surface thoughts, and which are intimate deep thoughts.

If that passage was mine, (which it isn't; I have a different world), I'd do it like this:

I wound through the corridors toward the center of Down 15. None of the elevators were nearby, so I bounded up the stairs three at a time. The stairwells in the core were just like stairwells on Earth—short little twenty-one-centimeter-high steps. It made the tourists more comfortable. In the areas that didn’t get tourists, stairs were each a half meter high.

That’s lunar gravity for you, I thought.

Anyway, I hopped up the tourist stairs until I reached ground level. Walking up fifteen floors of stairwell probably sounds horrible, but it’s not that big a deal here. I wasn’t even winded.

Do you feel the movement into the character brain? You have this tool available to you. Don't overdo it--develop a feel for when you want a direct thought from a character. But you need to be obsessive about going through your story with a fine tooth comb and making conscious choices. There are multiple ways to write any passage.

  • 1
    Thank you for the sobering answer @DPT. I suspected this to be the case. No shortcut. Did you leave "Walking up fifteen floors of stairwell probably sounds horrible, but it’s not that big a deal here." in the present tense on purpose? If not, that's exactly my problem :( – user18993 Dec 20 '18 at 2:26
  • @user18993 I waffled on it. You are allowed to use your ear, and not overthink it. :-) I'd probably aim for consistency, and do something with that sentence too. – DPT Dec 20 '18 at 4:16

There's nothing wrong with mixing tenses in a sentence or paragraph as long as the tenses accurately reflect when each thing happens. To take a trivial example: "Yesterday Bob came to my house, Sally is at my house right now, and Fred will come tomorrow." It would be blatantly wrong to write, "Fred came tomorrow", etc.

As NofP says, in your example, statements that are timeless are written in the present tense. We say, "The gravity on the Moon is 1/6 that of Earth." That's what it has been for as far back as anyone knows and what it will be for as long as anyone can predict. If you wrote, "The gravity on the Moon was 1/6 that of Earth", you would be implying that it isn't that any longer, that it has changed. And of course anything that is true right now is normally said in the present tense. "England is a constitutional monarchy." Maybe it won't be 100 years from now, but it is now.

As to how to do it right ... Think about when an event happened or when a statement is true, in relation to when the statement is made. If a character says, "I was in Boston", the past tense indicates that he was in Boston some time before he made this statement. If your intent is that he is saying this while he still is in Boston, than you should use present tense.

Stories are routinely told in past tense. That is, all events that are part of the story should be expressed in past tense in the narration. (Occasionally a story will refer to an event that is future of the "current" point in the narration, but I think that's fairly rare. Like: "Bob drove the Ford to Susan's house. Later he will drive a Chevy, but at this time he drove a Ford.") Things that were true before the story began, are true during the story, and will be true afterward, or normally given in present tense. Like, "Bob flew to Botswana. Botswana is a country in Africa." The event in the story of Bob's travel is given in past tense. The explanation about where Botswana is is in present tense.

  • Jay, thank you for the reply. I know there is much debate out in the wild regarding past vs. pres. vs. pres. mixed with the past vs. past mixed with the pres. I get that each may be a powerful tool. The example about the gravity is simple (or maybe not, as I mentioned in the question what happens to that gravity if the Moon gets destroyed by the end of the story?) Do I need to go back and refer to gravity in the past tense? Or should one think that the story was written not after all the events happened, but almost in real-time with a minute delay. Then the present tense makes sense. – user18993 Dec 19 '18 at 23:21

Present tense in any-tense narration is more than OK when you are stating immutable facts and universally acknowledged truths. In the excerpt that you copied, the author is stating facts using the present tense, while proceeding with the narration in the past-tense. As a matter of fact, using any other tense may foreshadow that said facts and truths may change during the narration.

Back to the question on how to identify improperly placed tenses. The issue is that the brain skims over such mistakes in order to preserve the smoothness of the narration. If you can break the flow of narration, it will be easier to identify grammar flaws.

For instance, I would recommend starting with a good break from your text, in order to lose familiarity with it. Then, to break the flow of the story, you need to read it in random chunks, of a few pages at most, and jump across sections of the book, until you have covered all of it. To further turn a book into a collection of words, some of my colleagues read their books starting from the last word, skipping every second word, and then again, reading the remaining half of the words.

  • NofP thank you for the reply. In one other thread they used an example "She had green eyes." or "Her eyes were green." This also "may foreshadow" that something may happen to her eyes... But practically speaking it doesn't. Or at least, I hope it doesn't. Present tense is also foreshadowing. It assumes that "Stairwells are still going to be in the core" by the end of the above-mentioned story. I understand that using present tense might achieve some cool effect like immediacy. But I want to keep thing simple for now. Thank you for the advice on "break the flow" I will try that. – user18993 Dec 19 '18 at 23:11

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