Mixing past and present tense in fiction

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Amperhamper, Nov 20, 2009.

  1. Amperhamper New Member

    US English
    I'm writing a story which takes place in a fictional town called "Aherville" in which all the residents are observant Jews. In the third-person narration, I mix past and present tenses. Specifically, when referring to something done by a character in the narrative, I use the past tense; but when referring to Jewish traditions, I use the present tense.

    For example, I might write "In Aherville, everyone celebrates Shabbos every week," but a couple of sentences later, write "Zindel felt hungry because he hadn't eaten all day."

    A reader is arguing that this usage is ungrammatical; she argues that all tenses must match in order to make the narrative voice consistent. I disagree. I've been looking for an authoritative citation to show my friend, but I haven't had any luck so far. Could anyone here direct me to such a citation?

    Alternatively, if I'm the one who is mistaken, then it would be very useful to tell me that.

    Thanks very much for any help.
  2. xqby

    xqby Senior Member

    Oxnard, CA
    English (U.S.)
    I don't know about "ungrammatical," but I would agree that it's inconsistent and probably somewhat confusing to the reader. I'd have to see a larger section of the work to have a more solid opinion on the matter.
    Last edited: Nov 21, 2009
  3. jinti

    jinti Senior Member

    I don't see a problem.

    Shifting tenses is only confusing when there's no rhyme or reason to it. But depending on your usage, it can be fine.

    Your example seems similar to this one:

    I always eat breakfast at 8:00. Today I felt hungry again at 9.

    Changing the tenses just to make them match would change the meaning.
  4. Natabka Senior Member

    Ukraine (Ukrainian)
    I agree with Xqby there: to say whether your narration seems inconsistent or not one has to see a larger section of the work. However, when it comes to modern literary narratives, an author may justify almost anything if it's the part of his plan/technique. So if your particular reader speaks about inconsistency because of tenses, maybe she's just accustomed to different kind of literature of more classical way of narrating.

    p.s. The description of the plot of your work has remided me about Martin Amis's novel "Time's Arrow". If you haven't read it, have a look at it's style and the way the author mixes tenses, persons, types of speech.
  5. andym Senior Member

    English - England
    I agree with jinti. If it is clear that you are referring to events that still are continuing then I can't see the problem. That said., using the present tense as opposed to the imperfect implies that you are stressing the fact that these things are still continuing. If you don't have a particular reason for stressing that then why not just use the more usual imperfect tense?

    In certain cases the present case can be used to describe a sequences of events that took place in the past - when the intention is to convey a sense of immediacy. But probably not something to do unless you really know what you are doing.
  6. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Look at the opening paragraph of Chapter 34 of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Amperhamper:

    They drove by the level road along the valley to a distance of a few miles, and, reaching Wellbridge, turned away from the village to the left, and over the great Elizabethan bridge which gives the place half its name. Immediately behind it stood the house wherein they had engaged lodgings, whose exterior features are so well known to all travellers through the Froom Valley; once portion of a fine manorial residence, and the property and seat of a d'Urberville, but since its partial demolition a farmhouse.

    You will see that Hardy mixes the simple past (in red) with the present (in green). There is nothing exceptionable or exceptional or ungrammatical about the practice at all. It is a perfectly standard narrative technique.

    You haven't given any very extended sample of the way you are doing this, but, from what you say, I doubt if you should be causing a reader any problems at all.
  7. clevermizo Senior Member

    St. Louis, MO
    English (USA), Spanish
    I don't see the problem really, unless in a larger section of the work it does become confusing.

    Anyway, in this quote you clearly have two different uses for two different purposes. I interpret that in Aherville, everyone celebrated Shabbos every week at the time of narration and it implies they continue to do so into my present (as a reader). However, Zindel felt hungry for a specific time in the narrative which doesn't extend beyond the narrative. It would sound weird to say "Zindel feels hungry" and similarly it would sound weird to say "In Aherville, everyone celebrated Shabbos" because you might think "Perhaps they no longer do?" which seems to not be the intent.

    Sure - tenses should match... when it's appropriate that they do so. as a writer you have to design the narrative in a way that makes sense. Again, as others have commented, I'd have to see a larger section to tell whether or not it became confusing.

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