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Old 01-19-2013, 05:21 AM   #1
Squall913
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A Specific Grammar Question

I'm having trouble finding an answer to a question, though I've looked in a few places.

I'm writing a story in the 1st person past tense. But in some cases I'm describing things that still apply at the present within the story's timeline. (The walls are/were green, etc.)

My question is this: Should I try to express that these things are still true--by using present tense in these specific cases--or will that be overly confusing if there are only a few such cases?

Sorry if this should go somewhere else, and thanks to anyone who can help me out.
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Old 01-19-2013, 09:29 AM   #2
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Squall913 View Post
I'm having trouble finding an answer to a question, though I've looked in a few places.

I'm writing a story in the 1st person past tense. But in some cases I'm describing things that still apply at the present within the story's timeline. (The walls are/were green, etc.)

My question is this: Should I try to express that these things are still true--by using present tense in these specific cases--or will that be overly confusing if there are only a few such cases?

Sorry if this should go somewhere else, and thanks to anyone who can help me out.
If I've read you correctly: narrator is describing something that happened in their past, but is still true in their present (i.e. the moment at which they're telling the story).

In that case, either option is legit, and it's a matter of preference. Present tense might be confusing if you're only invoking it rarely. OTOH, it can also make the reader feel more involved in the story. I'm not sure how best to articulate this, but I'll try:

A first-person past-tense story is two steps detached from the reader's world: one step to the narrator, and then another into the narrator's past. By shifting some of the story into the narrator's present, you bring it a step closer to the reader.

An author that comes to mind: Frederick Forsyth writes spy/military thrillers, and one of the big selling points of his work is that it's well-researched and realistic (or at least the early stuff was, I haven't been much impressed with his more recent books). He generally uses past tense when talking about material that is clearly fictional.

But when talking about real-life organisations and their procedures, he often shifts into present tense, which gives the impression that he's telling real-world truths. (Sometimes he is, sometimes he isn't.) That in turn makes the rest of the story feel just a little bit more real - at least, that's how I interpret it.
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Old 01-19-2013, 11:42 AM   #3
sr71plt
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If your story is in the past tense, it doesn't really matter if a wall is still green now, does it? The story is running in that time, not this one. So, if I understand your question correctly, I'd leave it in the past tense.
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Old 01-23-2013, 09:28 PM   #4
Squall913
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Thanks to you both for the advice! You've solved my problem.
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Old 01-25-2013, 08:29 AM   #5
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sr is surely right but you can often dodge tense by using an adjective. "He looked at the green walls." This doesn't always work but phrases like 'the same green walls greeted him' can link the past to the present tense. All can be 'contourned'.
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Old 01-25-2013, 08:51 PM   #6
BONNIEBREA
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Squall913 View Post
I'm having trouble finding an answer to a question, though I've looked in a few places.

I'm writing a story in the 1st person past tense. But in some cases I'm describing things that still apply at the present within the story's timeline. (The walls are/were green, etc.)

My question is this: Should I try to express that these things are still true--by using present tense in these specific cases--or will that be overly confusing if there are only a few such cases?

Sorry if this should go somewhere else, and thanks to anyone who can help me out.
I write in first person also. In fact, I've never written a story for public consumption that wasn't in first person. I very intentionally do exactly what you're asking about. I generally use past tense (because most the events described happened in the past), but when I'm describing something that represents the current state or condition of something (or an attribute that was true in the past and continues to be true) then I'll render it in present tense. An example from a recent story:

Mid-morning Sunday Ginny and I sat at my dining table. We meet every Sunday morning, usually here.

In the first sentence the specific action of sitting at the dining table and the events that proceeded from it happened some weeks previous - in the past in relation to when the writer is telling about the event. The second sentence refers to continuing action, action that is currently true: they will meet next Sunday and every Sunday for the foreseeable future, so present tense - it's a current condition.

I find the technique works especially well when distinguishing between the past state of a character and the present and continuing state of a character. I don't know how else one would do it.

My friend graduated from college with me ten years ago. She is a marketing manager for Home Depot.

I don't know how that could be accurately written as:

My friend graduated from college with me ten years ago. She was a marketing manager for Home Depot.

The second choice makes it sound as if she was a marketing manager at the time she graduated from college. Yes, she has been a marketing manager in the past (yesterday, last year, etc.) but she has the current attribute or condition if being a marketing manager, so present tense.
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Old 01-30-2013, 12:48 PM   #7
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Squall,

I didn't closely read your post first time, but I think you are getting a bit confused on tenses.

In English, we have the 'simple present' which acts as a kind of generic tense. 'I leave for NY tomorrow'. 'We meet every day'. There is no problem in combining perfect tense with simple present in either a past or future context.

In an ongoing story, 'we meet every week' is simple present which is ongoing and has no connotation with past, present or future.

Again, to twist the story, 'the old green walls look down on me', or something.

What you want is 'simple present' and if you can buy 'we meet every Sunday', that is 'simple present'.

Go for it.
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