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Q&A

Are there any rules to follow about the narrator mixing past and present tense in writing?

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I'm editing a short story that's been written in the past tense, however at some points I slip up and use a lot of present tense to describe some scenes. Thing is, it's happened often enough that I've started to second-guess myself when I edit it into past tense, and I'm not sure if I'm doing things correctly.

Here is an example of what I mean; this is the original paragraph:

I think weakness is the wrong word for it. He's stronger than us because of his compassion. Standing up for and reaching out to someone in need is an applaudable quality. For him to still be his way at thirty-two years old, he's more of a man than the rest of us, that’s for sure.

Here is the same paragraph with consistent past tense:

I thought weakness was the wrong word for it. He was stronger than us because of his compassion. Standing up for and reaching out to someone in need was an applaudable quality. For him to still be his way at thirty-two years old, he was more of a man than the rest of us, that’s for sure.

The first feels more natural to me, so my question is, in general, is there a reason (in terms of getting published) to not mix past and present tense like that?

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A narrator can mix up past and present tense without issues, especially if the narrator is telling a story now about events that happened in the past, but is giving their thoughts as to what they think now after the events have occurred. This way, you can disagree with actions taken by characters, or demonstrate certain actions were carried out based on wrong information etc. It's a very useful trick that can help the reader understand that characters have made the wrong assumptions.

Consider your two different versions: in the first, the narrator sounds like they're making a judgment in the present tense about an event that happened. In the second example, the narrator is revealing what they though at the time of the event itself (or they're revealing what someone else thought at the time).

There is no issue with either interpretation, but it only makes sense depending on which is correct in terms of your narrator's relationship to the story itself i.e. are they involved in the events, or are they telling a story that they know about, but weren't involved in.

The only way this would prevent getting published is if it becomes so muddled that it's never clear when the narrator made their judgment, or if you mix up when the judgment was made and subsequent actions e.g. in one part of the story you suggest the narrator is making a judgment in retrospect, but later in the story, the narrator or someone carries out an act in the past based on that judgment.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/37640. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Stories are not written all in one tense. Even sentences are not written all in one tense:

I think I will go to Paris tomorrow, the place where I was born.

The only thing that the concept of tense applies to is individual verbs.

One of the uses of the present tense is to express general qualities that have no particular point of reference in time:

John is wise and compassionate. He has been an excellent district attorney and will make a fine judge one day.

This usage is what the author of the passage you quote seems to be practicing.

In any case, this is not the sort of thing that an editor should be changing without asking the author the reasons for their choices first. If in doubt about any aspect of the text, always ask the author to avoid resentment and embarrassment.

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