4

I’m writing a short story. I am using the past tense, but I have sections where I describe people and places that are supposed to still be in existence.

Should I continue to refer to them in the past tense e.g., “She had green eyes”, or should I switch to present tense e.g., “She has green eyes”?

I know that switching tense on readers is not very good form. What would be the effect of switching tenses like this?

  • Welcome to Writers. Would you be willing to share a few lines of the story in question? It might help clarify the situation. – Neil Fein Nov 4 '14 at 15:05
  • I would also want a bit more context to clarify where the tense-shifting takes place. Most importantly, I would want to know who the narrator is, and that person's relationship to and role in the story. If it's a 1st person narrator, in "recollection mode," I believe tense slippage can be a stylistic decision. It changes the narrator's distance from story events, giving greater depth of field to those events and the characters who live them. – Nicole Nov 5 '14 at 5:09
1

In narration, stay in one tense. "She had green eyes" is fine, because your entire story is in the past tense — the "present-past," if that makes sense. If she had green eyes as a child but has brown eyes in the present of your story, you might say "She used to have green eyes, but now she had brown." Still past tense, but used to have indicates it's a state of being in the past which is not currently true.

  • You could also use the pluperfect (i.e. "Her eyes were brown, but they had been green when she was young.") to distinguish between past and past-in-the-past. I'm not sure I like "now" followed by a past-tense verb. – Kevin Nov 6 '14 at 21:13
1

In English we normally relate stories entirely in the past tense. "She had green eyes." If she's still alive presumably she still has green eyes, but that isn't the point. You're talking about what someone did or saw or thought or felt at the time of the incidents in the story. Those are all in the past.

Consider, "The house was painted green." At the time you write the story, maybe it still is painted green. But if you write, "The house is painted green", what happens if the day after you publish someone repaints the house? Are you going to recall all the copies of the book and change the tense of the sentence?

Indeed, in any physical description, there are likely some things that have changed since the story was written and some that have not. Trying to keep all that straight would result in a constant change of tenses and irrelevant explanations. "She has green eyes. She was standing at the door wearing a heavy winter coat. Of course as I write this it's summer so even though she happens to be standing at the door again now, today she is wearing a short-sleeved shirt. But on that day she was wearing a heavy coat ..." Of course I'm being ridiculous, but that's the point. If you start saying, "Her eyes are still the same color", why not consider whether she is the same height, or is wearing the same color dress today as then, etc. We don't because it would interrupt the flow of the narrative for no discernible purpose.

In general, just tell what was happening or what things looked like at the time of the story. What is happening now is usually irrelevant, and "now" to you as a writer could still be the distant past to a reader.

The only exception to this is if you want to make a point of the difference or similarity between how things were then and how they are now. Like, "... and that house still stands there to this day", or "She often wore bright colors then, but since the death of her children she now wears only somber grays and blacks."

1

There's some very good answers here. Basically supporting the idea that a change in tense just to satisfy the potential pedantry of a reader is not worth doing. { There's some people just looking for an excuse. "She had eyes? What does she have now?"}

But I'd like to focus on the question of "What would be the effect of switching tenses?"

A judicious change in tense can have a strong narrative effect.

If a present tense narration suddenly begins referring to a person or event in the past tense it has the effect of highlighting a distance. That distance may be either cold and disapproving, or nostalgic and full of longing.

His foot touches the brick, and he knows where he is. He walks this street every day. Seeing these people, hearing these sounds. This is Karen's street. She had green eyes. She had a smile that taunted men. Sometimes he sat on that bench and wasted a few minutes, just in case she had been late for the 8:05 bus.

Without any exposition the change in tense has set up a complicated relationship between two people.

Changing from past to present heightens the intensity of events. I think of Bram Stoker and Herman Melville using this deftly to bring the reader to the same experiential state as a character. (But I'm referencing them without fact-checking.) A change to the present might also signify the vividness of a memory to a narrator.

"Together we stepped into the room. It had been a long day, far too long. She leaned gently against the wall to take some strain off her tired legs. She has green eyes. They flutter and hide behind dark lashes as I kiss her cheek. She sighs gently, wanting this feeling to last forever."

  • 1
    The available range of tenses, centered around the present, can function as a "zoom" lens on the character's or narrator's relation and connection to what they are stating. – Nicole Nov 21 '14 at 8:05
  • @Nicole Nicely said. – H.R.Rambler Nov 21 '14 at 17:41
0

She had green eyes is fine. Readers will undersand that her eye color is still the same since, in real life most people's eyes don't change color.

Maybe another example will help.

He drove a blue Ford Explorer.

However, now he drives a red Volkswagen Beetle.

Well, in that case you could say,

That was when he drove the blue Ford Explorer.

These days he's driving a red Volkswagen Beetle.

It's only necessary to make more specific notes when it is signficant and since eye color doesn't change unless it is significant to the story* then just keep the language as it is in the past tense. Otherwise the switching may confuse your reader.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy