1

Should I use the former or the latter in a story written in first-person past tense?

Example:

My heart started to race, my adrenaline to spike, and that's when the thought hit me: I had to find out. I had to solve this mystery.

My heart started to race, my adrenaline to spike, and that was when the thought hit me: I had to find out. I had to solve this mystery.

I've found both ocurrences in fiction.

  • 1
    I've noticed that in most of your questions your examples are first person. In the case of first person normal rules for writing form don't have to apply, as the narrative is in the style of speech of the character. – CLockeWork Jan 19 '15 at 9:03
3

I would always use "that was," because to my ear, "that's" always implies "that is," and your sentence is in the past tense.

  • I would agree with the above, but I would add that "that's" doesn't just imply "that is." It means "that is." I believe that is what the contraction takes the place of. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Jan 19 '15 at 18:16
  • @TommyMyron I have heard people argue that it could also mean "that was" or "that has," thus my hedging. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Jan 19 '15 at 22:00
3

From a strictly grammatical point Lauren's answer is right -- you're talking about something that happened in the past, so "that was" is correct.

However, dialogue is often more colloquial and a first-person narrative can be more like dialogue than strict narrative. If you're trying to evoke the feel of the narrator actively telling a story to a room-full of listeners, you might find "that's when" to fit the style better. If, on the other hand, your narrator is dispassionately and remotely retelling past events, the way somebody might write an event chronology in a police report for example, he'd probably say "that was when". Whichever you do, be consistent -- if your narrator usually writes more formally, dropping a colloquialism in will stand out. So unless you want it to stand out for dramatic effect, I suggest avoiding mixing styles.

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