newcomer here, and I have a question.

I have a story that starts with the sentence, 'the ocean is vast'.

However, I'm actually going to write my story in past tense form but changing that 'is' to 'was' sounds off to me.

I feel that saying 'the ocean was vast' somehow implies that the ocean was once a vast body of water and it's just doesn't seems very strong and concrete than saying 'the ocean is vast'.

So my question is,

[1] Should I use present tense to describe an everlasting/obvious fact even if the whole story is told in past tense?


The ocean is vast.

Capt. Harris could actually hide his supply ship, the Clement, in the endless stretch of the ocean and not trouble himself with worry regarding any attacks from prowling raiders. Of course if said raider was equipped with the most sophisticated radar equipment that 1939 could offer, then that would pose a problem. But then again, he was currently steaming along the southern parts of the Atlantic, what chances were there for a German surface raider appearing out of nowhere?



If you're deeply in the character's viewpoint, it doesn't matter that a sentence is expressing an everlasting fact. What matters is that it is what the character is experiencing at this moment. Of all the things the character could be thinking about, this is what he is thinking at this moment. So you write it in the same manner as the rest of the character's experience.

The challenge here is that as readers read that first sentence, do not yet know what viewpoint to adopt. They might imagine that this is a character's opinion, even though they don't yet know which character to attribute it to.

But when the next sentence sort of seems to be in Captain Harris's point of view, in past tense, it becomes even less clear whose opinion that opening sentence expressed. It can't be Captain Harris's, because his viewpoint is in past tense. Maybe it's the author's opinion. Uh, oh. Viewpoint confusion. Popped right out of the story before it even begins.

If readers were already in Capt. Harris's viewpoint, you could write the ocean was vast, and readers would get it. They would not take it as suggesting that the ocean is no longer vast.

Actually, I think the viewpoint confusion continues. Until the last sentence, it is not clear whose viewpoint we're in. Until then, the viewpoint is quite aloof. We could be in the viewpoint of someone telling us about Captain Harris. If this were the opening of a movie, all of it (perhaps including the last sentence) could be a voiceover as we watch Captain Harris gazing over the vast ocean.

My suggestion: Leave these opening lines alone for now. Write the story. Then revisit the opening, in full knowledge of how the story goes. Then you'll be a better judge of how to open the story.

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  • Thank you for your answer, I actually have to read it 3 times before I understood your point and I agree with you sir. I think what I lack is a 'transitional paragraph' from the omniscient narrator saying 'the ocean is vast' before delving into Capt. Harris' POV. Adding the transition would clue in the readers that the POV is about to be change from a vast description of the ocean to narrowing it down to one person. I'll consider your suggestion and for now just write the whole prologue I'll visit it some other time. Again thank you very much! – hereLiesThisTroper Feb 14 '15 at 6:19

Adding to Dale Emery's answer, and maybe clarifying it a bit, I would say that the tense depends on the narrator.

If the story is narrated by an omniscient narrator, then the ocean is vast, because that is what the timeless and universal narrator knows about it. If the story is told from the perspective of the protagonist, as he experiences the events, then the ocean was vast, because the protagonist perceives it as vast.

I feel that most writers do not have a clear understanding of their own narrator and switch back and forth between omniscient and personal narrator, sometimes even between first and third person (like Stephen King in Carrie). This works for some books and writers (as the success of Stephen King shows), but depending on your writing style you might want to think about who is telling your story and stick to that viewpoint and only deviate from it if you know why you do it.

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  • Thanks for the answer. Yes the one who says that line is the omniscient narrator. That line is actually the opening line of that chapter and if it was a movie, then it would look something like an 'establishing shot' where the camera pans over a vast ocean (with accompanying music) before the shot changes to Capt. Harris. I think I now understand that if I want to continue with the omniscient narrator monologue, then I should add perhaps a 'transition paragraph' before introducing Capt. Harris. Ok thanks, I'll see what I can do. – hereLiesThisTroper Feb 14 '15 at 6:10

Stories do not have tenses. Individual verbs have tenses. Even an individual sentence can contain verbs in different tenses.

Tom is saying that Jane promised that she will marry him in September.

Stories may be told in the narrative present, meaning that the narration is framed as if it were taking place at the events of the story unfolded, or in the narrative past, meaning that the narration is frame as if it happens after the events of the story. This has nothing to do with the tense of verbs using individual phrases in individual sentences in these stories.

In the narrative present, there will be numerous occasions to refer to events that happened in the past relative to the current moment of the narrative, or that will happen in the future. These are described using the appropriate verb tense.

In the narrative past, there will, similarly, be occasions to refer to events that happened in the past relative to the current moment of the narrative, or that will happen in the future. These are also described using the appropriate verb tense.

And in either the narrative past or the narrative present, there are statements that are describe permanent things, like the vastness of the ocean. Statements of permanent features are usually made using the present tense, since to use the past tense would imply that they have ceased to be true, and to use the future tense would be to imply that they are not yet true. The choice of tense in this case is determined entirely by the particular statement being made and is entirely independent of the rest of the sentence, paragraph, or story.

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