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When is it appropriate to switch between past tense and historical present tense when telling a story in first person? Should we try to keep the same tense throughout, or can narration be in historical present while reflection is in past?

For example, is the below passage acceptable? If not, I'm not sure what I could replace the past tense with to carry the same intent.


(historical present)

A thin, frail lady, at least sixty, stands next to the car. She is dripping with sweat, holding a child in her arms. She knocks on the window, puts her hands out and stares at us, hopeful to receive a coin. My uncle callously tells her to move and continues going his way. I, however, can’t get the image out of my head. Here I am, in an air-conditioned car, complaining about heat, while that lady begs the passers-by for her child’s next meal.

“Why did you just leave?!” I challenge my uncle.

“If I gave money to every beggar out there, we would have nothing. They are just unlucky to have never gotten a proper education,” he replies casually.

(past)

It was at that moment I understood how privileged I was to have the luxuries of an American life. It was at that moment that I swore to take advantage of my rare education and one day give others the same opportunities. My education became the only thing I knew I would never lose. I was nine years old.

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It is perfectly acceptable to switch tenses generally, using each as it is appropriate to the thought being expressed.

One thing to note in regard to tenses is that the choice of tense has nothing directly to do with past, present, and future time. Rather, they have to do with events relative to the narrative point in time. Thus I might say,

Caesar crosses the Rubicon in 49BC. He will go on to make himself Emperor of Rome.

The events reported are long in the past, but the sentences are in the present and future tenses respectively.

Of course, the writer could have written in the past tense,

Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49BC. He went on to make himself Emperor of Rome.

The difference between the two is what we might call temporal point of view. In the past tense version, the narrative's temporal pointer moves forward leaving the reader in the time of Caesar's Imperium. The first version, though, fixes the temporal POV at the crossing of the Rubicon, at the moment of rebellion. The future tense sentence tells us why this moment is significant, but does not invite us to move on from the moment of the crossing.

The use of the present in fiction tends to focus us on the immediacy of experience, a kind of frozen present. The use of past tend to focus us on causality, on one event leading to the next (which is the normal mode of a story; stories are about causes and consequences).

Notice that in your example the effect of the frozen present is fractured by " I, however, can’t get the image out of my head." Getting an image out of your head is something that occurs with the passage of time, after the scene itself has passed out of sight. This phrase restarts the clock, forcing the reader to move on from the image of the lady with the child in her arms.

Prolonged passages of present tense are difficult for this reason. They tend to defy causality and portray a kind of fatalism. There is not this-because-this-and-therefore-this, only this and this and this, ineluctably.

So, acceptable, certainly, but difficult to do well.

  • 1
    Although I don't agree that is 'perfectly acceptable to switch tenses generally', I do agree with many of the other comments you have made and so have upvoted your answer. I would say: 'Stick to one tense unless you have a good reason to change. What is that good reason?'. Having said that, I have taught students to use the historic present. – S. Mitchell Jul 4 '17 at 19:48
  • @S.Mitchell, I don't see the point of disagreement.I think we are both saying that it is ok to change tense when it is appropriate to do so. Which, is actually a tautology on both our parts: it is ok when it is ok. By generally I mean that changing tenses is a normal part of writing, not that it should be done willy nilly. Everything is done for effect and you should do the thing the achieves the effect your want as and when you want that effect. – user16226 Jul 4 '17 at 19:53
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I do not consider the part above labeled as 'historical present tense' to be actually historical present tense. To me, that is simple present tense, which I also think never works well in fiction.

The first problem there is 'a lady stands' which is truly simple present tense. That might work for 3rd-p, but in 1st-p the narrator is the viewpoint character, an observer, and 'a lady is standing' more precisely reflects an observation. 'A lady stands' is ambiguous, because not only could that be an observation, it could also be an omni-delivered fact not related to any observation, which is common in 3rd-p, yet not in 1st-p that is well-written. Also, it breaks the parallelism with 'dripping' and 'holding'.

The point of HPT is not to use present tense verbs, it is to place the reader in the same temporal position as the narrator/observer by using both present and past tense verbs depending on the event being described. 'Knocks', 'puts', and 'stares' are simple present tense verbs here. In HPT, these are typically replaced with past tense verbs: 'She knocked on the window'. This is also not simple past tense, this is a reflection of the immediate past relative to the temporal position of the observer (and reader), which is directly in the action in the scene rather than 'later', as it would be in simple past tense.

The knock was an incidental event. it occurred, and is over, from the point of view of the temporal position of the narrator. For the sake of argument, let's assume that instead, the lady kept knocking repeatedly on the window. In that case, it is not an incidental event, it's an ongoing condition relative to the narrator, and so would take a present tense verb, such as "She is knocking". The point is, the temporal position of the narrator and reader remain fixed within the scene, regardless of whether the verbs used are past tense (for incidental events) or present tense (for ongoing conditions). 'Dripping with sweat' and 'holding a baby' are also ongoing conditions relative to the observer, so those take present tense as well.

In other words, nothing that is an event that begins and ends and is reported to the reader by the narrator should take a simple present tense verb, because for any incidental event to be observed, it must have already happened, placing it in the observer's immediate past, therefore taking a past tense verb, relative to the temporal position of the reader and narrator.

The event is in the immediate past, but the temporal position of the observer/narrator and the reader are still in the moment just after this has occurred, which is known as the historical present.

This is also different from simple present tense, because simple present tense locks everything rigidly into the present. That doesn't really work, because to navigate the world, we constantly regard what has just happened, the immediate past, as well as predict the immediate future. We exist in the present, of course, but we also are cognizant of recent events and of what we think might happen next. So simple present tense is not natural to the real world as we navigate it.

But this is tricky to pull off. The other commenter is correct that 'I can't get this out of my head' somewhat moves the temporal pointer to a different point in time, pushing what was HPT into the past, and thereby undermining the goal of keeping the temporal position oriented close to the actual events as they happen.

The D-tag 'I challenge my uncle' is also simple past tense and not HPT, because it follows a line of dialog, and the key word there is 'follows'. In other words, the question the narrator asked their uncle has already been asked, so it is an event that is now in the immediate past, and takes a past tense verb: 'challenged', in order to preserve the temporal position and be considered HPT.

Unfortunately, not much works here.

The last paragraph, in past tense, can legitimately follow the previous ones (assuming they adhered to HPT and not simple present tense), but it is a definite shift in the temporal position for both the narrator and reader, so it will be jarring without a soft scene break, such as having a second carriage return is placed before it.

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Changing the tense in a text can be pretty jarring for the reader. It will most likely come across as a grammatical error/omission.

I can only come up with two reasons I would use different tense in a text:

Flashbacks

If your main narrative is in one tense, changing to another for a flashback makes it easier for the reader to realize there has been a jump in time (apart from everything else you should do to mark the beginning and end of a flashback).

Different POVs

If you have more than one POV character in the story you might write them in different tenses, however, then I recommend only one POV per scene (i.e. no tense-changes in a scene unless it's for a flashback).

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