The rule is simple in general: use the present tenses when discussing events in literary works. One situation where this gets more complicated is where you have to switch timelines because, for example, we enter events through a narrator's memories.

I set an exercise about this in an academic writing class, and almost all my students persisted in using the past tense, even after the narrator was no longer explicitly "present" in the event. Here's an invented example:

The story opens with a narrator remembering a snail that he saw on his front lawn. He asked his mother about the snail, which seemed strange to him because it didn't have a shell. His mother replied, saying that the snail was in fact a slug...

It would seem more natural to me to switch to the present tense already in the second sentence. But that means that the same timeline is evoked consecutively by two different tenses, which is a bit awkward. Are there any conventions for doing this gracefully?

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  • You might consider introducing your students to the subtleties offered by perfect tenses... It beats a string of quotative "likes". ;-) – Rob_Ster Dec 6 '17 at 17:40
  • @Rob_Ster, thanks for the reply but I'm not sure how perfect tenses could be put to use here to solve the problem? – user159214 Dec 7 '17 at 9:53

"Use the present tenses when discussing events in literary works" I don't know where you got this from, but it is not true. The default for stories is to tell them in the past tense, or to be more precise, in the narrative past -- relating them as if the events occurred in the past.

This is fundamental to storytelling. Events happen. Then a story is told about those events. The storytelling happens after the events.

There are cases where the narrative present is used -- that is, events are narrated as if they are occurring as they are being narrated, but this is a departure from the norm. This approach can change the mood of the story, making it seem more chaotic or giving it a sense of inevitability of doom. The narrative present obliterates all room for deliberation or consideration, resulting in this sense that things are beyond the characters control.

Note that in your example, the first sentence is actually in present tense (the story opens). So it actually switches from present to past tense, which may be what gives you the sense that present tense ought to be used in the rest of the passage. But the default would be to use past for all of it.

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