2

I decided a few chapters into a book I'm writing that I dislike present tense, and that I would need to go back and make all instances of present tense past tense to maintain consistency. However, now that I'm going back to change the tense, I'm finding it is a far greater undertaking than I had expected. This is beyond the issue I posted yesterday but likely related to this other on the English SE which is about a specific instance of tackling present perfect during the attempted conversion.

When I search Google for information on my problem, it's all about verb conjugation. I know how to conjugate verbs, but I hope to do more than convey basic information. It's like how you can start every sentence with "noun verb ____" but it sounds terrible.

So I'm asking for tips and hints for converting a present tense narrative to past tense. That or some external guides/aids.

Currently I'm just going through and changing conjugation, and rearranging sentences as I see fit, but it's really painful to read. The prose I've written in past tense tend to look nicer to me than those I've written in present, so I am absolutely adamant about switching to past tense, and I don't want to have some massive tense shift mid-novel. Well, not the middle of the novel, but a fifth of the way in. However at the same time, the present tense narratives I've written don't look bad. I just think they would look better had I written them in past tense initially, but when I convert them in the manner I'm doing now it just looks mangled and ugly.

Post Scriptum (which ended up longer than the initial question):

My reason for initially choosing for certain parts of this book to be written in first person were thematic. I had a reason, but later decided that reason wasn't good enough. However in the process of writing an already bifurcated story became even more so. One side was being written in past tense and developed a cold detachment that suits the characters and setting. The other side, is in present tense and has a fatalism. One MC is a stone wall resisting by force of her iron will, and the other is struggling just to keep from falling to pieces emotionally. As much as I dislike writing in present tense, it lends itself well to this situation, casting a stark contrast on the two sides of the story while emphasizing how each MC fights against fate, and how fate ultimately has the last word. One is slowly losing her humanity, while the other is constantly breaking down, and wishing for oblivion (as I said in another thread, this is a dark tale).

My point is that while everything Baker said is 100% true, as far as I can tell, there may be good reasons to keep the sub-optimal present tense in a story. I just wanted to throw that out there for anyone who might also be in my situation. To be clear though, Baker's answer is still the answer.

Since crying and wishing for a death you can never have wouldn't have the same impact in past tense as it does in present tense, where all the character sees is the immediate and ugly present full of gloom and doom, I'll be rewriting the past tense bit I added out of frustration for the limits imposed by present tense and just learn to work with present tense. It's a challenge and a valuable experience.

4

One of the great misconceptions is that a story can be written in the past tense or the present tense. This is not the case. Individual sentences and sometimes phrases are written in particular tenses. Any substantial passage of prose is likely to contain multiple tenses.

Stories are written in the narrative past (most of the time) or the narrative present (occasionally). The narrative past means that the narrator is reporting events that happened in the past relative to the time the narration takes place. Narrative present means that the events are being narrated as they take place.

Sentences in the narrative present can contain verbs in past present or future tense. So can sentences written in the narrative past.

The difference between the narrative past and the narrative present is much greater than a difference of tense. The narrative past is reflective. The narration takes place from a place of calm after the events that are being related are over. The narrative present is immediate and unreflective. Things are happening right now.

The narrative past is the default mode of storytelling. Stories are told after the fact. They are a form of memory. Stories told in the narrative present tend to have a jumpy and somewhat fatalistic feel to them. The lack of reflection comes across as a lack of agency, a lack of control. It is a very hard thing to maintain over a long work.

So, moving from the narrative present to the narrative past is probably a good thing because the narrative present is unusual and hard to maintain. But it is going to be a major rewrite because you have to move to that more reflective stance of the the after-the-fact narrator.

Your attempt to rewrite at the sentence level are not working because the differences between the narrative present and the narrative past go much deeper than the sentence level. You have to reimagine and retell your story from a different perspective and in a different mood. In all likelihood, a clean rewrite is going to be the least painful and most effective way to make the transition to narrative past.

So, I don't think a line by line rewrite will work very well. I suspect that you have to reimagine the scene and that the difficulties you are having are a strong indication of that. It is part of the writing process. We all have to reimagine scenes from time to time. It can be very painful. But the pain of rewriting is inversely proportional to the amount of time since the original writing. If you can't face rewriting now, go on with the novel in narrative past and when you have finished, come back and recast the opening in narrative past.

  • I was afraid of that. As you said, it's just too awkward and tiring to keep up the narrative present tense, but I'm not sure if I want to do a full rewrite. Even those present tense bits contain past tense, where things had happened between scenes not worth devoting "present time" to. In any case, this certainly reinforces/confirms my belief that the difference between tenses is substantial above the sentence level. Not really an answer to my question, but still very helpful. Thank you. Also, I like "nonsense" better in that first paragraph. – Nero gris Feb 18 '18 at 12:51
  • Yeah. Frankly, unless I can find some documentation on how to convert whats already written, I don't think I have the capacity to do as I wish. I don't think I can rewrite an entire scene to say nothing of 10k words. Maybe for some, but my stomach churns at the mere thought, and anxiety blanks out my mind. Unless I can get that anxiety under control, it is impossible. The easier solution is to convert two scenes in past tense to present and then keep up with the present tense. – Nero gris Feb 18 '18 at 13:05
  • Sorry to spam the comments on your answer like this, but this is a far more meaningful reply. A question. What are your thoughts on changing the tense at the sentence level and then making editorial sweeps over the text to "smooth out the kinks". Sentence level adjustments don't take much brain power so the anxiety isn't as much of an issue. But it isn't worth trying unless I can also manage to smooth it out later. – Nero gris Feb 18 '18 at 13:18
  • @Nerogris Honestly, I don't think that approach will work very well. I suspect that you have to reimagine the scene and that the difficulties you are having are a strong indication of that. It is part of the writing process. We all have to reimagine scenes from time to time. It can be very painful. But the pain of rewriting is inversely proportional to the amount of time since the original writing. If you can't face rewriting now, go on with the novel in narrative past and when you have finished, come back and recast the opening in narrative past. – user16226 Feb 18 '18 at 13:36
  • Could you append that to your answer so I can mark it as such? That "fixing" then "smoothing" is unlikely to help, that there is no quick fix, but that the process of rewriting will be easier with the passage of time. While not the answer I was looking for, that is the answer nonetheless. Thank you. – Nero gris Feb 18 '18 at 14:13
1

I usually go with the search and replace function on Word. For most verbs you will only need to change the suffix, and then with more calm go trough the irregular verbs changing them to the new tense.

But! Be really attentive during the revision: you will probably find a lot of problems to solve and many parts of the text will need to be rewritten.

  • 1
    Yeah, it's those problems you mention in the last paragraph that are the issue. I tend to have about 20% dialog 10% people actually doing things and then 70% talking about what's going on, implications, thoughts, feelings, et cetera. The way you write that other 70% is markedly different depending on the narrative tense. Baker has the right of it, I just need to do a full rewrite. As painful and unfortunate as that is. Or, I can just keep going with present tense, but my writing style makes it difficult. – Nero gris Feb 18 '18 at 20:53
  • yeah, my writting style is more foccused on actions and talking, so it seems I have it easier to convert. – Sasha Feb 19 '18 at 0:10
  • For those scenes where people were talking or doing things it is, indeed, that strait forward. Unfortunately that makes up the minority of my work. This is still a good answer since it suits some people. – Nero gris Feb 19 '18 at 0:12

Your Answer

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

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.