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I am writing a short story where the narrator is recording a message to his daughter about some tragic event and in between the narration, the narrator sometimes tries to address directly his daughter.

Basically, the narrator recounts his story in the past tense, since it happened twenty years ago, then he shifts to the present tense when addressing his daughter in the middle of narration as if to give further context on the said events.

For example:

What I saw on that night would forever haunt my dreams for the rest of my life. I was at a loss on what to make out of what I saw.

Maribel, there are things in this world that we humans are just not meant to know… things so unworldly, so fundamentally wrong that our minds just couldn’t comprehend it without losing our sanity.

Notice that when the narrator was recounting his nightmarish ordeal, he is talking in the past tense.

But when he shifts his focus to directly address his daughter, Maribel, he does so in the present tense.

Is the shifting of tenses in the middle of narration an acceptable grammar practice? Or not?

Thanks.

  • He is addressing Maribel in both paragraphs. In the first, he is describing something that happened to him earlier. In the second, he is stating facts about the present. – chepner Aug 14 at 18:30
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    @B.L.E. I strongly disagree. The specific grammar conventions of a written story are more than "just grammar". Clearly, every sentence in and of itself is grammatically correct. The question is about changing tenses within the narration to generate a specific effect - a question that is very much about writing. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Aug 14 at 21:17
  • I find the change of tense fine, but the first sentence "What I saw on that night would forever haunt my dreams for the rest of my life." is awkward. Either "What I saw on that night would forever haunt my dreams." Or "What I saw on that night would haunt my dreams for the rest of my life." "Forever for the rest of my life" is just "doubly redundant" if you know what I mean. – JRE Aug 15 at 9:09
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Yes, you're totally fine. If your tense shift happens between paragraphs — that is, the new tense starts a new paragraph — it should be clear what's happening. If this is a first-person narrative and you as the writer have shown that this is the narrator addressing someone, there's no reason you can't shift. People do this in reality in their speech.

What you can't do is have the entire story randomly shift tenses without cause. Third-person narration, or even first-person which is addressing the reader and not another character, has to stay in one tense unless there's an explicit reason (like a flashback or a dream) to change.

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    Thanks for the answer. My first draft was to write everything in the present tense, but it sounded really awkward so I wrote it in the past tense. The narration now sounded like a normal retelling, but then I realize that the narrator frequently addresses his daughter and letting him address her in the past tense now sounded even more awkward. So again, thanks for clarifying up my dilemma! – Jerard Dela Victoria Aug 15 at 8:48
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The actual switch in tense is fine. The context of one tense is simply different from the context of the other.

If the bulk of a story is in the past tense, but the narrator switches to the present tense in a few places, I often see such passages put in italics, simply to visually offset the different context. This can help with any possible confusion on the reader's part.

But while I find italics a nice signal of context switching, it's not essential—and it could also be handled differently. For instance, if you start every present tense passage with "Maribel,  . . . ," that would quickly be recognized as a cue for what is happening.

Other novels I've read have had different characters narrate different chapters—and also had some of those chapters (the characters' narration) be in different tenses.

So long as it's done in a way that isn't confusing to the reader, and so long as there's some level of consistency and order to it, there is no reason to avoid a change in tense.

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    For instance, if you start every present tense passage with "Maribel, . . . ," <-- If anything, I'd say the tense-shifting is a better way of accomplishing the same thing. Repeating the name all the time would start to sound weird; shifting tenses is more subtle. As a reader I think I'd catch on pretty quickly, especially if they use the name the first time or two as an extra clue, and then just once in a while throughout, and keep consistent with the tenses. (Pretty consistent -- it's reasonable to think the character might mix it up occasionally, especially at emotionally intense points.) – dgould Aug 14 at 22:13
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We use tenses to establish a temporal order between statements and from there derive chronology and causality between facts. If you mess that up, no one will be able to follow the stream of events in your writings.

That does not mean that it is forbidden to switch tenses. In fact in a stream of consciousness narration it is perfectly acceptable to switch tenses between paragraphs, and even within the same paragraph; it would still be acceptable in a more restrained type of narration, provided that, in both circumstances:

  • events happening in close temporal proximity to each other are presented with the same tense, e.g. what I saw then... what I did then... what I see now... what I do now...

  • statements about absolute truths are told in present tense, e.g. life is great

  • conditional sentences are correctly constructed, e.g. If I were, I would

  • consecutio temporum is respected, e.g. I say that there are things we can't understand

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