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I'm writing a story in the past tense, third person, deep POV. Similar to the first person, that implies that some of the narration can be read as the character's thoughts. Here are two trite examples:

Direct thought, e.g. these are the actual words he heard in his mind:

He stared at the foreclosure notice in his hand. They can't do this, he thought.

Free indirect thought, e.g. this is his thought, or the gist of it, or a paraphrasing, etc.:

He stared at the foreclosure notice in his hand. They can't do this.

In both cases, the sentence is in past tense but the thought is in present tense. This mimicks dialogue. I prefer to use the latter form, because it doesn't require a filter word, and is emotionally much closer to the character.

But... I have sent a couple of short stories to beta readers, and they've been pulling out the red markers about my tense switches.

Here are a few lines they had singled out. I'm going to tackle them in the order of my escalating confusion.

The force with which she slammed the door made the windows rattle. Gosh, that woman has a temper.

The slamming of the door is an action, and is relayed in past tense. The comment about her temper is a thought, and is in present tense. To me, that seems correct.

she’d been nagging him about the damned cupboard door that won’t stay shut.

The nagging is an action that happened in the past. The door that won't stay shut is a fact that is still true during the scene being narrated. It's not the same as the example above, but the POV character knows the door won't stay shut, even if he doesn't think The door won't stay shut. Changing it to say the door wouldn't stay shut, leaves it open for interpretation whether the door still had that problem at the time of the narration.

The final example, from another story in past tense, third-person.

Death, it seems, fears no man.

This one breaks my brain. To the character it seemed at the time, so that's an action in the past. My mistake, I get it. But Death not fearing man is surely a universal truth, unbound by time. Arrrrgh!

Please help me out. In which of these instances should I use present tense, and in which mustn't I? And why? What's the rule?

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    @KateGregory To me that looks far worse than italics. I don't like thoughts in quotation marks at all. – DM_with_secrets May 24 at 20:07
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    I have no argument with that - yet all but the first example feature neither quotation marks nor italics. This is confusing at least some readers. You need to mark it as not-narration somehow. – Kate Gregory May 24 at 22:46
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    All looks good to me. – Strawberry May 25 at 8:47
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    Whichever you pick, be consistent. – Mast May 25 at 8:51
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    This doesn't seem like a tense issue. The problem is that you're switching between third-person and first-person narration. – Barmar May 25 at 15:31
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You do, you do understand tenses.

Direct thought follows the same rules as direct speech, except that it is italicized rather than quoted. The same Wikipedia article describes both. This means it is rendered in the present tense, unless the character is speaking or thinking of the events of the past or future.

Free Indirect Thought follows the same rules as [Free] Indirect Speech. Since it is a summary of the character's thoughts, or words (in the case of Indirect Speech) it is rendered in the same tense as the narrative voice. This is a very common technique in the majority of current stories that I read. Also, I have a strong preference for this style of writing so that might color my perceptions.

Also, this means that an author could write a piece in third person present tense and the indirect speech and thought would also be in present tense. I can't imagine it myself. But tastes and skills vary.

However, some verbs change their meaning between present and past tense

In a few of your examples, the past tense of can't changes connotations. That is because can't is an informal word and couldn't does not quite mean the same things. Can't can mean it's unfair or its inconceivable or it's impossible, whereas couldn't means not possible or failed. So, to preserve your meaning when you switch to Indirect Thought from Direct Thought the phrases might need tinkering.

As I write this answer, it occurs to me that this might be a really good test for dialog and thought. If I switched it to the other form, would it still be effective. This might indicate that what I'm communicating is either great or immaterial or not well formed.

In one of your examples, 'They can't do that!' It has emotion, but lacks specificity — unfairness v. Impossibleness for example. This might give you a guide on how to flex your prose to better communicate your scenes.

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  • I do believe using italics is a convention (one of many possible) rather than a rule. Italics can serve many other purposes, and overuse for a multitude of purposes can be as if not more confusing than not using any at all. – Weckar E. Jun 6 at 2:13
  • @WeckarE. Poh-tay-toe Poo-ta-toh. They are conventions because there are almost no rules in writing, with everything being upto the author or the typesetter or the editor – EDL Jun 6 at 2:19
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There's not an exact right or wrong here, it's a matter of stylistic choices. Your beta readers disagree with yours --that's part of why you have beta readers, but ultimately you're still the writer and the final arbiter.

The force with which she slammed the door made the windows rattle. Gosh, that woman has a temper.

The lack of any visual cuing to indicate this is a thought makes it seem like the narrator, not the the character. Italics would help:

The force with which she slammed the door made the windows rattle. Gosh, that woman has a temper.

If you don't like those, you're relying on the reader to come with you on your free indirect thoughts --in other words to learn to recognize that you're using them without cuing.

she’d been nagging him about the damned cupboard door that won’t stay shut.

I'm with your beta readers here. Shifting tenses takes you out of the moment, and for no particular gain. The last thing you want is for your tense choices to call attention to themselves. If you need a justification, it's because the cupboard's state is relevant in the moment being recalled, not in the present moment.

Death, it seems, fears no man.

You correctly identified your problem --not "fears" but "seems."

Death, it seemed, fears no man

reads perfectly fine.

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    Thank you for the answer. In the first example, the lack of visual cueing is intentional, and a technique used in "deep" POV. I prefer that for most thoughts because the italics can be distracting. – Cobus Kruger May 24 at 22:49
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    I disagree that the italics are distracting. They are necessary as a cue that you are switching context of the writing (from narration to thought). Without that, you're relying more heavily on the reader interpreting context the same way that you do -- and that's not a good thing if you're intending to have a fairly wide audience. – Miral May 25 at 3:22
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    I should have said that they're distracting when used a lot. One or two instances are fine for me personally. The point that I was making is that leaving the italics out is a convention in first person or deep third person POV, where you are in the character's head. There is little distinction between a literal thought and a realization of a fact. I didn't come up with the convention, but I do like it. – Cobus Kruger May 25 at 6:59
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    @CobusKruger If the character is thinking a lot, I'd prefer to know when that differentiation happens. It's more distracting being pulled from narrator to character POV without a tense change. If your character is the narrator, this is different and if not, you're running up against your readers immersion. Try switching less rather than changing the tense type or adding italics, and it'll read in a much more pleasant way. It's the difference between 10 lines of texting and 1 paragraph of text, and presumably your character is thinking more than a single line at a time. – Anoplexian May 25 at 17:01
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Can't comment due to rep, apologies.

It's all written quite well, except that there's no visual cue. The tense changes seem random without something to help contextualize it. If you use italics then everything in your examples would be a familiar approach for most readers.

If they have to learn and adjust to your approach, they'll struggle to be engaged & immersed (which is a death sentence for any writing).

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