4

Say I write this:

I lived near Les Gobelins, which was a beautiful intersection full of trees.

Should it be this?

I lived near Les Gobelins, which is a beautiful intersection full of trees.

Les Gobelins is a neighborhood and a stop on the Paris Métro, and it existed when I was there and it still exists today. So is it is or was ?

Both are correct so long as you're consistent. Right? It's a style/mood thing, right? Right?

  • Ugh! Now I forgot it! The moment I started thinking what it might be, my mind divided by zero and queried offline neurons! Also related, I think, is "How do we use 'now' and 'then' in past/3rd-person writing?". – Mussri Aug 10 '13 at 3:20
  • That is exactly a key part of this question, yes. I will edit in when I feel like it. – temporary_user_name Aug 10 '13 at 3:21
  • I believe it's slightly different as I've seen writing where "now" is used in pieces that are entirely in past tense. Rough example: "Now he found it. Now he was mesmerized.", or something like that. – Mussri Aug 10 '13 at 3:24
  • "was". Got it off my brain before it segfaulted. – ggambett Aug 11 '13 at 13:42
  • 1
    Is it a valid third option to omit the verb entirely? For this sentence, I would favor "I lived near Les Gobelins, a beautiful intersection full of trees." – papidave Mar 4 '17 at 20:31
5

Not sure if I'm missing something, but this doesn't seem confusing to me.

I'm assuming that the person that "my" refers to is not Anne, in which case it's the narrator. Therefore, I'd say that the first example is more correct. The narrator is recalling a story and telling it to someone, therefore both statements should refer to the past. However, the second example you gave might make sense if the narrator is telling the story from the same location and the corridor is still quiet even today. It's still a bit jarring, however, and I would avoid it. (Perhaps "has always been quiet" makes a lot more sense.)

If Anne is the person that "my" refers to i.e. she's thinking it, then you need to indicate as such, and that will definitely be present tense i.e. the second example with "thought Anne" at the end, or at least in italics to indicate it's her thinking it. The reason for that is because you're writing the words that were thought/said, and those would not change into past tense.

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3

For whatever reason, using past tense with everything became the "normal" way of writing in the West. So always, always, always use the past tense for everything you do and you'll be good. The only exception is dialogue: if someone says "Hey, Bob, I am going to the store right now", replacing that with "Hey, Bob, I went to the store now" would just be confusing. But otherwise... "John was 5 foot 11 but now, through the power of mental willpower alone he had increased his height to six foot four" is correct. Just don't think about it too much.

Of course, rules can always be broken. In this case, breaking the past tense rule means you're breaking down the fourth wall. Instead of storytelling, for just a second you're cluing the audience in on what's going on with people in the present day. "Victoria was really bummed out that the pirates didn't come to town, but if you were to ask her about it today she'd probably pretend not to remember it." Actually I think that was just some weird form of past tense that grammarians have some crazy name for, but you get the idea, I think.

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  • So always, always, always use the past tense for everything I have to disagree with this, past tense is indeed the norm in the west, but present tense is perfectly common (mainly in short stories) I believe that what tense to use is a question of what fits with the story. – CLockeWork Aug 12 '13 at 9:34
  • I'm just stating The Rules. Of course, you can always break the Rules if you want to. The OP was asking how to writing in past tense, however, and, well, the answer there is that if you're going to write in past tense, every single verb should be in past tense. That's not a decision, that's just grammar. – NotVonKaiser Aug 12 '13 at 12:13
  • Absolutely, if you're going to write in past tense then you can't switch to present tense randomly. I'm just saying that there is no rule saying you have to write in past tense in the first place, so the choice of which to use isn't a question of breaking rules :) – CLockeWork Aug 12 '13 at 12:40
  • There kind of is an unwritten rule. People are used to reading stories in the past tense. As noted, though, rules can be broken. In the case of writing in preset tense, it can lend a sense of immediacy but at the same time it can also draw attention to your style and away from the story. – NotVonKaiser Aug 12 '13 at 13:43
  • I'd say that present tense only detracts if the writing style in general is distracting. I've read many stories in present tense and they read very well. I think though that it gets a bit much in novel format and is best for short stories. Neil Gaiman provides a good insight here: neil-gaiman.tumblr.com/post/18733436073/… – CLockeWork Aug 12 '13 at 13:53
1

For the question of mood and style; yes, which tense to use is a matter of which tense is right. A story where a character flees a pursuer is often better in present tense, as it is more immediate and pressing, whereas a story about a person's experiences in general is often better in past tense, as it is easier to skip ahead in time without confusion.

For the examples given only the first version is correct. The second version is written in past tense, however My end of the corridor is quiet. is present tense (as noted in the first version, past tense of is is was) and you should only use one tense or the other.

That said I have written a story where a woman is being interviewed (written in the present tense) and is describing her life (written in the past)

She shifts in her seat, looking as uncomfortable as I am as she continues. 'I was only
ten when they came for me. The sky was dark with snow and I couldn't sleep from the
excitement.'



For the second version to be correct it would have to be written something like this;

Anne fidgets with her hands and looks toward the door, although there have been 
no footsteps. My end of the corridor is quiet.

But then this whole sentence would be present tense.

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1

I almost agree with John Craven -- I gave you an upvote, John :-) The conventional story-telling style in English is to use the past tense. So for the "normal case", just make all narration in the past tense. It's simple and easy for both writer and reader.

So in your example, it would be "was quiet". Whether the hall is still quiet today is pretty much irrelevant. You're talking about what happened at the time the story takes place, not the state of the hall today.

Of course this does not apply to dialog. The tenses in dialog will depend on the context in which the characters are speaking. If a person would have said something in present or future or whatever, you don't change that because you are relating the story as a whole in the past tense. Just think about it logically. If I want to tell you that ten years ago Bob told me what he was going to do the next day, I'd write something like

Ten years ago Bob said, "I will do that tomorrow."

Bob is speaking in future tense, because at the time he says it, it is future. The fact that at the time I am relating the story it is 9 years and 364 days ago doesn't change that.

You can write a story in the present tense. Indeed I recall a time travel story I read years ago that was written in the future tense: The story was written as the time traveler telling someone what he is going to do in the future. It was all, "and then you will do this, and then this will happen, and then you will do that", etc. But the "default" is to use the past tense. Any other tense will jump out at the reader, and so you should only do it if you have a good reason. Also using other tenses forces you to think about it more. If the story is in past tense, then everything happens in the past, and it's simple. But if the story is in present tense, you probably will find it necessary to refer to things that happened in the past, and so you will be shifting tenses, and you have to think about it a little more.

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1

...it existed when I was there and it still exists today. So is it is or was?

Both are correct so long as you're consistent. Right? It's a style/mood thing, right? Right?

I'd say that even though you are right on the last two points (consistency and style/mood), you are seldom right on the first (it still exists today, therefore present). Why seldom? Because there may be occasions (rare, I believe) when you can pull it off on those grounds.

The way I see it, narration should be written in the past.

[yes, I know some stories are written in the Present, but that is harder to pull off and the last ones I did read in that tense didn't work for me at all so... Anyway, 'shouldn't' is never to be mistaken with 'mustn't'.]

If one is writing the narration in the past, using the present will always force the reader into a different shift. That means that it must be used ocasionally and for creating the right effect.

[Do note I'm talking about narration, not dialogue.]

So when to use it?

1. For the narrator to address the reader directly

I lived near Les Gobelins. If you've ever been to that area, you know it is a beautiful intersection full of trees.

This works best when the narrator is in the 1st person, but it can also be pulled off in the 3rd person, albeit it will require more skill.

She lived near Les Gobelins. If you've ever been to that area, you know it is a beautiful intersection full of trees.

Even though the story is in the past (which creates some distance from the 'now' that is the reader's life), if the narrator talks to the readers, it will pull them in. Using the present bridges the gap between past events and the present of the readers. Moreover, the past underlines the story's eventual fictionality; using the present underlines that at least that snippet of information is real. Or 'more real' than the rest of the fiction.

2. To hear the character's thoughts

I walked briskly towards my house, near Les Gobelins. I'd lived there all my life, hoping one day to go away and see the world, and now, after a year living abroad, I looked at that intersection full of trees and stopped. God! Isn't this the most beautiful place on Earth?

If done well, we can drop tags such as 'I thought' or 'she said' and give the thought/line directly, because the present tense will be hint enough this is the character's voice. Of course this approach doesn't mean we write off those tags for good; it just means we can choose between how deep inside the character's head we are.

3. To reinforce you're conveying facts

The house my aunt had rented for me was near Les Gobelins. It wasn't far from the bus stop so I got the map out and started navigating the streets. The first view I had of the area took my breath away. It is this beautiful intersection full of trees and, at that time of the day, the sun seemed to create a halo of sacred mysticism over it. I was in love.

I'd still avoid more than one or two verbs in the present and I would definitely 'sandwich' it with the overwhelming past. You'll want to jab the reader slightly, not jar him out of the tale.

Remember that the story is in the past so bringing in the present basically says 'break time: listen to me preach about whatever'. In this particular example, because the break is so short, it ends up pairing with the previous phrase ('...took my breath away') to help the reader stop with the character and say 'wow'. And then the tale continues in the past.

4. To create a jarring effect

I re-used the excerpt from point 2 for the first paragraph in order to create the right context for the final punch.

I walked briskly towards my house, near Les Gobelins. I'd lived there all my life, hoping one day to go away and see the world, and now, after a year living abroad, I looked at that intersection full of trees and stopped. God! Isn't this the most beautiful place on Earth?

A little voice sneered I couldn't possibly be comparing that mess to Versailles or New York, but my heart wouldn't be fooled.

I am home.

First of all, this is still the character's thoughts. It doesn't change the fact it has a jarring effect in this example.

Imagine this is the end of a chapter, a section or even the story. You went through it all in the past (gone, distant) and all of a sudden you force the reader into the present (now, immediate, near). By doing so you create a movement 'past > present' and, in this case, when you stop abruptly, it's not unlikely the reader will continue that movement 'present > future' and expect the character-narrator to choose to live near Les Gobelins for the rest of her/his life.


To conclude, you can use the present amidst the narration in the past but don't do it because the facts you're relaying are still true now. Do it to create the right effect in the reader.

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  • Versailles is indeed a mess. Don't know if you've been there but it's awful, just a terrible place. – temporary_user_name Mar 4 '17 at 21:28
  • @Aerovistae: I don't much remember the palace itself, but I loved the gardens. Especially if you're a kid playing hide and seek. Paradise. Although the parents might disagree. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Mar 4 '17 at 22:02
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As is generally understood in English, "was" denotes a continued state, at some time in the past. If a place "was" beautiful, that does not imply that it lacks beauty now. It does not even imply a change from then to now. The "was" merely implies that the beauty did not happen at a single point in time.

If you wish to imply that the place is no longer beautiful, then write "used to be." Or, you could write, "back then, it was." Or, a more verbose version might be, "in those days, when I was in elementary school, it was."

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