Monday, January 18, 2010

I learned, I learn, I will learn: Things got in-tense!

This cartoon has nothing to do with my post, except that I think it's funny given many of my blogging friends' recent posts about their fears that their plot isn't 100% original. Comic from

Before I get started on what I learned today, I have updated stats on how out-of-touch the rest of the literary world is with YA (at least at this conference):
  • My MS was critiqued today (I'll be posting all about the experience on Wednesday, after I've thought about it and looked over my comments), and near the end one of the women - who, admittedly, is probably in her 70s or 80s - had to ask what "young adult" meant.
  • During lunch, I was talking to someone about how Laura Lippman said we all needed to have a novel that was our "role-model novel" - the novel that we want ours to be. I said I've known for awhile what mine is, and the person I was talking to asked me what. I said The Hunger Games and got a blank stare. Then I mentioned The Handmaid's Tale and everything got better. 
  • No comments on my age today, though. Well one, but I sort of said something about it first, and it was a polite mention, not a rude one, or the kind where everyone assumed I was in college.
I am still learning a LOT, though, even if I sometimes feel like not everyone gets me (I do have 1-2 YA writers in my workshop group, though). One of the things we discussed today was the importance of tense.

It all started during my critique, when someone casually mentioned that I seemed to be struggling with my tenses (ugh. I really thought I caught all of them, but apparently not. When I looked back there were so many I was mad at myself.) Stewart O'Nan, who's leading my group, literally said, "You change tenses so much you make us want to stab you." Nice.

But the classmate (who, incidentally, is having a YA novel published in Sweden, where she's from, next year) said something that really got me thinking. Basically she implied that the entire narration, tone, and story of my novel could change depending on the tense.

And she's absolutely right.

I have to admit...and boy is this going to make me sound like an amateur...but when I started writing this book, I picked first-person POV with a past-tense voice because that's what I like to read. I like to get inside character's heads, and I think past-tense sounds more natural somehow. I don't know, it just felt right to me, so I didn't think about it too much. I briefly played with present tense (with the result that every single person who looked at my frist draft commented on my inability to keep to one tense) but ultimately decided past sounded better. That was that.

But my classmate got me thinking: when you choose your tense, what you're really doing is deciding when your narrator is telling the story from. If you use present tense, then the narrator is telling the story as it happens - no problems. But if you choose past tense...well, that opens up a whole can of worms.

Past tense can mean the narrator is telling the story from so many different times - anywhere in the future, really. It can be five minutes from now. It can be at the end of the events of the book. It can be at the end of the events of the book series. Or it can be at the end of the narrator's life.

Now, think about this: if your narrator is telling the story from a time far, far in the future (or even after the book happens) that means they already know everything that takes place in the book. And although that doesn't mean they need to react any differently, that does mean certain things might stand out that wouldn't have if a story was narrated as it happened.

Let's consider this example: a girl and a boy go to the store, and on the way to the store they got mugged. The girl dies. If the boy narrates the story from the present tense, he might emphasize what seems important about the trip to the store, because he's living in the moment. So he might talk more about the fact that they're out of eggs and he's annoyed with the girl for not telling him before they wanted to bake a cake, etc. But, if he narrates using past tense, he already knows that she's going to die. Instead of being annoyed with her, he might point out some good things, too, (of course he still wants to show his annoyance, since that was part of the initial experience) or he might point out how the girl had her money hanging out of her back pocket, making her an easy target.

Maybe that's not a great example, but you get what I'm saying: the tense that you choose has a lot more to do with what sounds good. You also need to think about when the narrator is telling the story from. No matter what tense you choose, make sure you can answer these questions:
  • When does the story take place relative to when the narrator is explaining things?
  • If the narration is far in the future, do you want to play with omniscience? Just because the narrator knows all doesn't mean he or she has to tell the reader. 
  • If you write in the future tense, you are probably writing something crazy, and I might want to read it. Unless it's crazy. 
So that's the explosion my mind has been going through today (along with a few more).  Am I the only person on the planet that didn't understand how important choosing your tense was? I'm not changing it; I like working with the past tense. But I do need to decide how far ahead she's telling from, and what she already knows, just to give context to what she's telling readers.

There were a few other things I learned, just little tidbits which don't fit in with this overall "tense" theme. They include:
  • Don't describe your character's clothes just because; everything needs to have context.
    • Example: Don't say "The 40-year-old was wearing jeans and a shirt from Hot Topic." have one character say to the 40-year old, "Aren't you a little old for that shirt? What are you, going to a rave?"
  • Don't write for people with ADD, but always keep the story moving forward. It doesn't have to move forward like a bullet, it can move slowly, as long as it moves. 
  • A scene ends when a character gets or does not get what they want or need. The novel ends when the character gets or does not get their super objective. (Dennis Lehane loves the ending of the movie Sex, Lies, and Videotape because it ends exactly where it should.)
  • Finally, the quote of the day, "The best thing that can ever happen to writers are the accidents. Don't ever walk away from a character that speaks to you." - Dennis Lehane


  1. Heather, I think a lot of writers (myself included) struggle with tense and it's impact on how the story is told. Great to hear your lessons learned.

    It may also be helpful to remember that POV has impact on "narrator knowledge" similar to tense choice. For example, a story told in 3rd omni, even in the present tense, still infers that the narrator knows more about unseen events or events in the future than what he is telling, while 3rd limited doesn't necessarily infer that.

    So the author has to decide "what does the narrator know and when did he know it" based on tense and POV both.

    Again, great stuff! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Jon Paul, excellent point. In fact, I kept saying "point of view" when I was talking about the issue to someone later when what I meant was "tense" - this just goes to show how closely they are intertwined to me! But I think I was concentrating so much on how the POV would affect the story (and I always knew I wanted to write this story in first - people say it's cheap, but I like to be in Kaia's head) that I never considered the tense.

  3. I thought briefly about tense, but not THIS much. Very interesting, and it gives me something to ponder. Thanks for sharing.

    And OH the YA ignorance. It's SO MUCH FUN. :-\

  4. Wonderful post, Heather. I am soooo glad you are taking this class. I am learning so much - he he! I struggle with tense, too. I have done similar things with my story that you did with yours. I didn't catch all the fixes afterward, either. :-)

    Love the cartoon, btw

  5. I may be in the minority here, but I have to admit to being one of those ignorant of the exact criteria that define the YA genre. In a discussion on one of the forums, they stated that the age of the protagonist was a guiding factor. Are there others?

  6. Tenses...ugh. I find myself slipping from time to time (*ahem* all the time) too. Sometimes I even find myself thinking..."is that [insert word] considered present tense???"

    Now, how sad is that??? : )

  7. Great post on tenses. And the YA oblivion... oh, I kinda feel sorry for people if their lives haven't included The Hunger Games.

  8. Heather, this stuff is so super helpful :-) Thank you so much for sharing it with us! I've bookmarked pretty much every post this week <3

    Oh, and I gave you a prize on my blog... You didn't win the contest, but you got so many points during the process I made a third place just for you!! So send me your mailing address and I'll get the prize to you pronto!


  9. It's nice to hear I'm not the only one who has dealt with this issue. My first draft was in first person POV, past tense. Then I wasn't sure I liked that so I changed it to present tense. But THEN I realized it wasn't enough for the protagonist - for her to explain her feelings, what she'd thought, the things she now realized, she wouldn't point out or share things that were important because she'd know no different, ect. So I went back to past tense again. Boy was that a pain (changing it back and forth). Now I know my WiP is the way it should be though.

  10. Someone in my critique group was like "What?" when I said The Hunger Games and I seriously whipped my head around and said, "YOU don't know The Hunger Games" which as far as Im concerned is a crime if you're in children's writing and this was an SCBWI workshop, but it turns out she had heard of it, she just didn't hear me. WOOPS! Hehehe. Can't wait to hear more. Tense issues...yah tricky at times especially with a first person narrator.

  11. Thanks for the great comments everyone! I'm so glad I could help :) I'm getting a lot out of this workshop and I'm happy to spread it around.

    JP, from an agent in #YAlitchat, age group is usually determined by age of protagonist and age of narrator/POV, but other factors come into play as well. I just write with that audience in mind, so I try to include themes I know they'll be interested in - love, rebellion, friendship, etc.

    And thanks so much Sara! That was very sweet of you :)


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