Writers and readers alike are more familiar and comfortable with this tense. Drumroll, please! PAST TENSE is the subject of today's spoonful.
How can you tell if a book is written in the PAST TENSE? First, examine the verbs in the narration.
--Were and was are PAST TENSE forms of the verb "to be."
Here's a simple example sentence which tells, not shows:
John was happy.
--Scored and jumped are two PAST TENSE action verbs.
Abra-Cadabra! Now the sentence shows, not tells.
John scored the winning touchdown and jumped for joy.
Next, examine the tense of the dialogue tags. Remember that dialogue is usually written using PRESENT TENSE, but the tags must reflect the tense of the narration.
--Said (the PAST TENSE of say and says) is the most popular dialogue tag and barely registers to readers. Books for younger readers use said a lot!
--Whispered and yelled are descriptive dialogue tags (and also active verbs), but stick out to readers. Here's my advice: use them sparingly and alternate them with action tied to the character. The sentences below demonstrate three different ways to identify who's talking.
"Don't forget to turn off the light after the movie," Mom said.
"I have a juicy secret," Juanita whispered to her pal Alexis.
Andy scratched his chin. "I don't have a single clue."
(Are you interested in learning more about show, don't tell? Check out my post SHOW AND TELL FOR WRITERS on the Writers' Rumpus blog.)
Writers want to know: when should we use PAST TENSE? Whenever we want to portray action or events that occurred in the past, whether recent or more distant. How does this work across different genres?
If the events you're writing about are documented and/or already occurred, PAST TENSE is appropriate. If events are currently unfolding, use PRESENT TENSE.
For historical fiction:
By definition, history refers to events from the past and historical fiction blends history with fiction! It would be unusual to read about a known historical character or event in anything but the PAST TENSE.
For other types of fiction:
PAST TENSE generally works, even with a mystery laden with tension or a horror story oozing with terror and dread. For a great example of nail-biting dread written in the PAST TENSE, check out the delightfully creeptastic MG novel SHADOW MAGIC by Joshua Kahn.
Science fiction calls for the most PRESENT TENSE consideration, but either tense can be used effectively.
Dialogue helps books feel current, even when narration is written in the PAST TENSE. It also reinforces relationships and action, and it also helps reveal personalities! This is especially true for characters other than the narrator, since you can only reveal what they say, not what they think.
Last but not least, let's not forget flashbacks. As these reflect a character's memories of the past, they must be written in PAST TENSE. To learn how to effectively write flashbacks and determine when they're appropriate, check out my post FLASHBACKS: A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE on the Writers' Rumpus blog.
Thanks for reading this spoonful! Next up: FUTURE TENSE.
Laura F. Cooper
Don't let your confusion over verb tenses make you emotionally overwrought!! There are a dizzying number of verb tenses (from 6 to 12, depending who you believe), but writers are in luck! We only need to choose from the two main tenses, PRESENT and PAST. And guess what? Each (as well as FUTURE TENSE) will star in their own spoonful.
First up (drumroll please): PRESENT TENSE!!
Do you want to share information in "real time"? If so, PRESENT TENSE is for you. Book reports are written in PRESENT TENSE, as are blog posts and advertisements. I write my spoonfuls in PRESENT TENSE because my aim is to provide current and readily usable information.
Is your story contemporary or set in another galaxy? Do you want readers to keep wondering how your story will unfold or to identify closely with the main characters? Consider writing narration in PRESENT TENSE. This tense is especially fitting when you wish to achieve edge-of-the-seat, nail-biting suspense with the fate of the main characters (and perhaps of the world) hanging in the balance.
PRESENT TENSE works especially well with the 1st Person POV (Point of View) - when the narrator is a character in the story, typically the main character. (For more about the 1st Person POV, check out Spoonful 47.)
Whether you choose PRESENT or PAST for your overall narration, dialogue should be written in PRESENT TENSE. Dialogue tags, however, should reflect the tense of the narration. SAYS and SAY are common PRESENT TENSE dialogue tags, while SAID is the most common PAST TENSE tag.
***Special note: When writing in PRESENT TENSE, you can't have a narrator muse about events that already occurred before the events are revealed in your story!***
PRESENT TENSE verbs and dialogue tags are underlined in the following examples:
1) Cars race down the street, rupturing the peace and quiet.
2) " Look at that enormous dog!" I gush.
3) "Close your books and take out your pencils," the teacher says to the class.
4) When evaluating literary passages for a book report or essay, use present tense. This is true whether or not the author is still living.
If you've never written in PRESENT TENSE, give it a whirl! You don't have to commit to writing your entire novel this way: start with a paragraph or two and see how you like it. Whichever tense you choose for your overall narration, stay consistent!
Next up: PAST TENSE!!
Laura Fineberg Cooper
EVEN though EVEN or Odd EVEN = equal EVEN = flat and smooth
There are many valid uses of the root word EVEN. But EVEN (like its pal JUST) has a way of sneaking into sentences a wee bit too often.
Typically, the intention behind adding EVEN is to impart emphasis.
Below, I'll share 3 sentences and provide guidance about when it's appropriate to let EVEN stay and when you should ask EVEN to leave. In each example, imagine the characters are a 16-year-old boy and his father.
"I moved the lawn and even cleaned out the garage! Please let me go to the beach with my friends! "
STAY? If the father has repeatedly been asking his son to clean out the garage, or is bothered by the state of the garage, then yes, emphasis is warranted.
LEAVE? If this is the first time this point is mentioned, hit delete. "I mowed the lawn and cleaned out the garage! " is more direct and appropriate in this case.
"I don't even get off work until 10:30PM. I'll be too tired to take out the trash when I get home."
STAY? If this is the last point the boy is making to strengthen his case, then let EVEN stay.
LEAVE? If this is the only point the boy is making, EVEN isn't necessary. Try instead, "I don't get off work until 10:30. I'll be too tired to take out the trash when I get home."
"The score was tied at 3-3 even, and I scored two of the runs!"
STAY? Nope! Tied = EVEN, so this is a case of unnecessary repetition. Scored and score are similar too.
LEAVE? Yes! Try this instead: "We tied at 3-3, and I scored two of the runs!" See how the meaning is unchanged?
I'm enjoying an e-book right now with well-drawn characters, intriguing world building, and a fresh take on a popular Disney story. However, I can't help but notice there's glaring overuse of EVEN. So this is my advice to writers everywhere: before you hit submit, do a JUST-check and an EVEN-check of your work!
Thank you for reading and sharing my latest spoonful. It's good to be back! If you wish to comment on this or any post, click on the word "Comments" directly below.
Laura F Cooper
For many months, I've wrestled with whether or not to resume A Spoonful of Grammar. But I woke up this morning and decided to JUST DO IT! I hope my faithful readers have been saving up lots of grammar and punctuation questions for me!!
It's A-OK when we tell ourselves to JUST DO IT (cue up the Nike ad for inspiration). But telling others is akin to saying, "My patience is wearing thin. Do it before I blow my top!" If you want to instigate verbal sparring between real people or fictional characters, go ahead and use this phrase.
Now let's discuss just plain JUST.
JUST has a way of sneaking into written and oral sentences. "Just remember to sign your name" is an example where JUST can easily be removed without changing the sentence's meaning. Isn't "Remember to sign your name" more direct?
When is JUST appropriate to use? When something was recently completed or a person or character wants to say they'll be ready soon. Here are two examples:
I just finished waxing the floor. Don't step on it yet!
Just a minute! I'll be downstairs in two shakes of a lamb's tail. (Believe it or not, my mom occasionally used that expression!)
Now for two examples where JUST could easily be dropped:
Do you just want to mull it over before making a final decision?
Will you just quiet down?
Here's my advice to writers everywhere: do a JUST check of your writing, whether it's a story, a paper for school, a speech, or a business presentation. Don't be afraid to give JUST a swift kick if it sneaks in where it doesn't belong.
I hope you enjoyed this spoonful! If you know anyone who would enjoy this or any of my earlier spoonfuls, please feel free to share!
Laura F. Cooper
As I watched the changing precipitation yesterday, the homophone trio REIGN/RAIN/REIN popped into my head. Gather 'round (virtually) while I provide definitions and sentences for each word.
REIGN/REIGNING = To rule or hold sovereignty over a kingdom or sporting event. Synonyms: rule/ruling, incumbent, lead/leading, prevail/prevailing
#1: Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of England on February 6, 1952 and still reigns today.
#2: The reigning Super Bowl Champions are the Kansas City Chiefs, whose 2020 win over the San Francisco 49ers marked their first since Super Bowl IV.
RAIN = this type of precipitation falls from the clouds in the form of drops
Rain, rain go away! Come again some other day.
There are four types of raindrops and four types of rain. Check out sciencing.com for more information!
REIN = restrain, bridle, or control, or limit. FREE REIN, which means freedom, is the antonym or opposite.
Tug on the reins gently or the horse will spook.
Rein in your anger, or you'll fall prey to the dark side like Anakin Skywalker was.
The rain has turned to snow, and the latest forecast calls for 6-12 inches in my neck of the woods. Stay warm and safe, everyone!
Laura Fineberg Cooper
A Spoonful of Grammar