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
With HYPERBOLES, don't believe everything you hear or read. This descriptive writing technique means using outrageous exaggeration to drive home a point or entertain readers. The more absurd HYPERBOLES are, the more likely they are to draw a laugh - or at the very least, an eye roll or grin. Stay tuned for four examples plus a quote from the ultimate example of HYBERBOLE. (P.S. This image is a very big, or should I say very tall, hint!!)
This book has ten million pages! Do I have to finish it by tomorrow?
I'll be completely gray by the time you finish eating. (That sentence isn't quite the exaggeration it would have been prior to the COVID-19 quarantine.)
That spider was bigger than a cat! It had longer fangs, too!
The music was so loud, it blasted eardrums all the way from Connecticut to the Canadian border.
For the ultimate example of HYPERBOLE in writing, look no further than the enduring Tall Tales about Paul Bunyan and his blue ox named Babe. This quote hails from a 9/23/16 NY Times article (In an Era of Hyperbole, Paul Bunyan is as Tall as Ever) by Dan Barry:
"Bunyan existed in a world so cold that spoken words froze in the air. He was at least six ax handles tall, and spoke with such force that limbs fell from trees when he called his men to dinner. He once sneezed so hard from a pinch of snuff that he cleared all the timber for 11 miles. And he was so thorough a logger that he turned the Dakotas into prairies."
I hope this post encouraged you to give HYBERBOLE a chance in your own writing! I'll be back next Sunday with a brand new Spoonful of Grammar.
Sincerely and best wishes for your continued health and safety,
Laura Fineberg Cooper
You may think I'm kidding when I call metaphors magical, but I assure you, I'm quite serious. While they may be difficult to master, they possess the power to turn one thing into something completely different.
While similes relate one person or object to another with the use of like or as, metaphors equate instead of relate! Here are some examples:
Stanley is a bear when he gets hungry.
(Stanley = bear)
Tom is a walking dictionary about every conceivable baseball fact.
(Tom = walking dictionary)
This movie is a snore.
(movie = snore)
Maria is a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day.
(Maria = ray of sunshine)
My first car was a lemon, but I didn't know about the Lemon Laws. (my car = lemon)
Henry is the Energizer bunny, hopping from one activity to another before he powers down.
(Henry = Energizer bunny)
Go ahead and sprinkle some metaphor magic into your stories! As with similes, if you can turn your characters into things that relate to their passions and interests, all the better. I'll return next Sunday with another descriptive language spoonful.
Laura Fineberg Cooper
If YOU guessed this spoonful on POV would cover 2ND PERSON, YOU are absolutely correct! If YOU also guessed this POV relies on the personal subject pronoun YOU, YOU are absolutely correct once again.
Traditionally, the 2ND PERSON POV is primarily used in how-to books with names like "How to Build a Birdhouse" or "How to Train Your Puppy." But this POV has been showing up more and more in children's literature, too.
YOU may be familiar with the CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE series that allows kids to make important plot decisions (making them brilliantly re-readable, as kids can get a new story every time). Or YOU may have read IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE by Laura Numeroff, which celebrated its 30th anniversity in 2015 and is still going strong. A more recent picture book written in this POV is the delightful WHEN A DRAGON MOVES IN by Jodi Moore that states, "If you build a sandcastle, a dragon will move in." I don't know about YOU, but I'm itching to build a sandcastle to see if it works!
2ND PERSON POV doesn't need to be carried throughout the entire book to be impactful. In the adventurous PERCY JACKSON series by Rick Riordan, main character Percy occasionally slips into 2ND PERSON to warn readers about signs they might be demigods. In THE NAME OF THIS BOOK IS SECRET by Pseudonymous Bosch, the narrator/author interrupts the plot to snarkily warn readers against reading the book. The fact that the author is an obvious pseudonym creates a blend of mystery, humor, and danger: kids must be brave to read this book!
If YOU choose to write in 2ND PERSON, keep the POV consistent. If you start with the pronoun YOU, don't switch to the nonspecific ONE or any other pronoun. This is because the reader interprets YOU as ME! If you use ONE, it could mean anyone at all and doesn't impart the same impact.
Thus ends my POV miniseries. To recap, I covered 3RD PERSON OMNISCIENT in Spoonful #45, 3RD PERSON LIMITED in Spoonful #46, and 1ST PERSON in Spoonful #47. Whether you write or wish to better comprehend what you read, understanding POV is critically important.
Thank you for reading and sharing A Spoonful of Grammar.
Laura Fineberg Cooper