verb tense: does anybody take note?

I’m wondering how much the average reader notices about the mechanics behind the story. In particular I’m wondering about verb tense.

In the spoken language, a shift from telling a story in past tense to the present tense is a big narrative flag. For example:

You know how I went over to see my grandma yesterday? So I walk in and she looks up and sees me standing there and she says, Joyce, she says, come over here and help me with my buttons, I can’t reach and I’m late for work. And I’m thinking, grandma’s around the bend, she’s talking to me like I’m my mother. Like I don’t got enough problems. So I grab the phone and call the house and I say to ma, get over here, double quick.

This short bit of dialog starts off in past tense and quickly shifts to present, which signals the narrator’s degree of involvement in the story she’s telling. Present tense brings in a dramatic edge.

Now, everybody does this. You do it too, when you’re telling a story in which you’ve got some kind of investment. There’s a vibrancy to using the present tense this way. And the effect is there whether people actually notice the tense shift or not. It functions below the level of consciousness, for the most part.

In writing I shift into present tense for the most important scenes, the ones with the biggest emotional punch. I don’t think about doing it, it just clicks in.

When I’m reading I take note of that kind of thing. Tenses shift, POVs turn on a dime, exposition, whatever tricks the writer pulls out of the bag, I usually take note. And I’ll think to myself, nice transition or that was a little awkward. This kind of note taking is second nature and barely slows me down unless it’s something egregiously awful or stunningly effective. I would like, sometimes, to not take note, but it’s almost impossible. My father-in-law was a structural engineer at British Aerospace for fifty years, and he can’t just sit in an airplane. Everything has meaning to him, every sound, every movement. It’s all noise to me, but not to him.

So I’m wondering if you all (the ones who don’t write for a living) take note of what goes on in terms of story mechanics as you read, or if all that just stays below the level of consciousness.


14 Replies to “verb tense: does anybody take note?”

  1. Sometimes I do take note of it, other times not. I’m not sure if there is any pattern to when I’m more observant…. maybe when the shift in tense or other story mechanics affects the narrative or my reading of the narrative in a certain way. For example, in “the time traveller’s wife”, I was very aware of the tense that was used and its effect. I think the use of present tense (even when the event that is described is in the past) is something that I do pick up on. Maybe because it seems so conscious? Also, I find there is something poetic about using it in this context. When I tinker around with a story myself, I probably am very conscious of it and as you said, I might start writing something in a certain tense because it feels right but then am not sure if its the best one to use in that situation.

  2. I do notice, and I’m not a writer–well, not of anything interesting. But I’m a graduate student, so I’m a professional reader, so to speak, and am unable to not notice.

  3. For me, it depends on how involved I am in the story. If I really get into it and think I am in the room with the characters and want to know more, then I don’t conciously notice verb tense. If I’m reading and just not into the scene, then I notice.

  4. I think I notice the big things, like when a plot line is similar (or exactly the same) as another book, but poorly copied. Or when (in science fiction and Harlequin romances particularly) themes and plot devices are obviously lifted from other literary sources. Or when the dialog is too modern for the time and place, or too literate for the modern setting. Much like perhaps a passenger on an aircraft would notice a majorly *bad* sound like shearing of metal, a sputtering engine, a sudden absence of a mechanical hum, but not notice when the pilots have changed or when the auto pilot was turned off and the human took over. I learned to fly Cessnas as a teen, although I don’t fly today, and I notice things in finer detail on a plane, I can digest what’s happening control-wise. I remember when I first flew on a commercial jet liner after finishing my pilot training, and it was like the veil had been removed – I was no longer an innocent. Not such a bad thing to lose your innocence on, in retrospect. Makes me think about what other things in life have such clear lines where innocence is lost – like learning to read (those first few car rides where you notice all the signs are words!) I have memories of being shushed by my Mom because I read the signs out loud from the back seat of the car. Fascinating topic.

  5. I notice, generally, I think. Especially POV changes, because I had a junior-high teacher who marked down a short story I wrote because I told it from two separate POVs (third-person the whole time even) and she said that you can’t do that. Of course she was wrong; people do that all the time, but because she had that weird idea and because I lost points for doing it, it’s something that sticks out at me.

    As far as tense changes, I don’t know how much I notice those. I notice some but probably not all. I’ve been reading Ishiguro lately and since then, whenever I’m reading anything else, I notice ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, or other textual unsubtleties, as if someone had gone over it with a highlighter pen.

  6. Rachel: back away from the Ishiguro. Slowly.

    I am kidding, but then again, sometimes I think that it’s better not to get a taste for the most expensive chocolate because when you go back to the more mundane stuff (which we all do, unless there’s a very large bank account involved), it all pales by comparison.

    Pam — I was just thinking today that cooking is one of those things. If you really learn to cook, you can’t sit down to a meal in a restaurant or cooked by somebody else and not notice what the cook did or didn’t do. My father had the awful habit of picking up his plate and walking into the kitchen to talk to the chef. Like a pilot sitting in coach who decides to go up to the cockpit to critique the takeoff.

  7. So glad you asked. Now I know why I absolutely HATE ongoing present tense in a novel. My immediate reaction is NO, this was written long before the words were printed on this paper, paper bound into a book, shipped, and bought. I am reading it now; therefore present tense is untrue, false, fake, junk. A novel, to me, is supposed to be a constructed truth, even if it’s fantasy, such as Alice in Wonderland.

    I don’t mind a bit of mixed past and present. As you said, this implies something more than if the whole novel is in one tense.

    Mixed in with the present tense novel is when the author breaks through the fifth wall to communicate with me. Now he’s admitting the novel is a story and not a constructed truth. This technique diminished A French Lieutenant’s Women for me. So there! I’m probably in a minority.

  8. I notice it – more when it’s used incorrectly. Then it’s like a great big red flag, and I often don’t read further.

  9. I am not a writer, and neither did I notice the mechanics when I read, for the most part. But since I began “lurking” @ TTTT, and picking up the odd bit of writer’s knowledge, I seem to becoming more aware of these things…kinda like looking behind the curtain in OZ! Silly, eh?!

  10. When I am reading I don’t always notice it the first time through. I am so hungry for the words and the story that I sometime miss the little things like that. If it is a good book then I will read it over again a few months later, taking my time to really savor it. That is when I pick up on things I might have missed such a a switch in the POV the story is written in.

    As a writter I thing I am more aware of the little things. A story that I have worked on off and on for 5 years got shoven into a file cabinet and completly re-written because of that. Now it is thriving.

    So in awnser to your question: Tes I notice.

  11. After the negative comments I gave about present tense writing and breaking through the fifth wall, I happened to pick up Red, White, and Blue by Susan Isaacs. Although I haven’t finished it, I feel that it’s important to show a novel that, so far, is excellent in going against my bias. It’s quite witty, constantly reminding the reader that the fifth wall is broken, stays in the present tense for the first chapter (Preamble), then moves to past tense for time a hundred years ago. So, in MBA-speak, “It all depends…”

  12. I notice. I refuse to read books written in the present tense, although brief scenes in the present tense are okay. Writing more than that in the present tense does not give an increased sense of immediacy. It’s merely an affectation that imo shows contempt for the reader.

  13. Now see, I’d agree with you on the ‘affectation’ front, but contempt for the reader?

    I can’t see that.

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