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  • Lyndsey Smith

Words at War with Your Tense

Sounds ominous, right?


Being an author is hard enough. You certainly don't need to be at war with your words. But it's more common than you think, especially with authors who use past tense in their manuscripts.


Now, it was her moment; this was what she had hoped for all last week.


What are your thoughts on this sentence? Would you read over this in a manuscript, unconcerned and unaffected?


The reality is, a few of you probably said yes. And you're wondering where I'm going with this, because you've seen it multiple times in other novels from authors we all love and respect. Most readers are probably right there with you.


But is it right? Is this correct? No.


This is the difference between a beta reader reading your work and an editor whose main focus is to elevate your work. In fact, this can even be the difference between an editor simply focused on a reader's experience and an editor additionally focused on stylistic and grammatical consistency and integrity.


Now, it was her moment; this was what she had hoped for all last week.


The three sections in bold represent the errors in the sentence. Each of these sections represent words or a sequence of words that we recognize as moments of time. "Now" and "this" represent references to the present. "Last week" represents a time that pivots around a present moment. However, when words like this are paired with past tense verbs, it creates a contradictory sentence.


Words in a manuscript are guided by what is called "speech time" or "time of speech." Past tense often goes beyond the narrator's "speech time" and are thus not attributable to more present tense forms. Instead, these words must be adjusted accordingly.


The words most often caught up in the "speech time" and past tense confusion are:


Now

This

Last Week

Yesterday

Today

Tomorrow

Tonight

Next week

Last Year

Next year


In order to correct this and elevate your manuscript, you have a couple of options. The easiest might be to simply convert the words.


Then

That

The week before

The day before

That day

The next day

That night

The next week

The year before

The next year


Then, it was her moment; that was what she had hoped for all the week before.


I would like to think we can still do better than this.


The more difficult option to correct this agreement is to adjust your syntax. This is the alternative I suggest to my clients, both editing and book coaching. Rely on the strength of your writing and description to convey time. Instead of saying "that night", describe the coming night, the dusk and crickets chirping, the stifling heat giving way to a cool breeze under twinkling stars, the neighborhood falling to a somber quiet, the encroaching darkness pursuing the fleeing sun.


Tears of pride and triumph stung her eyes as the cheers and stomping of the crowd echoed in the stadium. The days of sacrificing her personal time and the nights of losing sleep had finally been justified.


Both examples tell you an event occurred that our character was proud of, that put her in the spotlight. They both also give the impression of a buildup over time that finally culminated in the satisfying event.


It is important to note that this does not apply to dialogue. Dialogue is happening in the present of the story and is set apart from the narrative. What a character says is not bound by "speech time". Only the dialogue tag, if one is used, is expected to maintain "speech time" consistency.


Keep writing!


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