“A tense switch in a written narrative isn’t a minor thing. It’s a big deal, like changing viewpoint chracters. It can’t be done mindlessly.It can be done invisibily, but only it you’re good at it.” from Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin’s handy writing guide, Steering the Craft, is pithy and to the point — a kind of masterclass in craft. Here she continues to talk about switching tenses:
“There’s one thing about tense usage that I could almost state as a rule, but I won’t, because good and careful writers will always blow any such rule into bits. So I state it as a high probability.
“It is highly probable that if yo go back and forth between past and present tense, if you switch the tense of your narrative frequently and without some kind of signal (a line break, a dingbat, a new chapter) your reader will get all mixed up as to what happened before what and what’s happening after which and when we are, or were, at the moment.
“Such confusions often occur even when writers switch tenses deliberately. When they do it without knowing they’re doing it — when they’re simply unconscious of what tense they’re writing in, and go flipping back and forth from present to past to present — it is highly probable that the reader will end up seasick, sullen, and indifferent to what happened, let alone when….
“So it is worthwhile to think, before changing tenses in mid-story, whether you have any reason
for doing so. And when you do so, it’s worthwhile to make sure you carry your readers effortlessly with you, and don’t maroon them, like the hapless crew of the Enterprise, in a Temporal Anomaly that they can get out of only by using Warp Speed Ten.”
Have you ever found yourself lost in a passage where a writer accidentally or intentionally switches tenses and leaves you stranded as a reader? I know I have, and it’s very confusing! So let’s take a tip from a masterful writer and use this technique with care as we all write on!
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