Overview of the Different Tenses

Let’s examine the different tenses. Next week’s post will show how important tense is especially when handling a flashback, but today, let’s familiarize ourselves with the basics.

Tense can be simple or very, very complex—depends on however you want to make it. Simply put, tense tells us when something was or will be done—past, present or future. There four categories of tenses, and each category has a past, present and future tense. This is where the confusion comes in, so let me just show you:

Tense Categories:

Simple

Progressive

Perfect

Perfect Progressive

Simple Tense:

Past: John tried cooking yesterday

Present: Hannah knows better than to let him cook again.

Future: He will burn the house down next time.

Progressive:

Past: John was taking cooking lessons.

Present: Hannah is trying to convince him that pouring oil on a heated pan is not a good idea.

Future: John will be returning to class.

Perfect:

Past: Hannah had scrubbed the stains off the pan.

Present: John has asked for her not to throw away all the food.

Future: Hannah will have gotten new plates tomorrow.

Progressive Perfect:

Past: John had been trying to become a chef for a long time.

Present: He has been working very hard.

Future: Next week, he will have been taking cooking classes for exactly three years.

Confused or bored? Yeah, so am I. The good news is we’re not going to focus on every category, but let’s summarize:

Progressive uses helping verbs (am, is, are,was, were, will be) attached to a verb ending with ‘ing’.
Perfect uses forms of ‘have’ (have, has, had) attached to a verb ending with ‘ed’
Progressive Perfect uses ‘have’ and ‘been’ attached to a verb ending with ‘ing’.

In other words, all three of those forms are telling rather than showing because they make the verb passive rather than active. That is why we try to avoid those and work with the simple tense

95% of stories are written in Simple Past Tense. More recently there has been a rise in Simple Present Tense, but it’s still not as popular as past tense. This is because the roots of storytelling go back to oral tradition, and such a tradition began by the boasting of adventures and accomplishments our ancestors did. No one sat around the fire listening to Homer tell what ‘is happening’ to Troy; he told the story as it had happened. Go to any storytelling competition, and see how many stories are told in present tense.

Is writing in present tense wrong?” Not at all. Simply be aware that it is not the most popular or preferred tense in the reading world because it feels unnatural. When I see a book is written in present tense, I often put the book down because I don’t want to know what ‘will’ be happening. I want the story to be finished and completed before I even pick it up. The past tense gives me the reassurance that the events in the story are the past, and the consequences have already been realized.

Now, some people prefer present over past, and that’s all right.

The single pet peeve of any reader (be it your audience, fellow writer, or editor) is shifting tenses within a story. If the story begins in past tense, keep it in past tense. If it starts in present tense, don’t change it to past because you want to.

What about flashbacks? If the story is written in present tense, can’t the flashbacks be written in past tense?” Ah, flashbacks—a complicated creature, but we will discuss that in next week’s post since there is a connection to flashbacks and tenses. 

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Determining the Person

Before you write a story, you must know which ‘person’ you will write it in. This isn’t as simple as “Oh, well, I wrote a story in third person last time, so I’m going to write in first person this time.” It might work out that way for you, but when you approach a new story, you must listen to your characters. Listen to the voice of the story.

I once co-wrote a story with a young writer, and our story was written in third person. As we wrote more and more, I coached her in different aspects she needed to improve. One day she revealed something to me, “I hate writing in third person. I only ever write in first person.” On the surface there is nothing wrong with a preference of person. However, if that preference gets in the way of your practice of the other persons, then it’s a problem. It’s part of the Playground Experience to play with different persons.

Let’s recap on the terminology of persons in writing:

Person: The narrative point of view in which the entire story is written. There are three kinds of ‘persons’—First Person, Second Person, and Third Person.

First Person: I, me, my, and mine, such as I watched the meteor shower last night.

First Person Plural: We, us, and ours: We watched the meteor shower last night.

Second Person: You and yours. You watched the meteor shower last night.

Third Person: Elizabeth, Samuel, he, his, him, she, her, hers, it, its, they, them, their: Elizabeth watched the meteor shower.

Third person is the most popular choice for writing novels. First person is more common for shorter pieces of fiction—especially flash fiction, but it is gaining popularity with novels.

Second person is the least popular for two reasons: it is commonly tied into present tense, which is an uncommon tense to use for writing, and it can come across as accusing the reader of actions they’d rather not do. It’s almost like those ‘choose your own adventure’ books or short videos. The last thing the reader wants is to die or get hurt in the story, but when you don’t fully understand what’s happening in the story, you can’t make choices wisely.

For instance, there might be a simple sentence in the story that reads: You went to the fridge and grabbed the milk carton. The reader might dislike milk and argues, “No, I didn’t! I’ll have the orange juice!” This pulls the reader out of the experience of the story and therefore breaks the connection.

Some people might like this, but most of us don’t, so when we see a book is written in second person, we put it down. Our life is dramatic enough. We don’t need a book on something we’ve never done but written as though we did do it.

However, every writer should practice writing second person just as a skill to have. The best time to use it is when writing stories in the form of letters although I have read some extraordinary stories written in second person in which I completely forgot they were written in that person. If a story is well-written, the person really won’t be noticeable.

Now, back to first and third person. The main difference is the limitation of POV. In first person, the point of view is limited to the character narrating the story because we as individuals cannot read other people’s minds. Third person, however, can be all-seeing, all-knowing, and wherever you want whenever you want.

These two should be distinctly different.

Or should they?

Yes, first person is limited to a single individual’s interpretation of events and people. Unless you’re a narrow-minded and lacking an imagination (in which case you really shouldn’t be a writer), you can read people—their facial expressions, body language, the aura around them—and determine their motives. The more you know about them and their background and dreams, the more you understand them. Even if you can’t pinpoint their agenda precisely, you can still get the feeling, “This person is up to no good.” Now, apply that to your writing:

I watched Elizabeth stare at the stars blazing across sky in wonder. Ever the city girl, she never had clear, dark skies to view a meteor shower. Her mouth moved with ‘wow’s each time a star streaked across the sky, and—feeling my stare—she caught my gaze and smiled thanks.

How did the narrator know Elizabeth felt his stare? Have you ever stared at someone long enough that they finally turn and lock eyes with you? You never approached that person and asked, “Did you feel my stare?” You know the weight of stares, and you know it is an actual feeling. Apply your knowledge of life and your experiences to your story, and it will broaden your abilities especially in the otherwise limited first person narration.

Now, taking the same paragraph, but let’s switch it to third person.

Samuel watched Elizabeth stare at the stars blazing across the sky in wonder. Ever the city girl, she never had clear, dark skies to view a meteor shower. Her mouth moved with ‘wow’s each time a star streaked across the sky, and—feeling his stare—she caught his gaze and smiled thanks.

There lies the trick. Switching first person to third person without disrupting the flow of the story. When you can do this, you will fully understand both persons, but you can develop each to your preferred writing voice and style.

As an exercise, write a story you never plan to publish. Experiment using each person in the course of the story, but do so in a carefully constructed manner—not merely switching persons because it suits you. Plan it, and then achieve it. I once wrote a novella that went from third person to first person to second person back to first person and finally to third person. Sure, I likely will never publish it, but writing it helped me better understand the differences and similarities with each person.

Someone might tell me, “I can’t write in third person! I like first person better!” Having such a preference is fine and acceptable. Your writing style might consist mainly of first person or third person, but don’t think that you ‘cannot’ write one of the other persons especially when you might called upon to do so.

Remember, most people are comfortable with writing in first person because it is closest to what they wrote in their journal/diary prior to story writing. You shouldn’t eliminate third person until you have at least tried it and mastered it enough to be comfortable with it. If it’s not your preference, that’s fine, but at least you know you can do it.

Punctuation of Cinemagraphic Writing

The use of punctuation in Cinemagraphic Writing differs slightly from the Traditional use. Let’s review the basics of punctuation. 

Period: (.)

  • Used at the end of a declarative sentence (statement): It is sunny outside today.
  • Also used at the end of an imperative sentence (command/request): Go to the safe house.

Question Mark: (?)

  • Used at the end of an interrogative sentence (question): Did you see that lightning?

Exclamation Mark: (!)

  • Used at the end of an exclamatory sentence (exclamation): That thunder shook the house!

Colon: (:)

  • Used before lists or to illustrate a point in casual works of writing: He had three reasons not to go outside: rain, lightning, and thunder.

Semicolon: (;)

  • Used in place of a period to link two sentences together that are closely related: The rain lasted all day; Harry wondered if it would ever stop.

Comma: (,)

  • Used with a conjunction to combine two sentences: The rain lasted all day, and Harry wondered if it would ever stop.
  • Also used to separate dependent clauses within a sentence: Finally Susan, who had gone shopping for shoes and got stuck in the rain, came home. Another example at the beginning of the sentence: Not wanting to get wet, Susan raced to the house.
  • It is also used before or after directly addressing someone in dialogue, (before) “Hi, Susan!” and (after) “Where have you been, Susan?”

There are numerous other ways commas are used, but let’s continue.

Ellipsis: (…)

  • Used to show a pause in thought or dialogue: “It was raining…you know I don’t like the lightning.”
  • Also useful to show the trailing off of something being said. “I waited for the storm to stop…”

Dash: (—)

  • Used to show interruption in dialogue: “Don’t you understand—”
  • Used to separate dependent clauses within a sentence: Finally Susan—who had gone shopping for shoes and got stuck in the rain—came home.
  • Connects fragments to the original thought without losing its impact: The rain stopped—finally.
  • It might have the strength to replace semicolons: The rain lasted all day—Harry wondered if it would ever stop.

I would go into detail on every one of these, but there are some things to say about a few of them.

The comma has always been difficult to master. “Put a comma where you breathe,” it’s been said, but that’s not true. My mother, who is an expert with English, does voiceover, and her coaches tell her repeatedly, “Ignore the commas. Don’t read it like an English teacher. Just read it like you’re talking.” Commas have a distinct purpose as I listed above. Be sure you know where you put the commas and why.

The ellipsis is frowned upon and viewed as a distraction. I used to use this all the time until someone pointed it out to me. At first I took offense, but then I went back and realized they were right. “But I want those pauses in the passage!” I struggled with this and to came three conclusions:

1) Ellipsis are acceptable in any death scene.

2) They are also acceptable if there is a stutter or hesitation in dialogue: “I…I don’t know what happened!”

3) Dashes are just as efficient—if not better—for pauses. Consider this: The rain stopped…finally. And now this: The rain stopped—finally.

If it is not a death scene, but there is a noticeable pause in something being said, consider closing the quote with a comma and then quotation marks. Outside of the dialogue, add a small physical action soon followed by the rest of the quote: Change “You weren’t there…you didn’t see what happened.” to this: “You weren’t there,” Susan shook her head, “You didn’t see what happened.” The physical action naturally provides a pause as well as paints a clearer picture to the scene.

The dash is useful if you don’t know what punctuation to use—comma, semicolon, etc. When they are in the middle of the sentence locking in a dependent clause, it keeps the original thought on track and easy to remember because all you have to do is go back to before the first dash to recall the subject and jump over to what’s at the end of the last dash to complete the thought. For example:

Finally Susan—who had gone shopping for shoes and got stuck in the rain—came home.

The middle of that sentence ‘who had gone shopping for shoes and got stuck in the rain’ has a dash on either side of it. Take out that middle part, and it reads, ‘Finally Susan came home.’ Still a complete sentence which makes sense independently, but the middle part is added to give more detail without interrupting the flow.

During a conversation, someone might be interrupted or simply trail off. The punctuation will be different depending on which it is. If it is a sharp interruption or someone being cut off from speaking, the sentence would end with a dash:

Interruption: “You don’t know what you’re talking about—”

But if the person speaking merely trails off and stops talking, an ellipsis will be used:

Trailing off: “You don’t know what you’re talking about…”

It all depends on the conversation.

The dash has a sharp edge to it and can add the extra little punch or pause to a sentence. It offers a precise tone for the conversation or narrative, which cannot be done with a comma or an ellipsis. So, experiment with the dash. You might be surprised. 

Origin of the Narrative

Last week, we discussed the narrative—the telling part of the story—and I explained how necessary it is. Now we’re going to take a step back and determine its origin—not the literal origin but rather its beginning with each writer. So, where does the narrative begin? Lets consider the general beginnings of a writer.

As a young person, your parents or teachers probably encouraged you to keep a journal. This is usually the first introduction a young person has to writing. It is a ‘safe place’—someplace you can go and tell all your secret thoughts, dreams, desires, fears, and failures without being rejected or discouraged. You begin by recounting your day and how the events unfolded. You capture snippets of conversations you truly had or overheard, and you draw (sometimes literally) pictures of things you saw or imagined. Journal writing is very sacred, and they might never be read by anyone other than yourself all your life.

Then as you get older, you might dabble with poetry—maybe as homework assignments or as mere experimentation for yourself. It’ll likely appear in your journal here and there. The key with poetry is its profound depth of emotion. It is raw—very close to you, and it might be rare for you to share them with anyone. You don’t want people to know that side of you or all those secret thoughts or feelings in those situations. No, you have a persona to present, so you lock them away—howbeit in immortal ink on paper.

After much reading with adventures alongside the books’ characters, you decide to channel your experiences through story form. How do you do it? You choose a storyline that captures your attention—something like a character stumbles upon the truth that fairy tale characters are real and are part of another secret government agency, and everything unravels as the main character (the MC) tries to determine truth from fiction, and so forth. All right, so you have the story, who will be the MC? If you’re a guy, you’d likely decide the MC to be male. After all, you don’t want to mess up writing a female character! The women will likely butcher you if you mess up any representation of them. Women, the same applies for you. You’d likely create a female MC. If you’re young, the MC will likely be around your age—probably a teenager.

So you have the story and the MC, now you have to decide the proper ‘person’ for your story (first person, second person, or third person). Now, up to this point, you’ve only written in your journal with the focus being on all your experiences in life. Naturally that is written in first person, so you’re comfortable with it. That is likely what you will choose as the person for the story, so the story will be primarily from the MC’s point of view (POV).

So what does all this have to do with narrative? It is essential to a story that the narrative be invisible. This means the author must not be noticeable. There are times when I read a story, and I know the author is writing fictional tales of their life. To be honest, I don’t care about the author’s life story (unless I bought the book understanding that is what it is about—in which case, it’d better be non-fiction). I’m an author, and personally I know how boring a writer’s life can be. Who wants to read about someone sitting at a computer writing? There are only so many ways that can be done and redone creatively before it gets boring.

When the author decides to go on an adventure but under the guise of a character, it sticks out. For instance, I mentor young writers all the time, and their first few stories are always about a character of their gender and age carrying out the story. The character has the same personality and habits as their author. This is most evident when the story is set in a different era, and the characters talk with modern dialect when there are no time-travelers.

Author-based characters borderline ‘Mary Sues’—the ‘perfect’ character, who ends up being the most loathed character in the story as well. Why do these characters become ‘Mary Sues’? They’re based on the author, and as a human being, we don’t want to fail. We don’t want to be fooled or make a fool out of ourselves. We don’t want people laughing at us but rather respecting us, and we don’t want to lose. Therefore, the story becomes stilted because it is compromising for a single character, and that is unrealistic. As authors, we strive in making our characters’ lives miserable.

Is it wrong to have a character or narrative based on the author? No. Many books are published where the author is the obvious narrator. The problem? Writers do this when they’re at the beginning stages of their writing and have little experience. This is comfortable for them because of their experience with journal writing and such. When I see a narrator like this in a story, I put the book down. What impresses me more is when the author is completely invisible—when I don’t notice the narrator, and when the characters are so unique and individual that they capture my attention completely and yank me into the story.

“Okay, so how do I make sure I don’t write an author-based narrative?” Since characters and narratives are closely linked together, in order to ensure your narrative is invisible, put distance between your characters and yourself. If you’re a guy writing a story, make your main character (MC) female. If you’re female, then make the MC male. You might wince at this thought, but surprisingly oftentimes men write better female characters than women while women tend to write better male characters. Why? Because in the end, both men and women are people. Down at their core and values, they all have the same struggles, fears, and desires.

When your MC is the opposite gender, suddenly there is a distance. You don’t worry about what people will think of you or if they’ll think you’re the character. Instead, you know that character isn’t you, and you will be more receptive to listen what that character says and show what that character does without fear of you yourself being judged. Once you develop this relationship with your characters, it’s easier to write those characters of your own gender because you have already established the necessary distance between your characters and your own person.

Another way to keep the narrative invisible is to use third person rather than first person because it offers yet another distance. Is it wrong to write first person? No, but it is the person most commonly used by novice writers because of the transition from journal writing to story writing. To become more experienced with writing, you should experiment with all different persons (including second person) until you find which one you are most comfortable with—the one which best shows your story.

When writing, don’t sit there thinking, “Must make my narrative invisible. Must make it invisible. Is it invisible?” Don’t worry about it. Don’t fret over it. All this information is necessary to have in the back of your mind, and when the moment comes, you’ll have it right when you need it. So keep writing. Be mindful of what I said, but don’t fret.