Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of beta reading a friend’s latest manuscript.I’ve done this in the past with her works, but this time she thought to ask, “Why do you keep changing my ‘here’s”to ‘there’s, my ‘this’es to ‘that’s, my ‘last night’s to ‘the previous night’ or ‘the night before’?” We’re talking in her first-person past-tense narration, by the way. I leave them alone in dialogue or in internal monologue, and I would have left them alone in present-tense narration.
But why do I change present-tense words to the past tense? Especially since, as I’ve been doing some editing of some of my own work lately, I still find instances of ‘here,’ ‘this,’ ‘now’ and the like in my own narration? (Which I then promptly change, but still, when I originally wrote them, they must have seemed natural to me!) And we both have found examples of the present tense in past tense narration in published works. She found one that had both “this” and “that” in the same sentence and it didn’t make much sense to me!
But that’s just it–I guess I change these words because they don’t make sense to me. I know that narration isn’t supposed to be a literal representation of the character talking about what happened in the past. (Who speaks in novel form, for one?) But that’s how I picture it. The character sitting with you now, in your living room, for example, talking about things that happened to them last week, last month or years ago, somewhere else. To me, if the narrator says “here” in the narration, she’s talking about your living room then. If she says “last night,” she’s talking about the night before you’re currently reading, not the night before action that took place days, weeks, months, years before.
My friend says she pictures the narrator like “cataloging” the events in real time, so she’s still talking about the past, but it’s just happened. She’s still wherever “here” is, she’s still one day away from “last night,” she’s just talking play-by-play as things happen, only in the past tense. So in other words, where my friend would write something like:
This key in my hand was how I was going to get out of here.
That key in my hand was how I was going to get out of there.
And if I wanted some immediate thought with “here” and “this,” I’d change it to internal monologue. Of course, this is editor-me speaking. Writer-me sometimes forgets that and I don’t catch it for a long time. And other readers don’t change it, either; it’s not necessarily “incorrect,” it just sounds weird to me!
Have you noticed the changes in tense in your writing or in published works? Do you prefer one style over the other, or haven’t you thought about it before?