Saturday, March 17, 2012


Here we are, at a point in time between the onset of Daylight Savings and the Vernal Equinox. This seems like a good time to discuss the concept of time and how time is used, and misused, in fiction. This discussion could get tense.

I’ll start by warning you about the Dreaded Ing. By this I’m not referring to the gerund noun suffix (writing stories can be habit-forming), but to the present participle suffix (when I’m writing stories I get lost in the time zone). It’s sometimes a trap, so beware. I’ll demonstrate with a 55-word story in honor of today, St. Patrick’s Day.

Bad Luck of the Irish
I didn’t realize it was Saint Patrick’s Day until I stepped into O’Malley’s and ordered Bushmill’s. The others in the pub, all dressed in green, were drinking Jameson.
They made it clear I was not welcome.
Hurrying across town to my apartment, I tore off my orange shirt and pants and drew a hot bath.

Okay, the story needs work. But it illustrates the infamous Ing Trap. This poor fellow made a number of mistakes that day, but the worst may have been taking off all his clothes as he was running across town. The present participle, that ing-word, indicates simultaneity. He was undressing out in public while he was hurrying, which is just a little more dangerous than wearing orange into an Irish pub on St. Paddy’s day.

It is a common error to use the present participle to imply a sequence of events. It just doesn’t work.

Onward. Another common error in the time zone is tense-jumping. This hidden trap occurs most often in stories written in the present tense:

That’s a Bunch of Blarney
After work, I stop by O’Malleys for a shot Bushmill’s. For reasons I don’t understand, I get bounced around the bar by a bunch of Irish bruisers.
I hurry home. I have to walk, because yesterday I had loaned my car to my daughter.
They say if you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.

The mistake here is in the words “had loaned.” Since this story is in the present tense, we need only take one step back, to past tense, to tell what happened “yesterday.” “Had loaned” slips us back too far, into the past perfect tense. This common error is one reason writing fiction in the present tense is tricky.

Let’s rewrite the story in the past tense and see what we get:

That’s a Bunch of Blarney, take two
After work, I stopped by O’Malleys for a shot Bushmill’s. For reasons I didn’t understand, I got bounced around the bar by a bunch of Irish bruisers.
I hurried home. I had to walk, because yesterday I had loaned my car to my daughter.
They say if you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.

Well, in this version, the past perfect “had loaned” works. But the word “yesterday” doesn’t.  Another common error: using “yesterday,” “tomorrow,” and their cousins when writing about an incident in the distant past. By the way, look at the last sentence in this past-tense version of the story: it’s in present tense, but that’s okay. They said such a thing on that St. Paddy’s day, but they still say it, and it will always be true (or not).

If, however, I were to write the story this way, I’d be in trouble:

 Uphill Both Ways
After the brawl in the bar, I rushed home. Having loaned my car to my daughter the day before, I had to walk home, and it wasn’t an easy walk, because San Francisco had steep hills.
All the way home I thought to myself: I was never going to drink in O’Malley’s again.

Although it’s technically true that the San Francisco hills were steep on that unlucky day our hapless schnook hurried home, it’s also true that those hills are still steep. So I would have preferred “San Francisco has steep hills.”

Now take a look at that sentence in italic, the interior thought that closes the story. As interior thought, it should have been written in the present tense, even though the story’s written in the past tense. It should be treated like dialogue: I’m never going to drink in O’Malley’s Bar and Grill again.

Are you getting tense yet?

I’ll wrap this up with a riff on the word “since.” “Since” has two meanings. It can mean “subsequent to that point in time” or “as a result of which.” Sometimes “since” can mean both at the same time. “Since when?,” “since why?,” and “since when and why.” The word “since” doesn’t have to be in every story, of course, but the concepts of “since” do need to be in every story. Sequence of events (since when) is essential to plot. And consequence of events (since why) is equally essential.

To understand what I’m talking about, return with me now to the City of San Francisco, home of O’Malley’s Bar and Grill:

Since When, and Since Why
O’Malley’s has been a favorite pub since 1957. [since when] Since it’s next to my job, I’d often drop in for a drink. [since why]
I haven’t been back since St. Patrick’s Day, when I got beaten for wearing orange. [since when and since why]
Since I’m color blind, I don’t know the difference between green and orange. [since why] I wish everyone were color blind.

Thank you for sticking with me through all that. Your reward, whether you want it or not, is one last 55-word story, not set in a bar or on the hills of San Francisco, but set in two time zones and told in two tenses.

Lost in Paradise
Once when I was a kid I got lost at Disneyland. After searching frantically all day, my dad found me with Mickey Mouse, grinning like Goofy.
Nowadays, when I take my kids to Disneyland, I sometimes catch a glimpse of that same lost boy, soaring through the sky on Dumbo’s back, still grinning like Goofy.


  1. Great post, John. Helpful indeed. It's made me a bit nervous about making comments. I do like the first examples because they are more vivid than the last. Losing the daughter, the car and the steep hills just makes it for drier writing. It lost a bit of the blarney but what an excellent lesson.

  2. Thanks, Theresa. Yes, I agree that the story lost steam as it got more complicated and involved different themes and plot lines. They all just came off the top of my head, and were meant more to illustrate the points I was making than to entertain. Shame on me. The writer's first duty is to entertain!

  3. Interesting post, John. It makes me question every word I write which, I suppose, is a good thing.

    1. Pat, I don't wish to make you question every word you write. Write freely and enjoy the process. Then comes the time to go over your work, revising and refining it and taking care of the details. That too is a process to enjoy.

  4. You made some excellent points, John, and knowing me I'll find myself watching for these points while I write. By the way, I wondered about the orange clothes, and really appreciated that you cleared it up with his vision problem.

    1. Thanks, Marja. I don't know where those orange clothes came from, and I don't know how I had the audacity to excuse such an improbability by having the guy color blind. That's what comes of writing stories on a deadline!

  5. As a grammar geek, I very much enjoyed this post. Both Mickey and Dumbo's back, grinning like Goofy!

    I have made the San-Francisco-had-steep-hill mistake often -- hadn't thought about it till now. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Melanie. I think it's a good thing to grin like Goofy whenever possible and appropriate.

  6. Ah, yes, the tenses. In my classes and in my editing of other writer's work this is a constant issue. Your comments and examples are right on. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Thanks, Eileen. I see tense errors in many published books, even published by major league houses, and written by critically acclaimed writers. I suppose I am a fussbudget about this and should lighten up, but I want to defend the ramparts of the English language.