We’re going to start with the PREMISE that TENSE is our friend in our literary efforts.
Trust me, it is. This is the first in a series discussing the most common forms of Tense:
Past, Present, Future, Speculative
The word “subjunctive” gives me brain freeze, and since many experts on English Language and Usage Stack Exchange agree it’s similar to “simple past,” let’s just go with that.
It’s still enough to give me a headache, but it's necessary to understand that Tense is a style that is best served separated. In narrative, particularly fiction, CONTINUITY and FLOW are vital, crucial, of utmost importance as the best way to tell and read a story. USING PAST TENSE DOES NOT relegate or confine activity to a period of time, such as then and now.
Some good sites to visit:
The most simplistic way I know of sharing these differences may create some discussion in the audience—for which I say, Let’s!
ORDINARY /SIMPLE PAST, PERFECT PAST,
As long as I’ve been writing professionally, there have been differences of opinion about method and style of grammar, punctuation, and usage. The more people publish, the more we’ll slide toward a common ground. I have learned after many years to ask, “Specifically, where did you get that information?” when some writer says, “I was told/learned, I heard/my editor said/had me...” But for now, here are the scholarly differences.
Simple (Ordinary) Past Tense: Reporting an action that is finished:
e.g., I ate. /I ate dinner.
Perfect Past Tense: Here’s where that pesky HAD comes into play. When you see a sentence with “had” in front of the verb, it’s most likely the perfect (complete) form if the sentence is using proper grammar. We put that “had” in a complex sentence to show a time reference of two or more events that happened in the past, and one came before the other—even if the events are assumed. For example: But I had already eaten. (Assumes a question or thought about another event: i.e., I had already eaten before I arrived.) SOOOOO—if you hear anyone telling you to take out all the “had”s in your narrative, he or she is probably WRONG.
Hypothetical or Speculative Past Tense: Discusses “IF” Subject/verb past tense. – Something that did not happen/ or probably would not happen/never could have happened, no matter how much I wanted it to happen. i.e., “If humans had gills, they could live in the ocean.”
If I had wanted to eat dinner with you, I would have come earlier.
My mother must have been Vulcan if you believed she had green blood.
NOTE: you will often use the hypothetical “would” and “could” in this sentence structure WHEN there’s speculation involved. When there’s no speculation (if this, then that) I tell my clients these terms are generally considered cushions/fluff/ or speed bumps that can come out, as they weaken the sentence and take the place of a strong verb. Examples I see often include: “I could hear singing from the other side of the wall.” There’s no speculation here—Just write, “I heard singing from the other side of the wall.” Or make it active: “I listened to singing from the other side of the wall.” On the other hand, making it perfect speculative past would be something like, "I could have heard the singing better if the wall wasn't in the way."
Dialog tags will be in this format:
,” he said. (told me, etc.: whined, screeched, called...anything that denotes speech, and speech only)
Example: He jogged down the sidewalk, skipped the cracks, and slid to a halt in front of Darla’s where he inhaled Peruvian ground beans with a hint of...was that cocoa? He opened the door and slipped inside. “Hi, Darla,” he said.
,” he thought. (AND PLEASE don’t add “to himself” or “in his head/mind/heart/throat/gut/soles unless you are writing spec and there is more than one entity of different genders in there)
Example: And if Jennifer was already at Darla’s, he would get up the nerve to sit with her this time, he thought.
Sometimes I see writers using contractions everywhere, in narrative as well as dialog. They may write: And if Jennifer's already at Darla’s, he would get up the nerve to sit with her this time, he thought. WHY IT'S WRONG: the contraction, Jennifer's, infers Jennifer is, instead of Jennifer was. Use contractions in Dialog, where you should use present tense when speaking in the here and now. More of that next time.