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How to write a novel | grammatical tense

Junction 10 M6 Motorway

If you’re following my blogs about writing a novel, you will know that the story I’m writing is about Nick and Lily. Nick’s parents were killed in a car accident while on holiday in America. He took to the road in a campervan and met Lily, a brash American. They are opposites but attracted to one another and so have a love-hate relationship.

I’m writing in the past tense. But should everything be in the past tense? When I’m describing a character I have to be careful with the wording. If I say Mr Knight was tall and had black hair, the reader might assume that he has since got shorter and his hair has gone grey! If I am not careful about using past tense, I could give the plot away. For example, if I say Mr Knight was an unsavoury character.The reader could assume the reason he isn’t any more is because I killed him off in the last chapter!

Mr Knight, walked to the house, with long strides. He always walked with long strides. He had just returned from the barbers, his jet black hair trimmed short and neat  with military precision. 

I think that short description gives an impression of Mr Knight, as being confident. The way he walks and the way he keeps his hair short and neat says something about him. Notice, I have now changed to present tense! I am assuming Mr Knight is still alive and still keeps his hair neat and still walks the same! If I used past tense, the reader could assume anything. They could assume he has lost his legs or that he died in the last chapter! If you intend to kill him off in the last chapter, that could be a problem. Then it might be better to write the whole story in the present tense. Writing in the present tense, is writing like the story is happening now. I’m not keen on present tense, I prefer to tell a story that I imagine, has already happened.

“If you wouldn’t mind mucking out the stables this morning that would be helpful,” said Mr Knight, in a tone that sounded more like an instruction, than a request.

“ I’ll get on to that, straight away. We need more muck for composting. You can never have enough, muck.” Nick replied in a tone that was a little mocking of Mr Knight.

“Golly good,” Mr Knight said with a flourish, as if making an announcement, “ I’m out to lunch today. I’ll be back sometime this afternoon.”

The dialogue is important to help the reader understand what the character is like. In this case Mr Knight is full of his own importance and Nick only just tolerates that for Lily’s sake.

Writing dialogue is difficult, especially comedy dialogue. The whole scenario has to be imagined. There might be some comedy to be made out of Nick mucking out the stables for example. There are horses and other animals and so they might give some opportunities for humour. In one story I was writing, the protagonist looks at a race horse and says, “Why the long face?” It is an old line, but still funny. I can write in a little story about a pony getting sick, to build up to when he’s asked how he is and Nick replies, “I think he’s stable…” It’s not very funny, but  you keep the funny lines coming. Once the reader has read a really funny line, the rest only have to be mildly amusing. A novel doesn’t have to be a laugh a minute, it just needs the characters to say amusing things.

What do you think? Can you think of something funny for Nick or Lily to say? Please comment and share your ideas!


3 responses

  1. Pingback: How to write a novel | creating a mood « Mike10613's Blog

  2. Pingback: How to write a novel | antagonism « Mike10613's Blog

  3. Pingback: How to write a novel | Ideas « Mike10613's Blog

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