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In German, traditionally narrative texts are written in the past tense. When the pace of the action picks up, the narrator can increase immediacy and urgency by switching into the present tense.

Is such a tense shift acceptable in English also?

Example:

Last friday, I went to ... On my way home, it was around three, I sat waiting for the bus, when suddenly a car pulls up in front of the bus stop and three thugs jump out and start shooting at me. I throw myself to the floor ...

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4 Answers 4

No, you can only do that if you're making some sort of break or shift in narrative style. If the story switches to a dream, for instance, or if the characters enter a Fae realm or another universe where they perceive time differently, you might be able to get away with it, but in English prose, if you're not literally going somewhere fantastical, your story is pretty much in one tense for the entire piece.

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To expand a bit: You could add more 'speed' by including more descriptive language in your writing where you want your pace to pick up. Doing so makes the scene more realistic and vivid to the reader. –  Tyzoid Jun 16 at 16:06
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@Tyzoid Exactly the opposite. Description slows the narrative pace. E.g. The room was large and well lit so aiming was easy. With my dark black Glock 39 in my tattooed hands I shot him between his sad blue eyes. Blood splattered the expensive silk wall paper, perfectly complementing the pale blue ornament. I turned on the shining parquet floor and ran out the glass doors, the clacking of my shoes echoing in the empty dance hall. vs I shot him, turned, and ran. Which is faster paced? => The one without description! The less description, the more breathless your narration. –  what Jun 20 at 8:21
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No this is not appropriate in English. However, a common place where I've seen transition between present and past tense is when the story is primarily written in the present tense and then, when characters think about things past, the tense will switch. This has an effect of slowing the pacing down for those scenes written in the past, giving the reader an easy transition between things past and things present. This style of writing can be seen heavily in The Hunger Games.

For this same reason switching tenses from past to present, can indicate that the past was the narrator's retrospect. For instance your passage could be interpreted as follows:

"I was thinking about what I did last Friday when all of a sudden a car rolled up and 2 gunmen jumped out."

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I respectfully disagree with the prior respondents. I don't see why shifts in tense are inappropriate English if used with discipline. It's no different, to my mind, than a temporary shift in point of view. It's just a device. What's important is that the writer not sloppily mix past and present tense.

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Can you edit your answer to give an example of how this could be done "appropriately" and "with discipline"? At the moment this is just an assertion with nothing to back it up. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 22 at 14:20
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This is extremely rare and very difficult to execute smoothly. While switching into present tense when the action picks up is usually fine, it's very difficult to create a smooth transition in the opposite direction - action ends, and you want to switch back to past tense - it's hard not to make it sound awkward.

What is common, is use of ("timeless") noun phrases for quick passages.

The door swung open and he strode in. A swift punch to his jaw, a kick to his groin, elbow into exposed neck, then landing with my weight on his back, handcuffs snapping on his wrists forcefully drawn behind his back, and I stood up, smoothing out my suit. He gave out a long, pained groan.

That way the transition in both directions is smooth and we create the sense of rapid, hectic sequence of actions.

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