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Example:

Without lifting my head from the pillow, I glanced at my watch. Two in the morning. Sleep still seemed faraway. I'd been staring at the maze pattern on the ceiling for hours, occasionally switching to the intricate window frames, and the floral curtains of the window. My mind always seeks for complex figures and shapes when I'm still, in the dark. I'm not sure why. Maybe my head's constantly trying to make sense of things, even if my body is completely relaxed. It's something I can't avoid.

So after lying there for another hour, I gave up. I dressed, grabbed my keys, and went out for a walk.

So I could have written it like:

My mind always sought for complex figures and shapes when I was still, in the dark. I wasn't sure why. Maybe my head was constantly trying to make sense of things, even if my body was totally relaxed. It was something I couldn't avoid.

I don't mind if the narrator is still doing that. It doesn't affect much the story. I just want to know which way reads/flow better. Does it feel jarring when you read the last part of the first paragraph (present tense) and immediately jump to the second (past tense)?

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4 Answers 4

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Both are fine - which to use depends on your goal. It shifts focus.

Past tense focuses on the fact it was nothing new at that time. It began much earlier and lasted at least until then. For me it's a tone of excuse and explanation, "I couldn't have done anything about that by then". Also, it tells nothing about whether the protagonist fought it down until the time of telling, so it leaves a small window open for both changes and suspicion.

Present tense focuses on the nature of the person. It's something permanent; the reader is left without doubt whether this will change or not. It focuses on the person, and not on the situation, describes the protagonist in general, and not protagonist-versus-that-problem.

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In my opinion, the present tense sounds better.

When I read it in present, I feel the narrator is describing himself. However, when I read the second one, I have the feeling that all those sentences occur only in that certain moment. Not as a "habit" or "this is me".

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I find both versions quite jarring, not so much because of tense but because of tone. Vociferous adverbs like always, constantly, completely, totally settle too much weight on what probably should be a minor thought, an incidental self-revelation, rather than a significant clinical observation of oneself. Perhaps leave out all those vociferous adverbs, soften the tone, shorten the passage, add some ambiguity; eg

My mind sought complex figures and shapes as I lay there still and in the dark. I was often like this, my mind flying far from my inert body in a quest to make the day make sense. I didn't know why; I never would.

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Writers should stick to one tense. Shifting between tenses jars the reader. After all, if you start in past tense, you're telling the reader, "This happened to me in the past" but when shifting to present tense, you're telling the reader "This is happening to me now." It sounds schizophrenic.

I'll add that short story and novel writers rarely should use present tense (A screenplay or theater production is different, however.). In the hands of a master, such as Margaret Atwood in her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it can be used to great effect by creating a sense of immediacy and making the narrators’ voice unique. But present tense largely is an unnatural way of telling a story.

In any case, you can improve the above past tense passage by getting rid of the adverbial leeches and using active voice verbs rather than switching to present tense. The passive voice verbs and -ly words flatten the sentences.

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