Expressing Tone

Hi Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 4/6/2014. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.

After my original posting of “sigh… present-tense narrative is great. please write in present-tense narrative,” a couple of years ago, several writers emailed to ask why I titled that post the way I did, namely in lower case and repeating the main primary phrase. I thought my response was entertaining enough to warrant updating and posting here.

Actually, as is the case with many techniques I use, I stole that technique from television.

In a couple of episodes of Family Guy, the writers did a take-off of Star Wars.

Of course the take-off was pure satire. The writers took pains to point out major flaws in the Star Wars story. They also pointed out places where dialogue began with a decision, wandered pretty much aimlessly for awhile, then returned with a new decision that would better serve the story.

In the actual story, the dialogue was written and delivered with excitement and pleading and firm resolve, as it should be. In the Family Guy version it was DOA, as evidenced by the flat-lined, deadpan delivery.

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker flies off to some star system to study under Yoda, the Jedi master of masters. After some playful interaction, at the end of which Yoda finally admits who he is, Luke tells Yoda he has come to learn the ways of the Force.

Yoda, in so many words, says no, he will not train Luke. But after much pleading and wailing and gnashing of teeth (about a half-hour of movie time, if I remember correctly), Yoda finally relents.

In the Family Guy version, it went much quicker than that.

1. Luke flies up and asks Yoda to train him.

2. Yoda says, “No, I will not train you in the ways of the Force.” Wait two beats. “Okay, I will train you in the ways of the force.”

And that’s what I had in mind when I wrote “present-tense narrative is great. please write in present-tense narrative.” I preceded it with <sigh> to flatten it out a little further.

Some probably will notice that my delivery is not the same structure as that in the Family Guy episode. In mimicking the original story, they began with “no” and progressed to “okay.”

But because most who read this blather already know I’m staunchly entrenched against the inane idiocy of writing narrative in present tense, I saw no reason to do the same. Though perhaps it would have been more effective.

So consider this a revision of the title if you need one:

present-tense narrative is evil. no, wait. present-tense narrative is great. please write in present-tense narrative.

Ah, it was also called to my attention that my posts are sometimes too long (and I assume not entertaining or educational enough) to warrant reading them all the way through.

Well, at this late stage in my life I can hardly notch-up the entertainment value of my drivel, so from here on out I’ll do my best to shorten it a bit. 🙂 Maybe I’ll post a little more often too. Maybe.

‘Til next time, happy writing…


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10 thoughts on “Expressing Tone”

  1. Accusations of being long-winded, eh? Ha ha ha. But I read every post and enjoy them. So what would you say Shadow Hunter is? Present tense narrative?

    • Ha! No accusations necessary. 🙂 I know I’m long-winded. But frankly I’ve been devoting a LOT of time to writing 1000+ word posts. So I’m cutting it back, which of course will also make a lot more time for my own writing.
      No, if SH had been presented in present-tense narrative, I wouldn’t have edited it.

    • Hi Bob,

      A LONG time ago, sometime back in 2014, I posted an article on all that’s wrong with writing narrative in short stories or novels in present tense. The biggest problem is that it forcibly holds the reader at arm’s length. It forces him to be a passive viewer instead of inviting him into the story and letting him experience the story for himself.

      But when I posted that one, I caught flak. So the next post, I titled “(sigh) present tense narrative is great. please write in present-tense narrative.” (That one didn’t go out to my list, so I scheduled it to go out again in May, 2017.) Anyway, I caught flak again.

      In none of those posts did I say present-tense narrative was evil. It has its place.

      That place is as stage direction in a screenplay or in stage plays. It is the screenwriter’s way of setting the scene and telling the actors where to go and what to do: John looks both ways along the sidewalk. The street is dimly lighted by one lone street light on a corner three blocks away. He spots the mark. As he steps from the curb and crosses the street, he slips his 9mm pistol from his shoulder holster.

      Of course, the viewer of the eventual film never reads those words. Rather, he sees and hears the scene and the action as the actor follows the direction from the script.

      In written fiction, the natural voice of storytelling is past tense: John looked both ways along the sidewalk. The street was dimly lighted by one lone street light on a corner three blocks away. He spotted the mark. As he stepped from the curb and crossed the street, he slipped his 9mm pistol from his shoulder holster.

      Consider, when you’re on your way home from a store and some driver cuts you off, narrowly avoiding a collision. When you rush into the house, still flustered, to tell someone about it, which tense do you use?

      You won’t believe this. I drive along the 105 for less than a mile. I look for my exit and I see it. I start to steer in that direction and a jerk in a Mustang cuts me off. I jerk the wheel hard right and almost take out the guard rail.


      You won’t believe this. I was driving along the 105 for less than a mile. I looked for my exit and saw it. I started to steer in that direction and a jerk in a Mustang cut me off. I jerked the wheel hard right and almost took out the guard rail.

      Again, when we’re telling a story, the natural voice is past tense.

      That being said, all writers are different. If you are partial to writing present-tense narrative, please feel free.

  2. Interesting. My novel, Hyperventilated Underwater Blues, is first person, present tense. I wanted to do everything possible to push the pace. Present tense is more immediate and puts the reader more into the story, in the now. I think present tense worked.

    Your example where you are telling someone what happened is dialogue and of course would be past tense. In the story it would be more like this:

    Less than mile down the 105, some idiot in a Mustang cuts me off just as I’m steering for the exit. I almost take out guard rail when I jerk the wheel hard right.

    I found first person much more of a challenge for a murder mystery than present tense because it pretty much restricts you to what one character sees and experiences. My current project is third person and present tense doesn’t seem right, probably for the reasons you state.

    • I’ve heard all the arguments about present tense being “more immediate,” but I honestly think that’s more of a “cutting edge” fad catch word than anything else. I say that because I’ve heard various writing instructors say first person is more “immediate” (a catch word) but I’ve yet to find one who can tell me WHY or HOW it’s more immediate.

      Your penultimate sentence in the last paragraph is a category mistake when you compare first person with present tense. You can write first person past tense. As for the POV character, POV has nothing to do with present or past tense. The POV character is simply the character through whose senses (all five) the reader experiences the setting. Whether that’s done in first or third person (sometimes, rarely, even second) has no bearing.

      My example isn’t restricted to dialogue. That was simply one way of explaining that past tense is the natural voice of narrative. I’ll look back over my notes. If I can find an extended example I used in a seminar I taught on the topic awhile back, I’ll send it to you.


  3. That’s probably not the clearest sentence I ever wrote. What I was trying to say is that I found doing a murder mystery in first person to be very challenging. It was harder than I anticipated to construct the mystery entirely through one character’s POV. All those old mysteries by Ross MacDonald and Mickey Spillane, etc, fooled me. In comparison, using present tense instead of past tense wasn’t that difficult, though you have to be careful.

    I used to have a writer working for me who turned in stories in present tense, and he claimed it made the stories more immediate. I usually edited them back to present tense, though not always. Sometimes the present tense did seem to work better, but most of the time it didn’t work. These were stories about science and technology advances in third person.

    • All I can say is different strokes. To me, the writer’s preferences are never as important as what will enable the reader to be drawn into the story, and that’s the POV character’s opinion of the setting through all five senses and focused down. And of course I’m talking fiction, not “story” in a journalistic sense.

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