Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: Writing Tense Confusion

Writing tenses and terms The_Prague_Astronomical_Clock_in_Old_Town_-_8562
© Jorge Royan / / CC BY-SA 3.0

Every now and then, when I’m reading, I’ll run across something that makes me go, “Huh?” I’m not talking about the sort of full-on assault perpetrated by authors who don’t think spelling, punctuation, and grammar matter at all. I’m talking about the sort of thing that makes my head wobble a little bit as I frown and say, “Hmm. That doesn’t sound right to me.”

Take, for example, the use of yesterday, today, and tomorrow in fiction. Sometimes they just don’t sit right with me. And it’s always when the narrator of the piece – first person or third, doesn’t matter – is telling about something that occurred in the past.

Let’s say the story is about an assassin who is preparing for a major hit: “When it came to preparation, Vasily was nothing if not meticulous. He made sure his knives were whetted to a keen edge. He cleaned and oiled his semi-automatic weapon, and then cleaned it again for good measure. He made sure he had plenty of ammunition accessible at a moment’s notice. The biggest hit of his career was tomorrow, and he wanted no mistakes.”

Wait a minute. “Was tomorrow”? But tomorrow is the future by definition. Sure, from where Vasily is standing, tomorrow is the day after the day he’s currently experiencing. But the narrator is standing in some future time in which Vasily’s “tomorrow” is also in the past. Would it be better if the narrator phrased it differently? What if he (or she) used “the following day” instead?

Let me explain it another way. Say Gina is telling your friend Vanna about something that happened a couple of weeks ago.

Gina starts off by saying, “Oh my God, I forgot to tell you! You know the party at Chelsea’s last Saturday night? Well, Noni and Lloyd showed up together.”

“No way!” Vanna says.

“Yes way! We all thought they’d broken up yesterday!”

Vanna cocks her head and stares at Gina. “What do you mean, yesterday? I thought they broke up before the party.”

“Oh, they did,” Gina says. “I meant yesterday relative to the day the party happened.”

“So…last Friday, then,” Vanna says slowly. “The day before the party.”

“Right! But then I heard they got back together tomorrow, and…”

Vanna is now looking at Gina as if she has a screw loose. “How could Noni and Lloyd get back together on a day that hasn’t happened yet?”

“Not tomorrow tomorrow,” Gina said impatiently. “The day after the party.”

“Sunday,” Vanna says.

“Of course! But at the party tonight…”

“I think you need to stop talking,” Vanna says.

Are we confused yet? Vanna sure is. But now think back to Vasily’s anonymous, third-person past-tense narrator. When he (or she) says, “The biggest hit of his career was tomorrow,” he (or she) is doing the same thing Gina just did: Standing in his own present time and referring to an event in his past as tomorrow.

In dialogue, of course, it’s not an issue. Your characters are speaking from the vantage point of their own present day, so they can throw around today, tomorrow, and next week with wild abandon.

It also wouldn’t be a problem if your story were told in present tense. But for sections in third-person past-tense narration, you should probably replace terms like yesterday and tomorrow with less immediate terms like the day before and the day after. Vanna will thank you, and so will I.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

18 thoughts on “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: Writing Tense Confusion”

  1. This has been one of my pet peeves also. I find it a lot. I edited a manuscript for someone and found many places the author had made this mistake. Thanks, Lynn. It’s little things like this that can turn a reader completely off.

      1. And once you lose the reader, you have potentially lost other readers because the first one won’t recommend the book to their friends or post a positive review. In fact, they may tell people not to buy the book.

  2. I see this a lot in self-pubbed books, and I agree that it’s wrong. The one time I can’t seem to find a way around it is with the word “now,” and so I sometimes intentionally let that one pass.

    “What could she do then?” or “What could she do at that moment?” just doesn’t strike me the same when I’m immersed in a narrative as “What could she do now?” But technically, that “now” is wrong in a past tense narration. Of course, a better solution would probably be to just drop the “now.” But there are times when a sentence just makes more sense with it. What do you think?

    My pet peeve: Authors who have decided the past participle should no longer exist. If something happened in the past before the past of the narration, they just use the same simple past tense for it as if the reading public can’t cope with a little “had” here and there. I can understand setting the time frame and then reverting to the simpler past in an extended flashback of something, but to ignore its existence throughout an entire book?

    1. Funny you should mention that little “had”, Sandra. I’m lining up a post on past perfect tense as we speak. 😉

      But back to the matter at hand. “Now” is sometimes a problem, yes, although I’ll let that one go, too, if there’s no other way around it. It’s almost like a crutch word in some sentences, such that the thing doesn’t work without it. (If somebody’s got a solution, we’d love to hear it.)

      Other words along these lines, though, are “ago” and “last” — “a day ago,” “last night,” and so on. The narrator is talking about the POV character’s “last night”, which isn’t the same as “last night” for the narrator. Better to make it “the day before,” “the night before,” etc.

      I’m starting to think this happens because writers aren’t clear about how POV works. In third person limited, the author is supposed to be right inside the character’s brain, looking through his/her eyes. So yesterday/tomorrow/last night/etc. sneak into the narration pretty easily. You have to remind yourself that even though you, as narrator, are in the character’s head, you’re still removed time-wise from his/her reality.

      Does that make sense? I dunno. I may have to lie down now… 😉

      1. Makes sense to me, especially after revising two novels from present tense to past tense. The second one I changed from first person to third person, too. It was an editing nightmare. At the end I was using the search function to look for words like “last” and “yesterday” and “ago” as a last check — and I found plenty of stuff I should have caught. (And then, after publishing, I found more, damn it.) But I think the fact that dialogue is generally present tense also makes it harder to catch those unconscious temporal sins.

      1. Great post, Lynne.
        I’ll think about that tomorrow when I’m writing about the day before the one I was thinking about writing on the Monday of last week.

        Get it?

    1. But using present tense for internal thoughts will work, as long as you treat the thoughts as though they are internal dialogue, and make sure the reader is in no doubt that they are the character’s direct thoughts (eg by using italics. As in:

      World class hit man, Vasily Shotabollokov, took extreme care when preparing his weaponry in advance of a kill. During his first assignment, he’d lost a finger due to a backfire. He cradled his Luger .38 in both hands and brought it close to his cruel lips.
      You will help me take care of business tomorrow, my beauty. Will you not?
      He kissed the stock, caught the hair trigger with the collar of his coat, and blew the top of his head off.

      Boom, boom
      The End.

  3. As usual, it’s best to duck anything like that, if it has the possibility of confusing the reader. I agree that “What should he do now?” is acceptable, as the context is quite clear. Even, “What should he do tomorrow? That was the burning question,” could work.
    Sandra, I feel your pain, switching a whole book like that. I have trouble when I change a paragraph!

    1. 🙂 Sometimes I’m amazed at how helpful it can be to just take that extra word off. A lot of sentences can do fine without them.
      “What should he do?” could avoid the whole problem. But this is why we all need editors. I’ve tried getting by on my own editorial background and the kindness of friends, but I think the next time around I need a professional. (Catching things isn’t getting any easier as I get older, either. Sometimes I feel I have to edit every other Facebook post.)

      1. Especially if I type Facebook posts on my phone. Stupid tiny keyboard… 🙁

        Gordon, I think I agree with you about your “tomorrow” example, but I might still be tempted to change it. I’d have to look at it in…wait for it…real time. 😉

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