I once edited a book in which a mother told a story to her child. The narration was written in third person present tense, but the story dialogue was written in first person and switched between present and past tense so much that I had a hard time keeping track of what was going on.
Writing can become unclear when you change the narration abruptly for no apparent reason. There are three types of confusing shifts to watch out for: narration type, tense, and mood.
Narration: Establish Clear Points of View
One of the keys to clean writing is to keep narration consistent. There are three types of narration to choose from: First Person (I or we), which emphasizes the writer; Second Person (you), which emphasizes the reader and is used to give directions or advice; and Third Person (he, she, it, or they), which focuses on all characters or topics.
It can be easy to slip from one type of narration to another without realizing it, especially if you’re working with multiple points of view.
Example: Witches and wizards will have no trouble finding a seat in Potions class if you arrive before Professor Snape.
Here, the narration switches from Third Person (witches and wizards) to Second Person (you).
(Try not to read this in Professor McGonagall’s voice. I dare you.)
Revised: Witches and wizards will have no trouble finding a seat in Potions class if they arrive before Professor Snape.
Tense: Keep Verbs Consistent
Verb tenses—present, past, and future—set the time frame in which a story is set. Confusing shifts from present to past, or vice versa, may occur when you’re working multiple timelines or flashbacks and you don’t clearly differentiate between the past, present, and future. You might also create this shift if you write scenes out of the order in which they’ll appear in the finished manuscript.
Example: The wind howled outside as Harry and Ron huddle in the Gryffindor common room.
The sentence here switches from past to present tense.
Revised: The wind howled outside as Harry and Ron huddled in the Gryffindor common room.
You may also want to watch out for errors when you use present perfect tense (she has gone), as the past participle can cause you to slip from present tense to past tense.
Example: Hermione has admired many of the Hogwarts buildings, but thought that the Great Lake looked a bit creepy.
Revised: Hermione has admired many of the Hogwarts buildings, but thinks that the Great Lake looks a bit creepy.
Mood: Match Mood and Voice
Verbs also have a mood and a voice. There are three basic moods: the indicative, which is used to state or question facts and opinions; the imperative, which is used to give commands, and the subjunctive, which is used to express wishes and hypothetical conditions. Watch out for shifts between the indicative and the subjunctive, which are the most common.
Example: If Ron practises just a bit more, he would become a fantastic Quidditch Keeper.
Revised: If Ron could practice just a bit more, he would become a fantastic Quidditch Keeper.
Confusing shifts can be the result of writing sprints—where you’re just trying to get as many words on the page as possible—or even typos. These are issues that cause readers and writers to think, “Something’s wrong here, but I can’t place it.” Keep these examples of confusing shifts in mind when you’re editing so that you can fix those little trouble spots.