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This Versus That and Then Versus Now

I recently took a close look at the question of when to use “this” and when to use “that” in fiction. A great deal of confusion surrounds this question, and I’ve been advised by numerous people that I’m doing it wrong. I respectfully disagree.

We learn in grade school that “this” is nearby, and “that” is farther away (distance being measured either in space or in time). I doubt anyone will argue against that.

The confusion arises when the narrator is talking about something that happened to her in the past. Here’s an example from the novel I’m currently working on:

“Viviane,” Simon said near my shoulder. “I’m serious. Stop. Please.”

This time, I did. I stopped just outside. After a deep breath, I peeked into the room, and the mist woman was there.

Personally, the use of “this” in the example above, bugs me. It feels incorrect. I think it should go like this:

“Viviane,” Simon said near my shoulder. “I’m serious. Stop. Please.”

That time, I did. I stopped just outside. After a deep breath, I peeked into the room, and the mist woman was there.

First Person, Past Tense
Point of view and tense add to the confusion. Which word you choose varies based on the point of view and tense in which you’re writing. For example, the novel I’m working on is in first person, in past tense. Therefore, the narrator is looking back and narrating events that happened in the past. The narrator has distance from the event. Distance = “that”. Thus, why I prefer “that” over “this” in the examples above.

Third Person, Past Tense
If, however, the novel were in third person omniscient, I’d choose “this.” Like so:

“Viviane,” Simon said near her shoulder. “I’m serious. Stop. Please.”

This time, she did. She stopped just outside.

In this example, we are right there with the omniscient narrator, watching over the character’s shoulder as she acts. There’s no narrator and no more than a few seconds between us and Viviane. Either way, what matters is that we are experiencing the events as the characters do. We are not hearing the story from the future, but rather watching as it unfolds. Proximity = this.

First Person, Present Tense
Alternately, if the story were written in first person, in present tense, I’d also use “this.” Like so:

“Viviane,” Simon says near my shoulder. “I’m serious. Stop. Please.”

This time, I do. I stop just outside.

Intimacy
I’ve been told that using “this” produces a sense of intimacy for the reader that is lost with “that.” And I agree. However, I view the lost intimacy as just another trade-off that I’m making with my choice to employ a first-person narrator, and it’s not the only thing I lose.

When you utilize a first-person narrator, your reader knows that the narrator had to survive the tale (usually) in order to be telling it to you. It eliminates some of the tension. In addition, you lose a great deal of information because the first-person narrator has a limited field of vision on events. But, that’s a topic for another post.

Now and Then
The logic above also applies to the words “now” and “then.” In grade school, we learned that “now” is immediate, and “then” is in the past or future.

I’ve seen many writers utilize “now” in a first-person, past-tense narrative. It just feels wrong to me. It’s a break in the point of view. Let me give you some examples.

I waved my hand over a hat, and a rabbit appeared. I waved it again, and now I had two rabbits.

Rather, I would write it:

I waved my hand over the hat, and a rabbit appeared. I waved it again, and then I had two rabbits.

Again, it’s the distance that matters. A first-person/past narrator is distanced from the action by the very nature of first-person/past narrative.

Alternately, if it were in third person ominiscient PoV, I’d do it like this:

The magician waved his hand over the hat, and a rabbit appeared. He waved it again, and now he had two rabbits.

The reader is standing right there with the magician, experiencing events as they unfold. The above example could go either way, actually.

Even clearer is present tense:

The magician waves his hand over the hat, and a rabbit appears. He waves it again, and now he has two rabbits.

TIP: If you’re having a hard time evaluating whether you should use “now” or “then,” try adding in an appropriate time qualifier to help you with the point of view (and you can take it back out afterward):

  • In those days,
  • When I was (a kid, in love, lost, etc.)…
  • Before (I left, he died, breakfast)
  • After (the war, graduation, my divorce)

When I was a kid, I waved my hand over the hat, and a rabbit appeared. I waved it again, and now I had two rabbits.

That just doesn’t sound right at all, and now it’s more clear to me that I should use “then.”

Evolving Language
I’ve been hesitant to say that writers are using “this”, “that”, “now”, and “then” incorrectly because it seems to be so common a misuse. I’d begun to wonder if perhaps I was witnessing a popular-use shift in our language. I see it in many of the books I read, and I’ve had writers and editors I respect tell me I’m doing it wrong. However, after much consideration and soul-searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just far more complicated than people realize.

The writer has to evaluate each situation that calls for “this” or “that”, or “now” or “then”. She has to ask herself the following questions:

  1. Who is talking?
    • An omnicient, timeless and placeless, god-like storyteller?
    • One of the characters of the story?
  2. Where is the narrator at the moment she’s telling you the story? Not in the story, but as she’s narrating it.
  3. When is the narrator telling you the story?
    • Weeks, months, or years later?
    • Seconds after it happens?
  4. From the narrator’s point of view (at the moment she’s telling you the story), is the action happening in the past, present, or future?
  5. From the narrator’s point of view (at the moment she’s telling you the story), is the subject near or far away?

The primary rule is the original one we learned about close/far or present/past & future. The real trick is remembering who is talking and applying the distance filter to that person’s narration or dialogue.

Here’s an example to illustrate how complex this gets:

I espoused the opinion that drivers should slow down in residential neighborhoods. That proved popular among those who didn’t drive fast cars. I told my friend, “The cameras are installed and now we’ll see who breaks the speed limit.”

She gave me a golf clap and, looking up at the camera, said, “This is great! I hope we catch the guy in the red Mercedes.”

Then I knew for certain she was an ally.

How do you tell which word is appropriate? Do you have any tricks you use? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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