S.J. Watson's new psychological thriller, Before I Go to Sleep, recently caught my eye.
This debut novel, a British bestseller, is being published in the U.S. this month and hitting lists around the world.
It tells the story of a woman who awakens every morning with amnesia, able to hold only that day's worth of memories before sleep wipes the slate clean.
Watson, a first-time author with a charming blog,makes skillful use of this now rather familiar narrative device, building suspense and real feeling for the characters rather than letting the plot decay into formula. A worthy beach read indeed!
Being grammar-obsessed, I immediately noted that the title is a dependent clause, introduced with a conjunctive adverb of time (temporal). As an editor, I know a dependent clause will be attached to a sentence with a main verb in the same or different tense; as an ESL teacher, I know how bewildering the question of "Whcih tense comes next?" or "Which tense should the main verb be?" is.
Even native English speakers and writers can be bedeviled by the sequence of tenses.
But it can be clear!
1) If there are two tenses in a sentence, they relate
to each other, and
to the action they describe.
2) Two actions can take place
at the same time, or
one before the other, or
one after the other.
Visualize a timeline in which the narrative is taking place. Left is past, middle is present, right is future.
Make an X for one action, then think about where the other action is on the timeline. Same time, afterward, or before the X action?
If the second action is taking place at the same time or is ongoing, use a progressive tense or the same tense.
Before I went to sleep, I was watching TV.
When she leaves home, she likes to double check the iron.
While Mark watched the Mets, Ellen was washing the dishes.
If the second action takes place and gets finished BEFORE the first action, use a past or pluperfect tense -- whatever tense comes just before the first action on the timeline.
Before I got a Nook, I had‘t had an eReading device.
I had already gone home when she called.
If the second action takes place AFTER the first action . . .
By the time I go to the beach this year, I will have a nice stack of beach reading.
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