Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Present tense equals walls or freedom?

A lot has been said recently about the lack of correctness or lack of natural feel with a novel written in the present tense. What if a book written in past tense feels false for the very tense that's being acclaimed as right and best?

There are many writers turning to the present tense, especially in young adult novels. Is it a trend or a desire to stay in the "now"?

For me, writing in the present tense if done right, will leave readers feeling like they are reading the messiness of a possible real life. Much like reality t.v. shows that rope people in, it's real and it can get messy.

And it's current.

In the past tense, an author is  telling the reader, "I shaped this story, I wrote this." In the present tense, there seemingly isn't an author, just a point-of-view character. This character makes mistakes in his or her summation of events sometimes. Sometimes those mistakes are very clear to the reader and sometimes they aren't. But in the character' actions in a present tense novel, the reader traverses this life. In a past tense novel, the reader is told about this life.

Much like reality t.v., in a present tense novel, the watcher sees the action as it's going down. Whereas in a constructed television show, the watcher is conscious these series of events are shaped, edited and portrayed by actors. And none of it's real.

Of course, many believe (including me) that reality t.v. is just as constructed, however, to the regular watcher tuning in, they don't believe it. Or else they don't care because it feels real. After all  it is real. Snooki does get drunk; Brad does actually have a huge fight with Jennifer. And in present tense books, the characters are fighting, eating, barfing--right then and there. There's no waiting, there's no being told about it after the fact.

I think a present tense novel allows readers to feel like they are living this moment in life with the narrator, or even fall into the story so thoroughly they feel they are living these moments themselves. It's current. And even re-reading, it's still current--it's still there. It's not over.
I wish there were studies done on how often people put a present tense novel down vs. past tense novel (or would a study like that even be possible?). In my opinion, more people would continue on reading a present tense book without pausing because they have the uncomfortable feeling it would continue on without them. They might miss something with the story that they are in. But in a past tense novel, there's always that division, that line - "I am being told a story. I can take a walk then pick this back up when I come back."

This is just my opinion. What do you think?

Some say present tense writers are following a trend. What about the story with a girl who dies at the end of the story? This story almost has to be written in the present tense. She's not around afterward to tell the story, so factually, this story has to be told in the present tense or else in third person (which I desire to do less than write in past tense). Trend here, no, just a desire to keep the writing correct in that she couldn't be retelling this story from the grave...unless she's a vampire.

I have no problem with past tense writers, either, and I don't automatically endorse present tense writers.
I'd merely like to open up the conversation...and maybe even take up for us writers who've delved into present tense works. There's been a lot of negative talk about writing in the present tense. Maybe I'd just like to balance that out. And clear the air about it too as there is plenty of incorrect information out there about it.

A popular fallacy with present tense novels is that they have to be told in a linear, non-breaking fashion. No, they don't. A reader can be dropped into a scene that's halfway over in order to view the important things. Days can be skipped, weeks even, just like in a past tense novel. No boring small talk just because we all know that would happen in real life. We just skip it and cut right to the stuff the moves the plot forward, just like any other narrative.

With that said, my favorite novels are written in past tense because my favorites are classics--it has nothing to do with the tense. I think I might like DAVID COPPERFIELD in spite of its tense now, not because of it.

Books written in past tense used to be easier for me to read. But now that I've gotten used to present tense books, it's not as fun or in the moment to read a past tense book. Many people just don't like present tense because it's different. Change is bad...right? I once had someone tell me she'd only read first person, past tense. I thought that was a good way to close yourself off to many good books, but we all have our preferences. What's yours? Past or present tense? First, second, or third POV? Have you ever read a book written in second person?


  1. I'm glad I found this today because it reinforces my faith in my choice to write my novel in present tense. I've written novels in past tense, but this one has that immediacy that the others lack. My characters, not just the reader, are in the moment, thinking and feeling as life happens, which is really how it should be, in my opinion.
    My beta readers are split on it, which is fine with me because those who 'got' it didn't actually notice that it was in present tense until way into the story. For me, that tells me it's the right way to go, at least for this piece of work. So keep at it and let your characters live and die as it happens. Cheers!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Eamon. I'm glad you've found the tense your story belongs in. I hope everyone realizes there isn't a wrong or right way, just your way.

  2. I think it depends a lot on what you're used to. I'm used to reading past tense so of course present can feel a little odd, but I can imagine that reading present tense a lot would make past start to sound flat. A survey would be super useful, wouldn't it?

    1. A survey would be wonderful. I did read an article one time about teen reading preferences. Teens were given an excerpt of past tense writing and then the same excerpt in present tense - the teens preferred the present. However, after asking what some of their favorite books were, the majority in their lists were in past tense. So take that for what you will.

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  4. I have a preference for third person, past tense novels but that also comes down to genre I think. I mostly read adult fantasy and I have not come across a really good present tense fantasy that I have bothered to read right until the end. However I do think it would be a powerful way to tell the story... It would be a good way to build towards a climax where the protag makes assumptions or leaves things out that are critical to the plot - making their discovery towards the end that much more powerful. I just think it is a harder thing to write so many chose past tense. :)

    1. The only reason I started writing in present tense is because the novel I was working on (in past tense), I kept messing up my verb tenses. And I realized I wanted more immediacy and that's why present tenses kept slipping in. I tested a chapter out in present tense and it came so easily to me. I never had a preference which tense I read in before, but now I do. After writing in present tense for five novels now, past tense seems to drag a little for me. The book has to be excellently written to keep me going now. But I do think a third person POV book has to be written in past tense. It's an author re-telling, and how can an author re-tell in the present tense?

      Thanks for commenting, Alison!