Thursday, August 5, 2010

My Thoughts on Present Tense

Recently on Twitter I've noticed agents, editors and writers talking about (or retweeting other people's comments) present tense, and it hasn't been good news for those that like to write it.

Mini Tense Lesson
Info from

Past Tense: "Past tense expresses an action or situation that was started and finished in the past. Most past tense verbs end in -ed. The irregular verbs have special past tense forms which must be memorized." This is the preferred tense in fiction, from what I've studied.

Example - Clara looked up at him, at last, but didn't speak. She stared with her typical disinterested gaze, the pencil halted in the air above the paper. (Old draft that needs rewritten.)

Present Tense: "Present tense expresses an unchanging, repeated, or reoccurring action or situation that exists only now. It can also represent a widespread truth." Happens sometimes but not recommended for most writers except in dialogue and such.

 Example - The pressure of something pushing against my should causes me to lose all focus on my red Spells & Potions textbook. Just what I don't need right now, another distractions, but I can't ignore the repeated poking. (Made up, maybe from something and maybe not. hehehe)

Future Tense: "Future tense expresses an action or situation that will occur in the future. This tense is formed by using will/shall with the simple form of the verb." Used in dialogue but rarely ever, as in probably almost never, used for the whole story.

Example - Tiffany will say yes. The dinner is going to be the best of my life and one that will change everything. (Okay I just made that up and umm yeah, it's special.)

My Own Thoughts

Reading - I will admit I haven't read very many present tense novels, published or not. The few that I have, the tense wasn't the good part of the stories. The first time I remember noticing present tense was in a critique group, someone was writing their novel in third person present. At first, I didn't even notice it and that made it odder because all of a sudden, chapters into reading the story I had this question: "Were the past chapters in present?" Every chapter after that,  the present tense stood out for me. The other book I've read that I remember having present tense is Wake. It was okay but the writing was different and affected my reading of it a little bit.

Writing - At first, I would write only past. And then came the YA mutant series in its not so great first person draft. The first 9 chapters were in past tense until I tried it in present. I liked the sound of it, so I went back and changed the tense of what had already been written. It seemed to work but first person didn't, so now I'm rewriting in third. The adult mutant novel was then written in third yet I tried to keep the present tense because I wasn't sure how it would go and I want all the mutant books to have consistency with each other even when there are different main characters. I don't love present tense but somehow, I'm finding myself attached to the idea and that may serve to be a problem in the near future.

I'll admit it. I feel a little bit of disappointment when I see people in the industry saying present tense is not recommended. Nothing against them at all. I'm sure they're actually correct as I haven't cared for the tense as a reader, though I haven't come across it much to really pass full judgement. But it's hard to fight this desire to write in present tense. I don't know where it comes from or why, but I swear... it's more annoying than the Shiny New Ideas and plot bunnies.


Lisa said...

oh, girly, i'm a present tense fan. but that doesn't mean i think it's acceptable in most cases.

have you read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson? I really thought the present tense worked well there.

I do love it, and with all due respect to those in the industry, gotta keep true to the integrity of the individual story. If present tense works, it works.

But, you know, whatever. I hate third person with a bit of a vengeance and yet realize my own story may need to go that route.

stupid stories.

Dawn Embers said...

Lisa - Us writers and our personal opinions. I like third person and don't care for first, but I do have some that might end up that pov as you're right. It depends on what the story requires. And with any rule, there are always exceptions. It's hard to be an exception but things do happen. I've never heard of Speak but I'll have to check it out. Thanks.

Liz said...

I think present tense is harder to pull off, but I love it when the author gets it right! It really has to fit the story, and if it does, I don't see any reason to avoid it. :)

Dawn Embers said...

Liz - Indeed. One of the main comments on present is it's difficult to pull off and not many that are submitting manage to do that.

Anonymous said...

I am one of those guilty of favouring the present tense. I just find it makes the story more in-the-now, as if it were unfolding before the reader's eyes. Of course, I don't recall any books I've read that were written in the present. I wrote my fanfics in the present, but with my WIP I chickened out and settled for past tense, although I have to constantly check that I hadn't slipped into the present out of habit!

Dawn Embers said...

jcmartin - Thanks for commenting on my blog. I don't remember reading much either. I'm thinking of putting my mutant series into past tense, but not sure yet so for now it's in present.

Lenore said...

I've read quite a lot of YA novels lately in first person present. Has worked for the most part. I like the immediacy.

Dawn Embers said...

Lenore - Immediacy is one benefit, for sure.

Franklin Beaumont said...

My experience with present tense is that it makes it harder to suspend belief. In past tense, it's easy to trick the mind into feeling that you're being told a story that may really have occurred. With present tense, I'm constantly subconsciously aware that what I'm reading isn't happening; how could it be, while I'm reading it? (i'm sure there's the concept of a sci-fi story in that thought somewhere)