1. Scavenger
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    Scavenger Senior Member

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    A Tense Situation

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Scavenger, Aug 11, 2007.

    Okay, so I have a question.

    In the few short days I've been here, I've noticed at least three, maybe four instances where a writer has been criticized for using the present tense. So I'm wondering, is this a personal peeve that many of the members here happen to share, or something a bit more global?

    I ask because about a year ago I switched and now write almost exclusively in present tense. I feel that it adds a sense of immediacy to a story, drops the reader in and drags them along, because events are happening as they are read, not before the fact. I understand that it's a ridiculously uncommon tense in published works, but I've seen it before and while it takes some getting used to, I can't say that it has ever turned me off of a book.

    Oh, while I'm at it, I saw a remark about different point of views, as well, and how first person is a bad choice to go with. Again, I've nothing wrong with first person, though I myself don't often employ it (I usually write in third, and second if I'm feeling inspired), and would enjoy seeing the reasoning behind the comment.

    So...anyone care to enlighten me?

    -Scavenger
     
  2. adamant
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    adamant Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is basically the reason I've always heard for beginners not to use first-person perspective:

    There are drawbacks to writing in first person, though. When writing about the "I" character, you are limited to only what that person sees, thinks or learns. Another inherent problem with first person is writing a scene in which the author is not comfortable with the character's actions. For example, imagine writing an intense love scene from the "I" perspective, or perhaps describing a murder scene.

    Although this POV looks the easiest to work with, it is often the most difficult to master. [www.FictionFactor.com]
     
  3. Torana
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    Torana Contributing Member Contributor

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    Actually I don't see why an author should have any problems with writing in present tense about a murder or intense love scene.
    I personally find it easier to write a murder scene in present tense to be honest. It isn't like we ourselves have done it, well not all writers anyway.
    I never used to write in first person until recently and hadn't written for some time to be honest. Apart from poetry. My first fictional piece I have ever posted on this forum is about a murder and it was in first person. The only thing that made me uncomfortable was the fact that I knew my piece wasn't very good and it was the first piece I had posted here.
    I think that first person gives the author a different opportunity with their story and I like to see how far I can push myself to go with a story in first person as a lot of people are a little reserved with murder and love scenes when writing in first person.
    I like first person but a lot of people don't. It all comes down to personal preference.

    Torana
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    You can write with immediacy in the past tense, and that gives the impression of writing in present tense, without the actual distraction of present tense wording. If your descriptions in past tense make the reader feel that he or she is watching it unfold, you've achieved your purpose.

    We are accustomed to hearing narrative told in third person, past tense. Any time you deviate from the expected form, the reader will notice, and that is a distraction from the story. That is not to say you should never choose anything but third person, past tense, but it means that you should have a clear, thought out decision as to what makes the variation more effective. makes it worth distracting the reader.
     
  5. Daniel
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    Daniel I'm sure you've heard the rumors. Founder Staff Contributor

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    There is nothing wrong with using the present tense. If that's how you like writing, right that way. The fact is, however, most people don't like it. As someone above me mentioned, it can be limited. So use it when you think appropriate. As Torana said, it is personal preference.
     
  6. bluejt2000
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    bluejt2000 Member

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    Browse the shelves of any bookshop and see how many novels are written in past tense as oppose to present tense and you'll see that it is very much a global thing.

    If you want your work published then you're severely handicapping yourself from the beginning. Why do that when it's difficult enough in the first place to get published? Even if you just want your work to be read on forums, etc., you are limiting the amount people who will bother to do so. In either instance you have readers' preferences to take into account as well as your own if you want to reach people with your work.

    Add to this the practical difficulties mentioned elsewhere on this thread and one is tempted to ask, why bother using present tense?

    If you're just writing for yourself, however, it doesn't really matter what technique you use as long as you enjoy the writing.

    John
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The purpose of writing fiction is to tell a story to the reader. This is best accomplished by getting the reader involved in the story to the degree that he or she can visualize the story as it unfolds. Anything which distracts the reader away from that immersion in the story reduces the effectiveness of the storytelling. For that reason, it is best to stay with a style that keeps the writer focused on what you are telling him or her, rather than how you are telling it.

    Present tense narration is noticeable, and distracts the reader, which is why stories tols in present tense don't sell as easily. It takes a lot of skill to tell a story in present tense that is compelling enough to override that distraction.

    I know I've mentioned this example elsewhere, but Patricia Cornwell is the bestselling author of the Kay Scarpetta novels. Her book The Last Precinct is written in present tense to focus on the severe emotional trauma the heroine is working through. But as experienced a writer as Cornwell is, nearly every person I know who has read that book is very aware of the present tense writing style, and hates the way that story was told.

    There may well be examples out there of books successfully written in present tense, but you are definitely making it harder for yourself if you make that choice.

    There are reasons some writing styles work better than others, and it's really best to stick with what's tried and true, especially if you don't already have a strong enough reader base to overcome the consequences of an experimental approach that falls flat. It's difficult enough to write well within convention, without starting off with a strike against you.
     
  8. Scavenger
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    Scavenger Senior Member

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    So the gist I'm getting here is that one should not write in present tense because readers won't like it?

    Forgive me, but it seems as though that's a fairly shallow reason.

    To begin, I've always believed in a certain give and take relationship author and reader. Neither should go into a piece expecting the other to do all the work, or to be completely comfortable with the end result. As authors, it is our job to give a readable, hopfully somewhat substantive, piece to a reader. As readers, it is our job to accept that we may be somewhat outside our comfort zone in the reading, and be prepared to accept and deal with that for the sake of a larger purpose.

    With that in mind, I honestly think that writing in the present tense is one of the least...offensive stylistic techniques an author can employ. There are many more methods out there that would, understandably, drive people crazy (For example, I'm currently writing a piece that has only adjectives, adverbs, and a couple nouns, and almost no punctuation to speak of. I have trouble not being annoyed with myself sometimes), yet readers excuse these as having a "purpose" or being symbolic of the text. Yet the present tense, which in essence is only changing a couple letters, is thrown out because it makes readers uncomfortable and does not have an immediate explanation.

    I'm afraid I continue to miss the hype.

    I write in the present tense because I find it difficult to write in the past tense, and I don't think that it's that great a sacrifice for readers to make for the sake of, what I find, to be a smoother read.
     
  9. Weaselword
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    Weaselword Banned

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    Well, Scavenger, it's your story, write it how you like. :)

    Personally I'm active on various writing forums and a member of a fairly vigorous critique group; I read a lot of unpublished fiction.

    It strikes me that about a third of the unpublished fiction I read is in the present tense. Of the published stuff, virtually none; I can only think of a couple of isolated examples in the huge ocean of fiction.

    Why is this?

    I think it's because the editor's job, in selecting which manuscript to publish, is to be the reader's advocate. They have to choose a manuscript that they feel the reader is likely to enjoy and want to purchase. And they have a LOT of choices.

    Personally, I think that if James Joyce had been writing today, he'd have been eternally rejected for being stylistically "different", while publishers continue to acquire footballers' biographies, stuff by Katie Price's ghost-writers that sells because of her boobs, and trite formulaic fantasy trilogies involving elves and dragons.

    The number of new books published per year has doubled or more in the last decade, but all of us who want to be published are living in Hemingway's shadow. And we're competing with the internet and the goggle box.

    Third person limited, past tense, short words, short sentences. Everything has to be totally clear, concise, succinct, and optimised for the reader's ease and comfort.

    But this only applies if you want to reach a publisher's attention. If you're writing for your own pleasure, then please be my guest and I'm sorry for preaching.
     
  10. Raven
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    Raven Banned

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    And thats all that need be said really. You write how you feel comfortable writing and in the style you want to write.
     
  11. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Yes. There are no experts here. Just people with opinions and a wide range of experience. Any suggestion that doesn't sit right with an author, he or she is perfectly free to pass over. No harm, no foul.
     

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