1. Michael Thompson
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    Michael Thompson Member

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    Looking for Thoughts on Past and Present Tense

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Michael Thompson, Jan 15, 2016.

    I have seen and read some other post here about Past and Present Tense in a story. None seem to cover my issue.

    I am writing my sci-fi story in Present Tense... As I read it, Present Tense makes me feel like it's happening now, not being told to me after the fact.

    That aside... The first four chapters of my book deal with the back story (in a way)... Would it be wrong to change the tense to past on these four chapters and keep it present tense for what's happening now?

    Also, my main character has several moments when he's remembering something from his own past. Would it also be wrong to write these memories in Past Tense?
     
  2. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    It's up to you, really. Changing the tense in Chapter 5 would shift the focus and make the events seem more urgent, but it will take a little adjustment for the reader.

    With memories, if you want to write them in present just make it clear first that we're "in" a memory, not now. Same as you do when you're writing in past tense and need to explain a memory in past tense, too.

    Past tense is generally easier to read than present because we're more used to it in fiction. But it's not a big deal for most people.
     
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  3. kateamedeo
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    kateamedeo Active Member

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    I have to agree with @Tenderiser. I would also add that everything depends on the preferences of a particular reader. I prefer books in past tense but at the moment reading one of Atwood's novels which is in present. Don't like the tense but like the author, so continue to read it :)

    I would say that it might throw someone off by changing the tense in a third/fourth/n-th chapter all of a sudden. If you were to change not only the tesne but the time of the story and the POV that might work. But, once again, it all depends on how awesome a writer you are and if a reader loves your writing, they won't care if you use the future tense (joking :p ).

    I think it's a similar discussion when it comes to the POV, 1st, 2nd or 3rd person to use. So, to conclude, I would say, write as feels right to you. There will definitely be someone who will appreciate your work.
     
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  4. The Mad Regent
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    The Mad Regent Contributing Member

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    I like past tense since I read a lot of classic adventure stories recollected in first person. Like @Tenderiser said, I'm also aware that past tense is considered easier to digest, and present tense is a little more awkward on the inner voice of the reader; but saying that, I've also recently read that present tense is trending.

    As for switching tenses during your story, I agree that it's perfectly OK to do so; however, I recently tried something similar and found that it's not really necessary to switch tenses if you have the technique to set a coherent and clear time switch. I feel it's something more necessary if you're literally cutting scenes.
     
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  5. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it's important to remember that past versus present is a very strong preference for some readers.

    If I were reading a story in past tense that suddenly switched to present, I'd stop reading, and I'd be done with that author.

    Is that fair? Well, if an action/spy thriller suddenly turned into a Harlequin-style historical romance:

    Agent 007 thought back to the meeting of his great-great-great-great grandmother and grandfather. It was a warm, sunny day, and the worst of the Black Death was over. Pretty , vivacious Jenny Bond tossed her raven hair and stepped over a pile of unburied bodies, her pert nose wrinkling....

    a lot of people would stop reading, and would be done with the author. Is that fair?

    Maybe not. But it's still what would happen.
     
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  6. Michael Thompson
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    Michael Thompson Member

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    In my story, the first four chapters take place in the distant past... The rest of the book is present and there is a clear picture of the timeline...

    I just wasn't sure if I should write the past part of the story in past tense...
     
  7. The Mad Regent
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    The Mad Regent Contributing Member

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    I actually must confess that I struggle a lot with tense. I have a habit of switching tense without noticing because I write sentences the way they come to me.
     
  8. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    It might be confusing for the reader. If I started reading in past tense I wouldn't automatically think - memory, I would think this is the tense you chose. And if you start with past tense, past perfect is needed for a memory so you'd need to make it clear you're starting with a memory or I would wrongly think things are happing 'now' just as it does in third.

    You might even need to start with present tense just to orient the reader that it is going to come around again to present tense. But the pattern could make your reader feel like they're reading back story. So overall it's risky.
     
  9. matwoolf
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    matwoolf Contributing Member Contributor

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    Try writing past tense - with your dialogue in the present tense. It's like having two gears on your bicycle :).
     
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  10. Electralight
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    Electralight Member

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    I think changing the tense after several chapter would be very confusing, but I don't think its wrong to use more than one tense in a book. Take Gayle Forman for example. She has a very elegant way of switching back and forth from present and past tenses in a clear way. If you did something like that, then you would be able to do both. Or, you could have the first four chapters as "part one" and then start "part two" and make it clear the amount of time that passes between the two.
     
  11. J. Johnston
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    J. Johnston Member

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    Is there any way for you to open in present-tense, then lead somehow to the historical backstory? Either via a character recollecting, or the omniscient narrator explaining what led to everyone to their current positions/global political climate etc.?

    If possible, this establishes the book as a present-tense story, whilst still delivering that all important backstory.
     
  12. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yep. I understood. That's a situation where I would stop reading the book.
     
  13. dedebird
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    dedebird Member

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    I find present tense very choppy and without flow. I, for the same reasons as you, began to write my novel in present tense thinking that it would pull the readers in to believing they are actually IN the story. However after writing the fist 800 words like that I decided I hated it. It makes it harder to read in my opinion.

    But if you're set on present tense because it suits your novel best, I'd suggest writing the whole thing that way. It would be a shame for a reader to really enjoy and get into your novel just to be slapped with the harsher present tense reading style.
     
  14. BoddaGetta
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    BoddaGetta Active Member

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    The only time I could see changing tenses working is in a frame narrative. The bookends are in present-tense and the middle material past.

    I wouldn't suggest changing tenses 5 chapters in. It would really throw off pacing.
     
  15. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I guess one question to ask is if you're story is intended/best written in present tense, why are you switching to past tense? Is it because telling that backstory would be easier? Or is it because it's the superior way to enhance the reading experience?

    While it can work...the first 4 chapters of mainly backstory, may not be the best way to go. Often telling the current story and weaving in relevant backstory when needed within the context of the storyline offers a 'better' story structure for the reader.

    Take a look at some of your favorite books written in present tense. Check out to see how those authors did it. If they started the book with several chapters of mainly backstory, observe how they transitioned to the main storyline. If they incorporated backstory as the storyline progressed, when and how did they blend it in as the present tense action and evens occur?
     

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