1. That Secret Ninja
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    That Secret Ninja Member

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    Past or Present Tense?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by That Secret Ninja, Apr 17, 2010.

    I made my decision to tackle my first major short story in a third person narrative. In which the narrator is a character the reader and main character meet later in the story.

    So my question is; should I do the 3rd person omniscient narrative in past of present tense?

    So far I've been writing it in the present tense, and while I'm somewhat happy with what I have done, I am not sure if this type of tense is best suited for the rest of the story.

    Since the narrator is a tangible character speaking of what he has come to learn first hand, should this part fo the story he chronicles be in Past Tense?

    If so, it's not the end of the world, as I think I can focus in on and rewrite it in a much better way that is more condusive to the overall narrative. also I'm not even that far into it, so changing it shouldn't be too hard.
     
  2. Nilfiry
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    Nilfiry Contributing Member

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    Well, if he's recalling past events, I'd say go for past-tense since it would make more sense. Still, it's your writing. You can do as you'd like.
     
  3. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have to agree with what your subconscious seems to be already telling you. Present tense will be very difficult to sustain for this IMO.
     
  4. That Secret Ninja
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    That Secret Ninja Member

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    yeah I've gone through it all and fixed the tense quite fast. Past does work much better.

    I guess I started in present, because I was on the spot, making up the narrative description of actions and characters, and it seemed present tense in my mind so I wrote it down that way. But once I read it through twice or three times I noticed this problem.:eek:

    probably didn't need to post this at all, it was kind of plain to see now that I think about it. but still nice to get a holler from people who are probably much more experienced at this and plainly just know better than me, that's right I admit my faults, crazy:eek: !!!
     
  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Past tense is more flexible and natural. With present tense, you pretty much lock the pace to the reader's reading rate. With past tense, you can modulate the pace more smoothly, and that allows you to modulate tension more easily as well.

    Also, present tense is less commonly used, and therefore intrudes into the reader's awareness. There are times when awareness of the writer's technique (a distraction) is balanced by an advantage conferred by that technique, but I personally have not seen any such advantage from present tense narrative.

    Patricia Cornwell has experimented with present tense narrative in a couple of her novels (The Last Precinct and At Risk come to mind), and frankly, they aren't her best work.
     
  6. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I feel like you're sorta missing the point of using first person as a 'distraction', as you so disdainfully put it...drawing attention to the act of writing and the style of the writer isn't intended as a means to an end, its an end in and of itself. This 'distraction' is exactly what readers are supposed to appreciate, and while you may not, there are certainly a great many who do.

    But as to the original post, past tense is clearly the best choice in this situation.
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    No, arron, I'm not missing the point at all. The point is to involve the reader in the story and the writer's message. The writing style is a vehicle to carry the writer's meaning.

    It's fine to appreciate the writer's technique, but if it gets in the way of delivering the writer's message (story and more), it has failed in its principal purpose.

    Unless, of course, the author's message boils down to, "I'm great, worship me." In that case, it's a message I'm not particularly interested in.
     
  8. s.knight
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    s.knight Banned

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    hey, forgive me, but isn't that a second person narrative?
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    No, second person narrative would be something like:
     
  10. s.knight
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    s.knight Banned

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    Thanks for clearing that up cogito.
     
  11. Phantasmal Reality
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    Phantasmal Reality Contributing Member

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    There's really no reason to use present tense in most stories. Like Cogito said, it's just going to be a distraction, and as a writer, you want your writing to be as transparent as possible. The only exception that I know of is in the case of visual novels--a type of digital, interactive fiction that's popular in Japan. First-person present (of all perspectives!) is common for those, but I can't think of any other reason to use present tense.
     
  12. Jobeykobra
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    Jobeykobra Member

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    One advantage I like with present tense first person narrative is you are in the head of the character as they are going through the motions of the story. With past tense in that perspective, the character knows what's going to happen already, but with present tense, things further in the story are as uncertain to the MC as they are to the reader. That said, I agree with basically everyone here that past tense should be used for this situation.
     
  13. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    The point of all fiction is not simply to involve the reader in a story or deliver a message. That may be the point of all the fiction you read, but there are plenty of novels around written by authors writing linguistic, stylistic or formal experiments whose primary concerns are not simply telling a story or immersing a reader in a fictional world.

    You may not like those kinds of novels, and that's fine, but they are by no means failures simply because they fail to impress you. Please don't confuse your own opinion with empirical fact.
     
  14. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I didn't say you aren't entitled to your opinion. I disputed your assertion that I was missing the point. What you really meant was that your point differs.

    I still, however, hold my opinion that the purpose of a work of fiction is to deliver a story or message to te reader. An author may certainly experiment with style to deliver the cintent more effectively, but style for the sake of style alone does not make great writing.

    I am aware of Marshall McLuhan's famous quote, "The medium is the message," but in fact that line is more frequently used to justify self-indulgent drivel than to generate art with any real significance. Only when innovative style enhances the delivery of content does it truly make a mark.
     
  15. Cecil
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    Cecil Member

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    I can only speak for myself here, but I find that first person present tense takes me out of the character's head. There's a part of me that feels like I'm right there and everything, but there's another part that's like "How are you telling me this?" Since I know that the "I" isn't me, I just feel like the story is being told to me by the character, and I have to wonder how he's having all these adventures and writing them down at the same time.

    IMO, good old fashion third person limited is the best for putting the reader in the character's head. I know it seems counter intuitive, but I think there's a reason that most popular fiction is written that way.
     
  16. Jobeykobra
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    Jobeykobra Member

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    Well everybody has different literary tastes and opinions.
     
  17. KP Williams
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    I like to pretend that my character writes these stories as a sort of journal, writing about the actions in past tense and then adding in his own thoughts as he had them at the time. For instance...

    If the question of "How can he be writing this as it's happening?" really bothers you that much, just pretend it's a journal or something. It doesn't absolutely HAVE to be happening at this very moment.
     
  18. Cecil
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    Cecil Member

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    Well it's all about preference anyway, but to me, third person past tense is the most invisible style. And (IMO) invisibility should be among the author's main goals.

    I'm certainly not trying to criticize anyone else's tastes or anything, just saying.
     
  19. s.knight
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    s.knight Banned

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    It depends on the story, but generally present-tense can be blended with the standard. Used skillfully it can create the effect of feeling as though youre there with the storyteller, as the storyteller. For example, the novel 'Remains of the Day', by the author whose name i always forget lol He pulls it off.
     
  20. Cecil
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    Cecil Member

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    Remains of the Day was in present tense?!
    Dang, that one was very well done if all I remember is the story, and the writing itself was so completely invisible to me that I can't even remember the tense.
     
  21. s.knight
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    s.knight Banned

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    Cecil, parts of it are in present tense.
     
  22. Tamsin
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    Tamsin Senior Member

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    I think you mean first person narrative if the narrator is a character in the story. You cannot have a third person narrative if the narrator is in the story. If the narrator isn't in the story until later on it is still a first person narrative.
     
  23. Halcyon
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    Halcyon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah, WTS (What Tamsin Said)

    As for the tense situation, I think you have to either be brave or stupid to tackle a full-length novel in present tense, but good luck to those who want to try! ;)
     
  24. Elvis
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    There's actually one of her present-tense books in my apartment complex's laundry room. I picked it up and started reading one day, and the present tense just took me right out of the story. It just annoyed me so much, and after five pages I was done.

    I suppose if I muddled through, I'd get used to it. But the point remains, that if you're choosing which way to go, I find that past tense is much better. It may be for no other reason than that's what's familiar, but still, present tense takes me out of the story.
     

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