1. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Past tense told in present tense

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by OurJud, Jul 26, 2015.

    I've read some negatives about writing in present tense - many saying it's clichéd and a sign of a novice writer, but I'm not sure this applies entirely to my ideas and would appreciate some feedback.

    While the project I've just started is written in present tense, I think it's clear from the style of narration that the author is talking about something that happened in the past. I'm aiming to give the author / narrator a story-telling style which feels fresher and more immediate than the standard past tense narrative style.

    For example - traditional past tense: I poured my third scotch of the night and was beginning to feel a little tipsy.

    Present tense: So, I pour my third scotch of the night and by now, as you'd expect, I'm starting to feel a little tipsy.

    The second example, I hope, is a more captivating and animated story-teller - he draws you in and demands you listen, and while he tells the story in present tense, he's still talking about something that happened in the past.

    Do the pitfalls and clichés of writing in present tense still apply here, or is it acceptable because it's being used as a style rather than a tool?
     
  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    So long as there is consistency and clarity in what you are writing, I think the opinions concerning past vs present tense can be dispensed with. Recounting past events in a present tense syntax is a common feature of many cultures and languages. In my native Spanish, this is a very common "recounting" modality.
     
  3. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that what you describe is how most present tense novels are written, so the criticism would probably apply, yes.

    I disagree that there's anything inherently more captivating about present tense. Your example could have been

    So I poured my second scotch of the night. By then I was, as you'd expect, starting to feel a little tipsy.

    All that said, present tense is increasingly common. I hate it with a fiery passion, but I can't argue that it's inherently bad.
     
  4. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks for the feedback.

    I suppose another reason I'm being drawn to the present tense is that it helps when the flow starts to dry up. If that happens, I imagine myself telling someone the story, and I tell it aloud to the empty room - if it sounds right, I write it down and the flow starts again. If I try to do the same in traditional past tense I feel myself getting bogged down - like I'm wading through treacle. Not quite sure why his happens.

    Not that it's needed, as you've both understood perfectly, but if you fast forward this clip to 4:10, he switches to present tense, and I feel myself getting really drawn in.

     
  5. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    It's not. I'd be leery of advice coming from such sources.

    On the substantive question, I agree with @Wreybies, above.
     
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  6. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    If it's your style, go for it. In the long run I would suggest striving to get greater comfort with past tense, but present tense is increasingly accepted. So if the flow is flowing, go with it for your current work. And I say that as someone, again, who hates present tense.
     
  7. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Would you mind explaining why you dislike it so?
     
  8. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's against all laws of God and man!

    Just kidding. I don't know. I perceive it as newfangled, because I rarely encountered it until the past decade or so. But even as a small child reading picture books, I hated Babar because it was present tense. It's just a personal prejudice.
     
  9. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Fair enough and thanks for the explanation.

    I feel exactly the same about novels written in, uum, second-person, is it?? "You pour your third scotch of the night and start to feel a little tipsy"

    ARRGGHHH!!!

    Thankfully they're as rare as rocking horse dodah.
     
  10. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    You should try Charles Stross' novel Halting State. Pretty good, and in second person :)
     
  11. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    Or Caroline Kepnes "You". It's not written exclusively in second person but a good part of it is, and even though I thought it strange when I heard of it and it took me a few pages to get used to it, I really liked it! :)
     
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  12. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Just to add my 2p... I am also not very much a fan of present tense, but like @ChickenFreak , I know how separate my personal preference from what is actually happening in the world of literature and what is clearly stocking many shelves in your local bookseller. Even in its older incarnations, I'm not a fan. I tried to get into Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence - I'm a huge sucker for all that Victorian/Edwardian fra-fra-fra - but the present tense of the story was off-putting... for me.
     
  13. Christine Ralston
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    Christine Ralston Active Member

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    I like the present tense version better. It makes the character seem more three dimensional. I have no problem with reading a story written in present tense as long as the story maintains consistent quality.
     
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  14. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Not that it was your intention to put me off using this style, but if had been you couldn't have done it better than with this statement.

    I don't want to be like everyone else out there and will do anything* to separate myself from the masses.

    * Except write in second-person.
     
  15. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Well, there's still a lot more past tense than present in the market....
     
  16. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    True, but I'm not sure I want to be part of a 'trend'.

    I'll carry on in P(resent)T for now, but if it starts to feel forced I'll have to rethink.
     
    Last edited: Jul 27, 2015
  17. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I like writing present tense and have used it for a few stories, but it's definitely a tricky tense. I think it's easier to get it wrong than get it right. Which is probably why it's gotten a don't-like-it reputation.

    Your sentence sounds fine to me though.
     
  18. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Not sure how many of you have read it, but the first chapter of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic is a good example of what I consider a good, first-person present tense narrative. After this they switch to third person past for the remaining 4 chapters (they're looooong chapters).

    Not entirely sure what their thinking was and why they decided to write the first chapter in the present tense, but then I've only just started the second chapter so maybe their reason for doing so will become clear.
     
  19. Sack-a-Doo!
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    If present tense feels right and comfortable to you, nothing says you can't write your first draft that way and then translate into past tense in a later draft... if you feel it's not going to fly with a publisher or whatever.
     

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