1. Hannah0113
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    Hannah0113 Member

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    Present or past tense?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Hannah0113, Jun 4, 2015.

    The novel I'm currently writing started out in present tense, but I've recently changed it to past tense. I like it that way, but at the same time, I really like present tense. It gives me a sense of 'being there' if that makes sense.

    What is your preference?

    Do you prefer one over the other, or are there certain circumstances where one works better?
     
  2. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Past tense is preferred by most writers because it's the natural method of storytelling. Of course, present tense has its advantages; otherwise writers wouldn't have considered it. For example, present tense gives everything a sense of happening immediately. It's therefore very good for dealing with long chunks of internal narration (e.g., stream of consciousness).
     
  3. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Bolding mine - every time this topic comes up, people make claims like this. I'm not sure how it can ever really be established as the truth. I mean, there are lots of writers using present tense - are their stories somehow unnatural? That doesn't make sense to me.
     
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  4. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Look at it this way. When you tell someone about something that happened to you (or someone else), how often do you use present tense?
     
  5. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Two parts to the answer. Part one - sometimes. Usually in the context of something light or humorous. "So we're sitting around, and everyone is eating their salads and having a good time, and all of a sudden..."

    Part two - so what? I think it's a pretty tenuous connection between an oral retelling of an actual story and a written telling of a made-up story. I mean, if I'm telling people about something that happened to me, I don't change POVs, rarely use exact quotations, rarely use figurative language or extensive description or a variety of other things that I regularly use when I'm writing fiction. Are all of these things also "unnatural"?
     
  6. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, but when you're writing a piece of fiction you aren't telling someone about something that happened. You're using an art form to relate a fictional story to entertain, inform, or cause them to think, etc. Neither past nor present tense is more natural or unnatural, in my view. It is wholly up to the individual preference of the writer. Go with whatever feels right to you.
     
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  7. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Also, analogize to painting. When you're trying to describe something to someone in real life, you're probably going to use concrete descriptions to get your point across. But when you paint, does that mean you have to adopt realism because that's a more "natural" way of painting? Of course not. You can be an impressionist, or a cubist, or whatever.

    Same thing with fiction writing. It's an art form and a writer's approach to writing should keep that firmly in mind.
     
  8. The Mad Regent
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    The Mad Regent Contributing Member

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    I'm not sure how I can describe this properly, but I think it really boils down to your actual story and the narration you use. They have different characteristics, but it's hard to explain how they differ. Take King Solomon's Mine for instance, that's written in past tense because it's a recollection of an adventure by Allan Quatermain. As you said, it's like story telling. It's past tense narration gives us a sense of wonder and leaves us in awe. And that's an effective use of tense.

    Now take the book I'm currently reading (Stephen King's Mr Mercedes). That's in present tense and it works because it switches between the protagonist and antagonist frequently throughout the story, creating this whole time frame that weaves around them both adding a certain suspense.

    Like what Steerpike tried to analogise with the paintings is that you have to use it in a creative sense that compliments your story. Don't just use past or present for the hell of it. Though some people prefer a specific tense because they write more naturally that way. There are no rules.
     
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  9. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Yes, sometimes. In my experience, it's far more common to talk about something that has happened.

    Keep in mind that written literature can be traced back to its oral roots. All of the epic poems were narrated in past tense (can't think of any counterexamples; there may not be any). These poems were meant to be heard, and by using past tense, I would argue that the orator was mimicking the method of everyday storytelling (e.g., "This happened to me. I went there. Then I did that."). For a good example of what I'm talking about, take a look at Beowulf. It reads like a conversation in many places.

    By the way, I never meant to imply that using present tense is unnatural. All I'm saying is that using past tense is more natural for the reason I stated above and because, perhaps more importantly, it's something all readers are familiar with given how much more common it is compared to present tense.
     
  10. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm with the "past tense is more natural" camp.

    To take the same analogy as @Steerpike, painting started out as a depiction of actual things as accurately as possible, reaching its peak with the works of, e.g., Holman Hunt.

    With the technical possibility of near-photographic reproduction (if you've seen any of Picasso's "early", still-learning about art, work; the guy could draw with great technical accuracy!), artists began looking for different ways to get their message across, and impressionism was born. In the same way, present tense is a stylistic choice to get your message across in a different way.
     
  11. Hannah0113
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    Hannah0113 Member

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    I think that both past and present tense can be natural. I know that a lot of people are turned off by present tense, and that's totally fine. I read somewhere that some people find the use of present tense to be distracting, largely due to the fact that most written works are in past tense, so they just aren't used to it.

    It does make sense for stories to be in past tense, because usually stories are thought to have already happened. But when it's fiction, who's to say that the story isn't happening in the present? We all know the story never actually happened and never will (most likely!) happen.
     
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  12. GoldenFeather
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    GoldenFeather Active Member

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    It's funny you say that, I'm exactly the same. My tenses switch randomly in a story on several occasions. I only notice during the editing process.

    I think both can work, depending on what kind of reaction you want out of the reader. When it's present tense, I feel like it's happening right now, and I feel the reader is more connected to the story. If it's past tense, I feel there may be less suspence or intrigue because this already happened and is simply being recounted to the reader, as opposed to present tense when the reader and character are experiencing it at the same time.
     
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  13. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I disagree with the idea that past tense means the story happened in the past. Most fiction isn't even based on real events that happened, much less recounting something that ever happened. Most science fiction and fantasy, set in the far future or alternate worlds and realities that never exited, is written in past tense. Are you telling me that as a reader I'm supposed to be reading it as a story that happened in the past?

    That's now how I view fiction. But I agree with the two posts above that both can work and both can be perfectly natural. Present tense is increasing in the marketplace, it seems to me, though past tense is still dominant.
     
  14. GoldenFeather
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    GoldenFeather Active Member

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    Let's use an example.

    She went to the kitchen. (Okay, she's in the kitchen now. Done and done.)

    She's going to the kitchen.
    (She's in the process of making her way to the kitchen. I can see a hallway, I can hear footsteps, I can almost envision the place she lives in.)

    The first already happened. BAM. We are in the kitchen. The second is only happening as we are reading, it's more live. Doesn't mean the story is in the past. That's how I interpret it anyways. I feel like present tense happens to the character and reader simultaneously, while the past tense already happened to the character, we are just catching up (she went to the kitchen already, versus she is going right now.)
     
  15. The Mad Regent
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    The Mad Regent Contributing Member

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    She goes to the kitchen.
     
  16. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I can see where some people read it like that. My view is, I'm reading a book. It was printed (or, compiled or formatted or whatever in the case of ebooks) at some point in the past. It may have been a month ago, ten years ago, or one-hundred years ago. It's just a vehicle for telling a story. I see things like tense and POV as mere stylistic choices, and I don't read into them any idea that something is meant to be happening now, or has happened in the past, even within the context of the story, unless the author makes it clear that she intends for the book to be so interpreted.

    Others approach it differently, but I think my approach may be in part why things like tense and POV don't matter to me in a story. What I mean by that, is I'll read any tense or any POV. I've found that many people who read more into tense or POV choices are also more easily put off by changes to those things.
     
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  17. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Here's a good link (from Writers' Digest Online) to a very simple rundown of the pluses and minuses of using present tense in fiction, as seen by the author of the article.

    Like everything else, the choice of tense has an effect on the story, and will come with its own set of limitations. To a large extent, tense affects WHAT you can tell the reader.

    I think folks who go around saying you must do this or can't do that are missing the point. You CAN do anything you want. It's fiction, and you can write however you like. BUT everything you do will affect the story, so be aware of any pitfalls as well as the advantages to what you choose.

    I guess the best way to figure out what's best for you is simply to try both of them out, as the OP is doing.

    http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-pros-and-cons-of-writing-a-novel-in-present-tense
     
    Last edited: Jun 5, 2015
  18. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    One of the many problems with present tense is that that sense of "being there," you just mentioned will be primarily experienced by you, the writer, and you alone. It's an illusion. Just like using a fancy font won't really make your actual words any more sophisticated. Most likely, your readers are going to get a very fleeting, very superficial sense of "being there," that will run out fast, sort of like those banana split flavor chewing gums that at first seem impressive before turning sickly sweet and then quickly flavorless. How do I know this? Usually(not always) when I read someones work that is present tense I won't notice at first. I too will be taken in by that "sense of immediacy," but only for a paragraph or two. Soon, I find myself becoming annoyed and underwhelmed. And then I realize. It's first person present. We spent the first three paragraphs talking about cereal bowls, and I fell for it because I foolishly (subconsciously) assumed that making it present tense meant something important was about to happen.

    Look. Wearing glasses doesn't make you smart. And maybe youl fool a few people for a minute or two, until they realize that half the population is doing it, and then you open your mouth and the illusions gone. Now you just look like a dumbass wearing thick frames and I can tell by the lack of glare it's just frames and you don't even need them. 1st person present is usually a crutch.
     
    Last edited: Jun 5, 2015
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  19. Dunning Kruger
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    Dunning Kruger Active Member

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    I plan to write a historical fiction about the revolutionary war in present tense. I want the sense of immediacy of the waiting to shoot until you see the whites of their eyes. On second thought...
     
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  20. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Woop. Probably best head for the tall timber now. There will be a price on your head and the bounty hunters will be looking for you. I know of this tidy little hideaway where you could skulk in safety for a while. I'll give you the key and never tell. :ninja:
     
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  21. Dunning Kruger
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    Dunning Kruger Active Member

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    Ok, a fair amount of my success in life is wearing glasses to look smart. So knock it off. I dont need anyone seeing things differently. And if you sound dumb when you talk, talk louder. It works on cable news. Glasses and talk loud. Got it?

    This is a joke, FYI.
     
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  22. Hannah0113
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    Thanks so much, jannert! Your comments that the article you posted help a lot! That's the problem I ran into with present tense - it felt so limited to me when I tried it out. Switching to past tense has helped a lot, but there are still some things that I miss from present tense. I think for now, I'll stick with past tense and see how it goes. There don't seem to be quite as many limitations with past tense as with present tense, at least so far for me.
     
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  23. Hannah0113
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    Thank you for the insight! I haven't thought of it this way until now, so this is definitely something to remember if I try out present tense again. Reading my own writing from a reader's point of view instead of my own is not easy for me, so I never realized how superficial present tense can seem.
     
  24. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Present tense is no more superficial than past tense. The degree to which the work strikes the reader as superficial is going to depend on how well the writer writes and is independent of tense.
     
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  25. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    This post is a test. It is only a test. If this were a real post, you be directed to bring me an assortment of cookies. Please stay tuned for your regularly scheduled thread...... ;)
     

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