1. Dr. Doctor
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    Dr. Doctor Contributing Member

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    Present Tense

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Dr. Doctor, Feb 13, 2009.

    Alright, I started writing a novel about six months ago entitled Play or Die. Coming off a period of vapid uninspiration, I chose to experiment a bit and use present tense instead of the easier and more manageable past. Now, the story has gone well so far, aside from leading to several problems when I try to write other stories and end up getting the tenses confused between them, but I want to know what the general consensus is on this sort of thing.

    Do you mind it?

    And if you know, is it generally frowned upon in the published world?

    Here's a sample:

     
  2. marina
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    marina Contributing Member Contributor

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    Why are you writing it in present tense, especially when your POV is third person? It seems to me that present tense is used with a first person POV so that you are right there with the narrator experiencing things immediately.
     
  3. Dr. Doctor
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    Dr. Doctor Contributing Member

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    I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see what it would do.

    Now, if you're wondering why I did this for an entire novel, your guess is as good as mine. Not one of my brighter ideas. But I have written a lot of the story and it does manage to flow well.
     
  4. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Most novels I have come across are written in past tense. Present is probably more effective in first person than in third, as marina mentioned, but even then, I have only seen present tense used in very short pieces. For most readers, present tense would be hard to read, perhaps because they are so used to past tense. Also, past tense tends to read much more naturally, at least for me.
     
  5. marina
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    marina Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think the piece you posted would read better in past tense since you're using 3rd person.

    It seems most readers don't like present tense, but I read a lot of YA novels, and you see 1st person, present tense all the time there. I like the intimacy of that POV and tense, it's relatable to me. I think you also see it in fantasy novels a lot.
     
  6. Howdy
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    John Updike wrote in present tense a lot. Read "A & P." It might motivate you. Either that or the Rabbit series.
     
  7. Dr. Doctor
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    Dr. Doctor Contributing Member

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    I figure I can always take a day or so to edit the story into past tense if necessary. I'll look at John Updike's work and see how it holds up.
     
  8. Cheeno
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    Cheeno Contributing Member

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    It holds up, but then he had the experience to keep it there. I have a novel at the editor's which is written in 3rd person, present tense, and I haven't had any complaints yet. The book I'm working on now, though, is in past tense, and to be honest, it is something of a relief to be writing once again in that style. As for Present Tense, it's an experiment I'm glad I took on. I like the intimacy it provides, but you have to be on the ball all the time with it or it can easily go awry.
     
  9. tehuti88
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    tehuti88 Contributing Member

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    I despise present tense--to me a story is something that already happened, and that's how I want to read it--but mine is just one opinion out of many. I would never say it never works, just that I myself don't prefer it.

    That being said,

    ...if you're having a problem keeping in tense, whether in just one story or from one story to another, you're really going to have to keep your eyes open and work hard at it. One should be very careful working in an unusual tense if they aren't naturally adept at keeping in it. Almost all present-tense writing I've seen online, at least, tends to slip into past tense eventually, so beware.
     
  10. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Present tense is rigid. With past tense, you can smoothly vary the sense of delay from decades to milliseconds. Present tense nails the speed of the action to the speed of the reading. If anything, it makes the story lag.

    There are stories you can get away with it, but you have to be a skilled writer to pull it odd even then.

    Present tense has its place, of course. Literal thoughts should usually be expressed in present tense. Instructional books tend to work very well in present tense, because you DO want to keep the reader's reading and doing paces sychronized:
    But for fiction, past tense usually works best, One author I often read did write one book using present tense, to enhance a sense of shock and dissociation. The main character was recovering from an assault from a madman, and spent the bulk of te book dealing with that trauma. It was a bold choice, but nearly everyone I know who read that book hated the writing style, even though they generally didn't put their finger on what they didn't like about it.

    I believe in experimentation. Sometimes you can come up with gold that way. But most experiments fail in the real world. Failure is valuable too, for what you learn from it. There is a saying I heard many years ago:
     
  11. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    Present tense is tough with third person, but it can be very effective with first person depending on what you're trying to do. I had a short piece that was a narrator basically talking to the audience as he told the story (there was a reason behind that, btw). Anyway, I thought it flowed well and wasn't difficult to follow.

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is written in first person present as well, and I don't think I've ever heard a negative thing about that book. And it wasn't written that long ago, either (early 60's?).
     
  12. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Keep in mind that Bromden is mentally ill, and therefore the present tense narration works well. If the writing seems a bit off, it enhances the feeling of borderline rationality.

    Special circumstances can always apply. This is why it's important to understand the standard guiidelines of writing. Ninety-nine plus percent of the time, sticking to those guidelines will result in better writing. For that fraction of a percent where breaking te rules makes the story stand out, you need to understand why breaking out of the mold will improve that piece.

    Still, most of te time that someone does successfully break free of te guidelines, I suspect the story would have been as good or even better had they followed convention.
     
  13. Cheeno
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    Cheeno Contributing Member

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    The main reason I used present tense in my novel was to portray the constant sense of disassocciation experienced by my amnesiac mc, something I felt past tense didn't adequately convey (I'd written the 1st draft in past tense).
     
  14. RomanticRose
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    RomanticRose Active Member

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    Present tense is difficult to pull off successfully. The only real problem I get with first person present tense is that I can't shake the mental image of the MC walking around with a tape recorder and narrating their actions. I try and try to shake it, bit it's very intrusive.
     
  15. madhoca
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    Man-Booker Prizewinner Penelope Lively uses Present Simple in her novels sometimes. But then, she is a prizewinning literary genius.
     
  16. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    Do you mind it?

    very much!... abhor it, is closer...

    And if you know, is it generally frowned upon in the published world?

    yes, generally... unless perpetrated by one of the extremely rare few master wordsmiths who can do it well... i agree with cog's views on it...
     
  17. Dr. Doctor
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    Thanks for all your replies. Very helpful.
     
  18. Atari
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    Atari Active Member

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    I have read a present-tense book. (It was a Wolverine book)
    The problem with it was not that it was in present-tense, but that it had a sad, slow air to the whole thing. Once I got into it, I was vaguely unaware of the tense.

    In YOUR example, however; the sentences are short. They are concise. They end almost abruptly. The sentences afterward could have easily been joined to make a longer sentence. A more complex sentence. But instead, you keep writing. Like. This!


    You should begin editing before you go further; otherwise, you may find yourself in a bit of a rut.
     
  19. Forkfoot
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    Forkfoot Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm writing a story in third person, present tense. Feels better, more in my voice, 'least for this piece. I don't know much about anything, but I suspect the practice of telling stories in the past tense got locked into our culture from back before the written word even existed, when we'd pass on our tribal mythologies from generation to generation telling ancient tales around a campfire. These stories told the members of the community what created the world, where fire comes from, why the sun behaves as it does, and so on, and were told as real events, as though they had really happened. We just never stopped telling stories in that way.

    I can't think of any reason this should be the case anymore, though. Your goal is to suck the reader into your little world and convey your message. If, while spinning your yarn, you wish to inform the reader of something that happened in the past, you can just switch to past tense: 'Jane has a black eye, because last night John punched her.' Haven't really run into anything that makes it more difficult to use than past tense.

    I suppose the only handicap would be if you didn't want it to be immediately clear to the writer that you are switching to a different point in time in your narration. My brother does this a lot in his writing; present tense probably wouldn't work for a lot of what he does. You can switch back and forth between talking about what Sally is doing right now and what she did do when she was five years old, but it will always be clear to the reader when this switch is occurring.
     
  20. Asuran
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    As a writer I avoid it. When I read for pleasure, often I become so involved with a character that I don't realize it until after I finish the book. I was recently reading a novel where I got so engrossed in the characters and plot that I noticed only halfway through the book that it was in present tense. So, as others are saying, only attempt to get a present tense published if you are very skilled.
     
  21. Atari
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    Frankly, it need not even be mentioned.

    If I said to you, "Man, I'm in agony. I ate too much."
    Are you going to say, "Wait, whoa! You switched tenses on me, there, man! Slow down."

    I doubt it. (The reason I'm not dogmatic is because I don't like to pontificate. I mean, you might very well say that, for all I know!)

    The point is that your switching tenses when writing primarily in the present tense is trivial, at best. It's not really noticed. It's obvious what you are doing, to the point that it is not even noticed.
     
  22. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Don't confuse narrative voice with grammatical tense. A story can be written in a consistently past tense voice and yet contain nearly every tense variation in the sentences that comprise it. The verb used in direct narration characterizes te narrative voice. So using your example as an example:
    It's not only dialogue that will contain variations in tense, either:
    The narrative voice stays in past tense, despite the sentences in future and present tense.
     

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