1. amorgan3
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    amorgan3 Member

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    Style Struggling with the impact of Past vs. Present Tense

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by amorgan3, Apr 28, 2015.

    I have been writing my current WIP for some time (about 35k words in or so), and I keep second guessing my decision to write in the past tense. It feels so removed at times, as if as a reader I am just watching from afar through a pair of binoculars.

    What do you feel about narrating in the past versus in the present? At first the past felt much more natural to me, now I look at my story and feel like the present tense builds better suspense, better release, and (as a result) better emotional connection than past tense ever could.

    Help a fellow writer through his rewrite crisis?
     
  2. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I like present, myself, but I hardly ever write in it because there are a significant number of readers who just don't seem to get into it. That probably depends on your genre, though - YA at least seems fine with present tense.

    To me, there IS more of a sense of immediacy with present tense, and maybe that's why it works with YA, because that category tends to have a really intimate, intense voice. In other categories of writing, you might run into reader-resistance.
     
  3. amorgan3
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    amorgan3 Member

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    I am trying to remain in full steam ahead mode, but in dialogue heavy or otherwise microscopically focused situations, it seems so archaic. Maybe I should stop procrastinating and keep writing. XD
     
  4. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    I prefer present tense because of its semantic simplicity.

    Language is a crude tool for expressing thoughts. I prefer the language not to get in its own way. Ideally, our brains would be trained on a more precise and flexible way to represent events in time. (Maybe some kind of visual timeline.) But instead, we just have a handful of tenses that are defined with respect to a frame of reference, and we have the general notion that a sequence of sentences in the same tense represents a sequence of actions that happen in the same order.

    Present tense is defined with respect to one frame of reference. Past tense is defined with respect to two frames. Past events happen in a frame of reference that precedes the present (or what I call "fundamental") frame of reference.

    This becomes clear when we compare analogous tenses:

    Perfect: "the thing has happened."
    Past perfect: "the thing had happened."

    Future: "the thing will happen."
    Future-of-the-past? (I do not know what this is called): "the thing would happen / was going to happen."

    Future perfect: "by then, the thing already will have happened."
    Future-perfect-of-the-past (???) "by then, the thing already would have had happened." (Not even sure if that is technically valid, but it is awkward as hell.)

    There are other examples. The point is that I like to minimize the steps taken from the fundamental frame of reference. Telling the whole story in the past tense adds an unnecessary step.

    You know, English enforces a very particular understanding of time. I know at least Chinese, and possibly other languages, does not require the tense of a verb to be specified. You can tell an entire story without specifying tense. You are not presenting it as "events that happened before I started speaking" or "events that are happening as I speak"; instead, you are simply describing a series of events. There is a difference between just describing an idea, and describing it and then making a statement about how it relates to reality.

    With this knowledge that tense is a peculiarity of language itself, it is hard to prefer one tense over another for any reason other than the simple convenience of writing in a given tense. In past or present, you are doing the same thing: describing an imaginary series of events without making any statement about the relationship between the act of narration and the events. Might as well take the path of least resistance.
     
    Last edited: Apr 28, 2015
  5. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Not to dis anyone writing in present tense, but it feels like a fad to me. On the other hand, you should look at the benefits and drawbacks of present tense.

    The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense
    Thus the fadishness I feel. But you'll need to go to the link to read the pros and cons. I couldn't tease out the essence with an excerpted quote or two.
     
  6. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    A fad ends, along with the perception that something is part of that fad.

    The nature of language does not end.
     
  7. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    If a fad has lasted over thirty years, is it still a fad?

    None of the arguments in that article really made sense to me. It's easier to include superfluous details in present tense? Well, just... don't. I mean, you have to pay attention to what you're choosing to include in a story regardless of tense. One short story that's apparently deliberately intended to be a "slice of life" story written in present tense doesn't mean other authors can't write present tense well. And diminishing suspense? It's pretty rare for contemporary authors to use the sort of "little did I know..." construction the post mentions, and honestly, I don't find they build suspense anyway. I find they build distance.
     
  8. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I'm currently reading Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale, in which scenes in the narrator's present are written in present tense and the bulk of the story - recollections of the narrator - is written in past tense. It works quite well. Another writer who used present-in-present-tense/past-in-past-tense is Celeste Ng in Everything I Never Told You. In both works, the method has the advantage of allowing the writer to switch from narrative present to narrative past without specific chapter headings or other blatant signposts. The effect is instantaneous. In fact, had I read these two books before starting to write Rosa's Secret, I would have been tempted to use the method myself, although in the end I probably would have demurred - my narration is through the eyes of someone who was 13 at the time, but is reflecting back from adulthood. The narrator in Nightingale is an elderly woman and in Everything is not a character in the story.

    The first book I remember reading written entirely in present tense was Bill Bradley's Life On the Run, a first-person sports book written in 1974.

    Last summer, there was a review in the NY Times of Tom Rachman's new novel, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers that took Rachman to task for delaying unreasonably the revelation of details that the POV character knows all along but chooses not to reveal in order to pull the reader along. We all do this to a certain extent, but the reviewer felt that Rachman had abused the privilege and that the result felt very contrived. One way out of this dilemma is use of 1st person narration, the "unreliable narrator". I, myself, only like this option when the narrator has a reason to be unreliable, such as a traumatic event that (s)he tries to forget. But present tense narration offers another way around the problem. After all, we can't blame the narrator for withholding details that haven't yet occurred.
     
  9. AlcoholicWolf
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    AlcoholicWolf Contributing Member

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    I think it certainly depends on the genre. If you are writing a sweeping historical drama or a High Fantasy novel, past-tense probably works well, especially when there's the issue of multiple viewpoints and lots of scene-setting to consider.

    With Young Adult books and the woefully popular 50 Shades of Grey, it's all about getting into the mind of the character. With present-tense, you get a better sense of immediacy with the narrator's thoughts.

    All in all I wouldn't say present-tense is any worse than past-tense or vice versa, but it certainly depends on the way your story is written. I feel alienated by FP present-tense as for me it tends to lack the depth of past-tense third person POV stories, but then again that's my personal opinion. Judge from what your story needs as to what POV works best.
     
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  10. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's not an issue of tense. It's an issue of writing ability. Past tense novels have enthralled readers for centuries. 1st person present is so popular today because the immediacy of the tense can, at first, make eating a bowl of cereal seem important. " I take out a bowl from the cabinet and reach for the cornflakes." We the reader can't help but anticipate that something important is going to happen very very soon. This is a gimmick. Not real writing.

    I've put down past tense novels, shaking, so caught up was I in the plight of the protagonist.

    I'm not saying present tense is always bad or is never used well, but I'm willing to bet those few who have written good present tense novels also had the ability to write good past tense novels.

    In short, for most aspiring writers, present tense is a handicap, and it will make you feel good while writing it, but not much else.
     
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  11. Kingtype
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    Kingtype Always writing or thinking things XD Staff Role Play Moderator Contributor

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    I think I tend to do third person in past more and first in present.

    BUT

    I do believe that future tense is probably the best to use.
     
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  12. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    If you are talking about the current fad of writing in present tense, I don't think it's been a fad for 30 years. Someone may have done it 30 years ago, but that wasn't the beginning of the fad.
     
  13. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's interesting that you see past tense as distant. I feel disconnected from present tense...or maybe I mean that present tense feels disconnected. Narrative in present tense makes me feel as if the character isn't thoughtful, isn't connected with memory and experience. I feel as if I'm floating with a narrator that isn't really paying much attention, as if I have an unreliable guide.

    And that makes no sense, just as past tense feeling distant really makes no sense. Either can be used for whatever effect you want.

    But I hate present tense with a fiery passion. I cannot read a book in present tense; I've tried. There's a book that I otherwise like quite a bit somewher around the house, dog-eared around chapter three, because I Just Can't Get Any Further.

    And I'm sure that some people, especially current YA readers, hate past tense just as much.

    So you may want to make a largely pragmatic choice based on what's used most commonly in your genre. For YA, you may need to use present tense. For a book where a large percentage of your readers will be over thirty, you may need to use past tense.

    I, too, am of the opinion that present tense is in fashion right now and will likely go out of fashion in a few years. I don't have evidence for my opinion, it's purely anecdotal, based on the fact that in a heavily reading childhood and young adulthood and not-so-young adulthood, I very seldom encountered a novel in present tense. I became aware of present-tense novels as a common thing perhaps ten years ago.

    These look equally simple to me.

    "the thing would happen." Equally simple.

    "by then, the thing would have already happened." Equally simple.
     
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  14. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    @ChickenFreak

    You can point out that select past tense constructions in English just happen to use as many words as the equivalent present tense constructions, but that does not refute my main point that defaulting to the past tense frame of reference adds a layer of information to every verb, which removes the very meaning from that information and thus defeats the purpose of expressing it. (Unless you are specifically saying the narrated event precedes the act of narration.)

    "I drink water because I am thirsty because I was running."
    =
    "I drink water because I am thirsty because I am running before now."

    "I drank water because I was thirsty because I had been running."
    =
    "I drink water before now because I am thirsty before now because I am running before the point before now."
     
  15. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    But that assumes that "now" is the easiest frame of reference to understand. I don't know if that's a valid assumption.

    It's certainly not the easiest frame of reference for me to understand when reading a novel, but that is of course because I have read hundreds and hundreds of past-tense novels. So for me, reading a novel in the present tense requires a constant, sentence by sentence, low level translation of frame of reference. Having the action comfortably plodding along in the past is more comfortable, for me, than having it constantly dancing on the border between past and future.

    But even without that, why would we assume that the present is easiest to understand when narrating a sequence of events? In casual speech, which you'd think would involve the easiest and most intuitive use of language, most people that I know narrate events in the past tense:

    "Sorry I'm late. I accidentally parked in front of a hydrant and got a ticket."
    "We had chicken and cucumbers for lunch yesterday."
    "This afternoon I went to the library and then I had a look at the new music store."

    They don't usually say:

    "Sorry I'm late. I'm accidentally parking in front of a hydrant, and I get a ticket."
    "Yesterday, we're having chicken and cucumbers for lunch."
    "So, this afternoon I'm at the library and then I'm looking at the new music store."

    Now, sometimes a person will narrate events in the present tense:

    "So, I'm at the bar. And this girl walks up to me and she says, 'Have you seen a Siamese kitten?' And I say, no, maybe they cooked him for the lunch special. And she starts to cry, and then the bartender says I've had too much and cuts me off, and then there's so many people glaring at me that I leave. And then..."

    But I still think that narrating events in the past tense is more natural.

    I don't understand your examples. You seem to be demonstrating that the past tense is confusing, by inserting present tense into it, thus undermining your own point.
     
  16. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    @ChickenFreak

    The point of my examples is to reveal information that we tend to ignore. By adding the phrase "before now" after verbs, I do not "insert present tense into it". Instead, I simply reveal the present tense frame of reference that was already there by expressing it in additional words instead of inflection.

    I never said past is harder to understand than present (although that can be true with more complex constructs like conditionals and subjunctives). I said it adds an unnecessary layer of information. It just so happens that you and I are so used to digesting that layer of information that we can do so without noticing. But it is still there. Writing is a process of making one deliberate, well-reasoned decision after another, and every time you write a verb, you decide whether to add any information about tense. If I have no reason to inform the reader that the event described by the verb precedes my act of writing, then I do not go out of my way to express that information. When I do not inflect the verb, it defaults to present tense.

    You maintain that it is natural to tell a story in the past tense. Correction: it is natural to narrate actual history in the past tense, as in your examples. When you narrate history in past tense, you are literally telling the listener that those events happened before you started narrating them. Your mind is in the mode to inform the listener. In that mode, it is natural to give correct information.

    When I write fiction, my mind is not naturally in the mode to inform someone of what actually happened. My mind is in the mode to describe a hypothetical series of events. In fact, even when I deliberately choose past tense for a section (e.g. a character telling a story), if I am not careful, then I slip back into present. That is evidence that "narrating events in the past tense is more natural" is false in some contexts.
     
    Last edited: May 1, 2015
  17. Tim3232
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    Tim3232 Active Member

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    To come back to amorgan3’s original post. Perhaps this is the crisis of confidence that most of us get in our writing at some point (many points). If you had written 35k in 1st person, you might well now be having a similar crisis and wondering whether it should be 3rd person.

    When I hit a crisis of confidence I usually find a book or two to read, or flick through, as an example that addresses the writing issue I am struggling with. I find it rarely helps directly and perhaps it’s just time away from writing that helps. I’m currently reading the prize winning ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ and find the tense odd at times. Since I started writing I see much more that I’m not totally comfortable with when I read and not just my own work. Hang on - I think my mind’s wandering here.

    Until my last work, I have, by default, written past tense. I’ve enjoyed writing present tense this time. However, I suggest that yours is a temporary crisis that you ‘simply’ need to work through. Writers have certainly built suspense and emotional connections well enough in past tense. So, I think you need to look at your writing generally and not specifically at the tense – if you’re going to look at anything. Having said that, it is probably much better not to look at all, but to get on with it and see how you can improve when you come to editing.
     
  18. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    Just to play devil's advocate here.

    If we're talking about narrating a hypothetical series of events, would it not be logical to use future conditional tense?
     
  19. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    In English, we normally use present tense to describe imaginary things.

    "The ball I imagine is blue."
    "In the series of events I imagine, the first event is that I throw the ball. The second event is that you catch the ball."
    "In the series of events I imagine, I throw the ball and you catch it."
    "Imagine that I throw the ball and you catch it."
    "I throw the ball and you catch it."

    I think this stems from the fact that in English, we use present tense to make timeless statements, like "two plus two is four." A description of an imaginary thing is as timeless as a mathematical statement.

    Either that, or it stems from the fact that in English, we use present tense to qualify our references, like "I prefer a ball that is blue over a ball that is red."
     
  20. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    That doesn't speak to the logical imperative for the use of future conditional, it merely justifies the use of the present tense.
     
  21. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Why is there a logical imperative to use future conditional?

    Also, I am trying to imagine a story written in future conditional. Would it not look identical to a story written in present?

    "If I throw the ball in a minute, then you will catch it."

    Semantically, "throw" is future conditional, but syntactically, it has the same form as present.
     
  22. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    [​IMG]
     
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  23. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    At first my reaction to this was, "you're doing it wrong," but then I thought, okay, if writers/readers struggle to connect with present tense, surely a writer can feel past tense isn't immediate or close enough for them too! And that's fine, different strokes, but just in case, you can check if you're using e.g. lots of filtering verbs that tend to diminish the sense of immediacy and closeness or if you're writing as if reporting, telling, listing, describing it like a movie.

    I think you can do all of that well with both tenses, but it's possible that for your story one tense serves it better than the other. Are you writing in first person as well?

    I also do this. If I'm struggling with the flow, descriptions, tense, whatever, I pick up a book that is similarly narrated and it helps me to get back in track.
     
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  24. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Fiction is, as I see it, presented as if it were actual history. So from your point of view you're supporting your argument, and from my point of view you're supporting mine.
     
  25. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Literary essays are traditionally written in the present tense...

    "Macbeth struggles with his conscience but allows himself to be persuaded by the witches" or whatever.
     

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