1. dgraham
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    dgraham Senior Member

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    Tense About Present Tense

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by dgraham, Dec 8, 2009.

    I have noticed that a lot of users here are strongly opposed to writing in the present tense. Personally, I don't quite understand what the big deal is.

    This really became crystal clear to me, when I realised the other day that a book I was already halfway through was written mostly in the present tense (with occasional past tense digressions). By the way, the book is The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.

    I hadn't even noticed that it was written in present tense... Anyway, I'm curious if a lot of people's problems with present tense writing actually stem from just not being used to it. Obviously the majority of writing is in past tense, but why does it need to be that way?

    As for me, I like the immediacy of present tense. And if the narrator is telling a story in the past tense, how can he die sensibly at the end?

    Anyway, let me know what you think, from both sides, if you're interested.
     
  2. Unsavory
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    Unsavory Active Member

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    I'll just go ahead and be completely honest. There are only a couple of reasons that I don't like present tense, and neither of them is valid to the point where I could debate the point. First, I'm not used to it. I like reading past tense because it's comfortable. I grew up reading past tense and I write past tense myself. It just feels right.

    Second, a lot of otherwise bad writers write in present tense. The two aren't necessarily related, but I start to relate them in my mind which makes present tense all the more uncomfortable.
     
  3. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    Honestly, I feel the same as Unsavory.

    All the best books I've read have been written in past tense, and nearly always in third person. So I write the same. It's comfortable and natural and suits the content I'm working with.

    There are more reasonable points to be made for either side of the debate, but I'm not really interested in debating this one.

    I will probably write in virtually every POV, tense and style some day, but I have no reason to change what I'm doing for now.
     
  4. Agreen
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    Agreen Faceless Man Contributor

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    I almost always find present tense awkward and forced. I think the main reason is the timing- it feels odd for a character to be simultaneously narrating and experiencing their story. This is especially magnified when present tense is combined with a first person POV.
     
  5. Ecksvie
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    Ecksvie Member

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    I agree with the points so far. As Unsavoury said, alot of bad writers do it, often just to prove it can be done. There are very few stories which would actually benefit from being told in present tense, and I often find the ones that are written in it anyway are written by authors too stubborn to just back down and do it the same as everyone else.
     
  6. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I guess I'm in the minority, but of my 10 favourite (more or less) books, 7 are written in present tense. Of the worst I can think of off the top of my head, all are written in past. TBH, besides among unpublished writerson sites like this, I've seen no evidence for the idea that otherwise bad writers like to use it for whatever reason (though I avoid bad writers like the plague).

    I think, however, that it has a lot to do with genre. I read (virtually exclusively) literary fiction: the experimental, the ambitious, the artistic. I read a little crime, I can't handle fantasy at all, and it seems that a lot of the people who say they don't like present tense seem to have pretty different reading/writing tastes than I do. For me, it's never been a problem, and while I'm not convinced by the arguments against, I get that its the kind of thing that will just rub some people the wrong way.
     
  7. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    exactly!... same here...
     
  8. Phantasmal Reality
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    Phantasmal Reality Contributing Member

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    Your writing should never distract from the story; you want it to be as transparent as possible.

    Readers are accustomed to reading third-person limited in past tense. That's a fact of life, whether we as writers like it or not. If you try first-person POV or present tense (or both simultaneously) you better have a good reason for doing so. Present tense can add a sense of immediacy to a story, but using it solely for that reason is (usually) a cheap trick and will (usually) do little more than annoy your readers and make you look like an amateur.

    Now, that being said, there's no reason why you can't make present tense work. A few people in this thread have pointed out stories that they enjoyed that were written in present tense, so it's certainly doable, but you always need to ask yourself, "Is present tense going to help my story?" and, "Do I stand to gain more than I stand to lose by using a POV/tense that my readers aren't used to?" If you can answer yes to both, go for it, but be honest when you ask them.

    For example, the big story I'm currently working on is one I plan to turn into a visual novel--look it up on Wikipedia if you're unfamiliar with the term--and I'm writing it in first-person present. Visual novels are typically written that way because the reader essentially "plays" the main character and is presented with decisions that alter the course of the story. It's awkward to present decisions in the past (I went to the store, and... did I buy donuts or mini pizzas?), and the first-person POV helps the reader "become" the main character. There are extra obstacles I have to overcome because of that combination (first-person present is sooo easy to botch; be prepared to spend a lot of time editing to avoid "I do this, I do that" language), but I think it's worth it for the reasons I just mentioned.

    Moral of the story: if you have a good reason to use present tense, do it, otherwise stick with the tried and true. Whatever you go with, make sure that your choice of tense, POV, and tone does not distract your readers from the content of your story. :)
     
  9. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Disagree to the extreme!! Your story should never distract from your writing is more my mantra. Anyone can tell a story, writing an interesting novel takes more than the ability to spin a yarn. The writing is all there is, I don't see why anyone would want to go out of their way to make it transparent. If anything, I take steps to call attention to the writing. Though maybe this goes some way to accounting for why I find present tense to be preferable to past in my writing; if it stops the reader getting totally immersed in the story, its good. If the reader ever forgets they're reading a book, I would consider that a failure.
     
  10. Goldie
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    I found that a previous project was actually better told in present tense. I used to avoid first-person POV like the plague. Even if the story sounded stellar, I wouldn't touch it because it was in first-person. And if it was first-person present? No way.

    Now, I don't mind it so much. I mostly write YA, and quite a bit of that is first-person, and much of it is present tense. I enjoy it now and will sometimes read my story aloud to see if it would be better in present.
     
  11. Phantasmal Reality
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    Phantasmal Reality Contributing Member

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    There are two kinds of writers in the world: those who write to tell a story, and those who tell a story to show off their writing. You are obviously the latter, and there is nothing wrong with that, even though your last sentence there makes me cringe as if someone were grating their fingernails across a chalkboard hard enough to separate them from the digits they once cleaved to. :rolleyes:
     
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  12. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I had that same aversion to present tense that many posters seem to have. But in the end, whether reading or writing, our ultimate desire is a great story. All it takes is one good book written in present tense to make you realise this format can produce an enjoyable read. For me the book was The Hunger Games.

    Now I don't care whether a book is first person, second or third, past or present ; My decision to turn the first page is based solely on content, not on tense. Because honestly a good writer can make anything work.
     
  13. Phantasmal Reality
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    Phantasmal Reality Contributing Member

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    That's pretty much how I feel too. :)
     
  14. dgraham
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    dgraham Senior Member

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    Sorry, I didn't get to respond to anyone's comments earlier. I'm glad to see the variety of ideas, and I feel like I fall somewhere in between on this issue compared to most others. I don't feel like I need to be constantly inserting myself between the story and the reader, but it's not a bad thing if the reader has to occasionally pause and ask themselves why the story is the way it is, or what it means.
     
  15. marina
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    marina Contributing Member Contributor

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    Exactly! Present tense really worked for The Hunger Games. It gave the intense storyline an added sense of urgency.

    Meanwhile, the book Willow by Julia Hoban shouldn't have been written in present tense. It didn't serve the storyline at all.
     
  16. jlauren
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    jlauren Senior Member

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    I have to say that not too long ago I hated present tense and first person POV. If I picked up a book written that way I would put it straight down. But then I found The Time Travellor's Wife and I knew I really wanted to read it - something in me said I would enjoy it. It's written in first person POV and in present tense. I'm glad I gave it a shot because it totally changed my perspective on POV and tenses.

    Now, I'm writing a story in first person POV, present tense and I LOVE it! I think it's the urgency of the narration that I enjoy - it's being told as though the character is thinking out loud. I love finding out things the minute the character does and being able to react WITH them, rather than telling them how they react. I just find it an exciting and challenging way to write.

    So I'm a convert.
     
  17. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    I couldn't agree more. Why would anyone read a piece of fiction that does nothing they couldn't get from reading a dictionary?

    Telling a great story isn't to "spin a yarn". If you think that, you have missed what storytelling is about. Completely.
     
  18. jlauren
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    jlauren Senior Member

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    agree agree agree.
     
  19. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    I was struggling with the same issue, but Cogito explained that it was better to write past tense as if the narration takes place only a second ahead of the story. That way the narrator could also be alive long enough to realize he's dying. :eek:
     
  20. Phantasmal Reality
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    Phantasmal Reality Contributing Member

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    Yeah, past tense can be written to feel pretty darn immediate--to the point that the death of the narrator won't feel strange. Just avoid any kind of "hindsight insights" such as:

    I went to the store and stole a cupcake. Looking back now, that was stupid.

    If you do something like that, the narrator better not die. Or, if he does, he better be a ghost or something. Or maybe a zombie. Yeah... that'd be cool. Zombie narrator. :D
     

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