1. carsun1000
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    carsun1000 Active Member

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    writing in the present tense: Does it work for you?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by carsun1000, Aug 22, 2011.

    Hello fellow writers,

    So I have been toying with the idea of revising one of my works and change it from the past tense to the present tense. So I started messing with the idea and changed my first chapter. My problem is that it does not sound right when I read the change. I feel like I am drifting away from a traditional fiction settings. I know some authors do it, but is this idea for everyone?
     
  2. AJSmith
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    AJSmith Senior Member

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    So, a friend has been reading over my drafts and giving me feedback. When she came back from her initial reading, one of her suggestions was that I consider changing from past to present tense. I looked at her like she was crazy, and told her I didn't think I could do that.

    Two months into revising for my second draft, I realized I was willing to finally try it.

    It was surprisingly easy to change, and made the piece more urgent feeling. I liked the change a lot, also using it to shift between two worlds (one using past tense and the other in present).

    I've read a lot of books in present tense, and I've noticed that I don't even realize unless I'm specifically looking for it. I think it reads more naturally... I'm referring to first person in all of the examples I can remember.
     
  3. carsun1000
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    carsun1000 Active Member

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    I am sure helps especially if all you have to do is to add "s" at the end of a verb in the third person.
     
  4. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    I've done it. I've also read highly successful books where it's been done. "The Hunger Games" is written in first person. So is "Speak."
     
  5. demonmr98
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    demonmr98 New Member

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    I know it's terribly close minded of me, but if I find a book is written in present tense, I put it down immediately. For some reason I absolutely hate present tense, even after trying to write that way myself. It seems that it makes most stories choppier and really takes away from the flow of the story.

    Haha. That's just me though.
     
  6. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have some issues with it. I dont really mind reading it and sometimes I kind of think its more logical. Especially in first person. Sometimes it seems weird that some I person is talking in past tense unless hes writing about past events, which isnt always the case. Yet I think writing it is really weird.
     
  7. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    "Speak" did have a choppy feel to it, but I think the author (Laurie Halse Anderson) did that deliberately because the MC was in a very chaotic/detached position, and good writers will fit their writing style and sentence structure with the tone they're trying to create.

    So if that's not what you're going for, then maybe it's not best. It depends on each story and on personal preference.
     
  8. Taylee91
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    Taylee91 Carpe Diem Contributor

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    ^Not everyone. Some of the time, it's all about preference.

    Personally, I find present tense fun. It gives the story an immediacy that won't let me put it down. But if you feel like it affects your story in a negative way, then go back to past. It's your story :)
     
  9. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    ... Not first person. Present tense. Two completely different things, right there.

    And I've used present tense to great effect. It's actually almost become my favoured tense, but my current piece is in past.
     
  10. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    Eh, for me, it just makes the story feel phony. In summary form, it's okay. But for the actual events of the story, writing and reading present tense makes it very hard for me to get into the story world. I just cannot stand it most of the time.
     
  11. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I like present tense just fine. There's no reason it should be more choppy or more of a summation than past tense unless it is just poorly done.
     
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  12. carsun1000
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    carsun1000 Active Member

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    Most of the books I have read so far were all in the past tense. So when I pick up a book and it is written in the present form, it messes with the way I conceptualize the story. Feels weird. But to each his/her own I guess.
     
  13. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm not into it much, to be honest.

    So I don't foresee writing anything in present tense, at present. ;)
     
  14. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I think it comes down to personal taste. Some people just won't like it, and that's fine. My counter was to arguments that it is more choppy or more of a summary than past tense. That's not possible, in my view, unless there is also something else wrong with the writing.

    As an exercise, you can take your favorite passage from a past tense book and re-write it, word for word, in present tense. It can't be choppier, in my view, because all of the words are going to be the same, differing only by tense where necessary, and so sentence flow, length, and the like will all be the same. Likewise, the present tense re-write will impart exactly the same information in the same number of words and overall structure as the original, so it doesn't seem to me that it can be any more or less of a summary than the past tense version.

    If you've read present tense that is choppy, that's a problem with the writing generally, not with the tense. And the same holds true if it seems to be a summary.
     
  15. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I dislike it. I've even seen a bestselling author use it, and everyone I know who reads those particular books are unimpressed, even if they cannot put their finger on what it is about those stories that puts them off.

    It seems to be somewhat of a trend these days, but I believe it is a mistake.
     
  16. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    I know the difference between first person and present tense.

    I just pulled out my copy of "Speak," to double-check that it was indeed in present tense, and here's a brief excerpt:

    "Nothing good ever happens at lunch. The cafeteria is a giant sound stage where they film daily segments of Teenage Humiliation Rituals. And it smells gross."

    Happens; is; smells: present tense. ;)

    Although yes, it is written in the first-person, as well. ;)
     
  17. jwatson
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    jwatson Active Member

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    I personally find present tense very useful for short stories. I have never tried it for a novel, though.
     
  18. Raki
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    Raki Contributing Member

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    Personally, I prefer past tense because that is what I'm used to seeing. The majority of the books and things I read are in past tense, and so my mind has grown accustomed to it. I rarely write a complete story in present tense, though I do use it to show scenes of character flashbacks, dreams, and so on.

    There was also one particular short story I wrote recently where I found it worked much better in present tense than past because the "narrator" (it was written in first person) hid a detail from the reader until the end of the story. Written in past tense, the hidden detail seemed a deliberate trick to confuse the reader, which can put them off, but once switched to present tense, the reader discovers the detail with the narrator. It doesn't make much sense in this context and is a bit difficult to explain. I haven't published that particular short story yet, but it's somewhat like Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow if you wish to read an example.
     
  19. Peutra
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    Past tense seems to flow well with me when it's used in conjunction with first person and third person (which basically means every style of narration).

    Present works well with first person, but it's a little jagged in the flow since it's not used in the majority of writing pieces.
     
  20. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    If something is wrong with your prose and needs revised, edited or rewritten, a change of tense isn't going to make much difference unless you simply have an inability to succeed at the previous pov you were working in.

    It's done all the time, both well and poorly, both successfully and not. It doesn't matter nearly as much as people like to claim; the biggest claim being it makes your fiction more immediate. You know what makes for immediate prose? Writing that doesn't suck. Any tense, pov, style, theme, genre can be immediate, and present tense is about 100 on a list of 100 things that matter in that regard.

    So, whatever magic bullet you were hoping would be created with a tense change, forget it. I'm pretty sure there are more important things to address if you prose wasn't working. The fact that you're converting tense and it's not working or sounding right tells me tense wasn't the problem anyway, as tight, compelling prose is remarkably easy to translate between not only tenses, but first and third (and even second) person as well.

    The best thing you're gaining by a selection of tense are the people that can't seem to figure out that present tense doesn't mean a story is literally happening right this moment somewhere in the world or just don't like it because by golly they can't get used to these new fangled things kids are doing, despite the fact present tense is extremely common.

    The thing to remember is that a pov choice is only bad in poorly written fiction, as the reader is then not engaged in the story and looking for reasons why, things to blame, often ways to confirm their biases.

    Basically, the solution is stop worry about tense or pov in general and just write better.
     
  21. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    You do know that even first person stories aren't literally being told. A story's storyline isn't our real-time time-line. A present tense story doesn't mean the action is literally happening in the here and now.

    It makes reading a bit less disconcerting to realize stories have their own timeline, and that there's a method involved, meaning some first person stories are reminiscent, meaning the events have already happened, and some past tense stories, even first person, still present action as if it's happening for the first time (and being in past tense doesn't literally mean the action has already happened).
     
  22. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    But plenty of fiction, usually well written, the reader discovers the details with the narrator even in past tense.

    I'll say it again, because it's one of those mistaken assumptions I see writers clinging to:

    There are reminiscent narrations, where the present-time character is literally looking back or retelling the story after the fact. This is usually first person, as it works better than third, since third requires someone literally speaking dialog for an entire story, which isn't usually done, or requires the character to be a psychic so already knows what is going to happen effectively making the present time storyline reminiscent, or time travelers... but you get the idea how it's more cumbersome in third person, so is usually only done in first.

    Then there are narrations where the action unfolds as if for the first time, whether in past or present tense, first or third person.

    The difference is a character comes to a fork in the road, one to certain doom and the other to certain continued being alive. In a reminiscent narration, the narrator can give commentary on the path not taken, knowing the path of continued living was taken (lest they be dead and unable to tell the story). It's the kind of narration where the character can say 'had I taken the left path, I would have been killed, as I learned there was a band of flesh eating midget zombies down that way.

    In a non-reminiscent narration, the bulk of third person and a lot of first as well, the character comes to the path and doesn't know what's down both, so just has to choose, no knowing if it's going to lead to certain doom or not.

    You can guess why non-reminiscent narration is preferred, as this sort of style, where the story is unfolding as if for the first time, lends to more urgency, as we, and the character, don't know what will happen next.

    And, this can in fact be done in past tense, as past tense is a style of delivering narration, not a factual establishment that the events of the story have happened in the past of our own timeline and thus there is surely someone to have witnessed them and written a treatise on what is down each path.

    Nope, whether first, third or first person, past or present or future tense, a character can come to a fork in the road and not know what happens next. It's an effect of how a story is told, no what tense or pov it's told in.
     
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  23. colorthemap
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    colorthemap Contributing Member

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    It is a good thing and a bad thing. Bad as in it is horrible to read it, good as in you talk about it so other people, and you, finish the book.
     
  24. Raki
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    Raki Contributing Member

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    Yes, that's true to a degree, but most of all past tense seems to hold a reminiscent-narration quality to it when used in the first person. For example, "I walked down the left side of the road" shows the action unfolding, but also implies that the narrator is retelling events from a future setting. There doesn't need to be an actual narrator telling this story from a present-time setting or even a commentary about what may have been down the right side of the road; the language simply suggests that they're retelling events from a future setting because the action happened in the past (and it happened to them). Present tense lends more weight to the action unfolding as it happens. "I walk down the left side of the road" doesn't have that reminiscent quality to it.

    However, a large part of that reminiscent quality comes from the first-person narration. If I said "I walked down the left side of the road," it would imply that I have already done that action and I'm telling you about it from sometime after it happened. But if you said, "He walked down the left side of the road," the reminiscent aspect of it is still there but less obtrusive.
     
  25. nchahine
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    I don't know, I think my biggest issue with present tense is that I'm not used to it. Most books are written in past tense, so present tense really sticks out to me. I notice stuff like that. It's not something I can easily ignore. And I don't get this whole idea that writing in present tense makes it feel more immediate. It just feels phony to me.

    If you're going to do it, then it should be done well, but just be aware that a lot of people will be turned off from it, just because it reads differently.
     

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