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How would you react to this tense shift

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Steerpike, Aug 12, 2012.

  1. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    A project I've been working on has three POVs. The vast majority of it is in the MC's POV, but I occasionally switch to a secondary characters who is a friend of the MC, and even less frequently I switch to the antagonists POV.

    Right now, it is all in third-person, but when I am in the MC's POV, I write in present tense. Any other POV that crops up is in the past tense. The idea is that this will perhaps lend some immediacy to the MC's POV, and will in any event be a point of distinction from the other POVs.

    I know the cardinal rule is that if it is done well, anything flies. I think I've done a good job with the writing itself, so here's the question: assuming you found the quality of writing to be good overall, how would you react to the mere fact of a tense shift like this? I ask because one reader remarked on the present tense. She actually said she liked it fine, but recommended I change it because it was 'different.'

    I don't really want to know 'can' I do this - I already know I can. But I would like a sort of gut reaction from each of you. If you saw this, would it faze you at all? Would it cause you to stumble for a moment, and then reorient yourself to the new tense? Or would you go with it without any problem?
     
  2. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    Present tense writing causing me to stumble a bit. I have to orient myself, something that would take a good chapter or two. If you switched back to past tense, it would renew the jarring experience I initially felt.

    Also, it would lead me to wonder why the tense shifting. Depending on the story, it could compel me to keep turning the page. I would want an answer to that within the book, though.
     
  3. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    It's really hard to say without reading an excerpt. However, I've read attempts of some writers doing this (experimentally) and it came off feeling a bit strange.

    Do you employ some literary device to shift POV logically so the tense changes feels logical to the reader or are you just jumping back & forth?

    Gut reaction: I'd probably stumble on it at first but I'd give it a chance if the surrounding writing was strong enough to carry me past that initial reaction.
     
  4. If the prose style is good (and based on what I've read of yours, I'll assume it is), I don't think I'd even notice. I actually have read a few books that did something like this (different basic tense depending on chapter/POV/etc.) and usually I didn't even realize it until halfway through the book.

    I may not be the best person to answer this; I frequently don't even notice what tense a book is in. I was halfway through The Hunger Games before I noticed that it was in the present tense.
     
  5. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Thanks, guys. Maybe I'll have a few people look at this when I get it polished.

    @Ankari - there is no story-based reason for the shift. I began the story in present tense, because I liked it. When I first started writing the second POV, present tense didn't feel right so I just did past tense, thinking to change it later. Now I'm thinking of keeping it.

    @T.Allen.Smith - the tense shifts just occur when I change POV. There is no transitional device. The only thing I have between POV shifts is an extra space to make a break between paragraphs.

    @Benjamin - thank you, I appreciate the nice comments. I'm hopeful this will work out well, but I'm not wed to anything.
     
  6. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    I'll agree with Benjamin and say if the writing is good enough (which I'll also echo Benjamin and say it is) then I won't even notice. If the writing itself is not very interesting, then I think I'd start noticing things that I'm not supposed to notice. Like shift changes, grammar issues, or other mechanics.
     
  7. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

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    I'm not one who ascribes to present tense lending a form of immediacy to the action in the story. Past tense can do the same without much trouble. Selecting the tense should reflect more as the best way to relay the story to the reader.

    Setting apart the POV shifts by switching from present to past doesn't seem like a solid reason to do so. Scene breaks or new chapters and establishing the POV character early in the scene or chapter can set the different POVs apart.

    Present tense means the story is happening as the reader reads it. My question would be, why is something that another character is doing in the story--why has it already happened? The story can certainly be structured that way.

    As you said, Steerpike, anything can be done, if it's done well. Those are just my initial thoughts based on what you posted. While they're concerns, if it's working--keep pressing forward.
     
  8. Lorna

    Lorna Inkling

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    I think I'd notice it but go with it. The question would come into my head as to why the tense shift took place (it might make me start thinking analytically rather than continuing to be immersed in the story) but I don't think it would put me off unless it was executed badly.
     
  9. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    I always have to orient myself when I read present tense. But once I do, I don't have any problems reading a story. But after reading present tense, reading something in past tense takes a few moments of adjustment too. If I was engaged in the story, I don't think I'd give it a thought other than to wonder why it was being done this way.

    It could be distracting for some readers. Without having an excerpt, I'd recommend really thinking about why you want to do things this way. If it's just to be different, I wouldn't recommend it, but if it's to achieve a certain effect, then have at it.
     
  10. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I'm pretty sure I would hate it.

    I just finished reading a book where all characters but one were third person while the exception was in first. I hated it.
     
  11. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Thanks guys. I'll continue with it and see where it ends up. Something like this doesn't bother me as a reader so it is interesting to see how others react. I've read books where all points of view but one were in first person, or even where one of the many points of view was in second person. I have a hard time grasping, on some level, how readers can get so caught up in mechanics that it matters to them. My suspicion is that most readers who are also not writers wouldn't care about something like this. But I've never seen the present and past tense switch. At least, not that I recall. So fast it seems to be working. I'll stick with it, as suggested by most, and then maybe see how initial readers react. Thanks!
     
  12. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    @Terry:

    You said something interesting, which is that present tense means the story is actually happening as the person reads it. I think when you interpret the tense strictly, it can be seen that way, but that's not how I think about it when I'm reading it. I may well be in the minority here. I don't take a first-person POV to mean a narrator is actually narrating something that has happened to her in the past, either (and I've read first person books where this would be impossible, as the narrator dies, and the book isn't a letter or memoir or anything, it is just recounting the action and feelings of the character, including the death, as they happen). I don't view the second-person "you" as having to indicate me as the reader, even though from a technical standpoint one could interpret it that way.

    I agree that if the reader thinks the present tense means 'happening now,' there could be a problem when moving back and forth. Do most readers feel that way about present tense?
     
  13. Whimsical

    Whimsical Acolyte

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    If you're interested in reading a novel where this is done, try something recent by Guy Gavriel Kay. I noticed it first in Lord of Emperors, the second book of The Sarantine Mosaic.

    Personally, I don't care for it. While I love Kay's writing, I find the shift in tense to be disorienting. It jars me from the flow of the story.
     
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2012
  14. Endymion

    Endymion Troubadour

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    Whats POV? Sorry for the lack of knowledge (kind off).
     
  15. FireBird

    FireBird Troubadour

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    POV stands for point of view.

    I am a HUGE Kay fan as well, but I honestly can't remember the tense shift. Do you remember where it happens? It's one of my favorite books so it would be nice to read something like this done well. Funny that I can't remember, or it just might be that I haven't read The Sarantine Mosaic in a very long time.
     
  16. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Guy Gavriel Kay is one if my favorites. I read the first of those when it came out. I'll have to try it again.

    POV = point of view.
     
  17. FireBird

    FireBird Troubadour

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    Yeah he has a new book coming out in April next year called River of Stars. It's set a few hundred years afer Under Heaven in the Song Dynasty. Soooooo want it NOW!
     
  18. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Me too. There is no better fantasy writer currently living.
     
  19. Whimsical

    Whimsical Acolyte

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    It's at the climax. Been awhile since I read it so I can't give you a specific scene. (Sorry. My memory isn't very good for those details.) I just remember being yanked out of his normally stately pacing to be thrown fast-forward into a headlong slide.
     
  20. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    I do. Even if a story is set in the past but written in present tense, I would think that the story is happening now. I imagine it as being transported back in time, watching the story unfold, then return to my present time.
     
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