1. Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us.

Past vs. Present Tense: Which is best for your story?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Addison, Sep 8, 2016.

  1. Addison

    Addison Auror

    1,794
    357
    83
    First of all, I highly recommend reading "DIYMFA" by Gabriela Pereira. TONS of good advice!

    Some of her advice on writing stories in past or present tense I have to share. Most stories are told in past tense as it helps ground the reader. Although, if the story is life or death with your portage's life, then apparently past tense is kinda giving away the protagonist's survival.

    Present tense sucks the reader in the immediacy of the scene, right at the protagonist's hip. Although this tense will either make it harder to ground the reader in the story's world or just take longer.

    Consider two excellent stories: "Harry Potter" and "The Hunger Games". Both of them terrific book series. "Harry Potter" is past tense, while "Hunger Games" is present tense. The present tense in "Hunger Games" is hugely effective given that the series focuses on life and death. Past tense in "Harry Potter" helps us read and learn about the world and the background of Voldemort and all the other relevant information.

    So if you're stuck on your story or think it's not being told as best as it could, try writing a scene or two in the other tense and/or from a different character's P.O.V. Even if you really just need a break it's a great exercise, and fun.

    This section of "DIYMFA" raised a question in my head. Is it possible to write a story using both tenses? Such as it starts in past tense but then at the Second Plot Point or Climax it changes to Present tense? Or maybe scenes in past tense are Third Person P.O.V and present tense are First Person? It would be effective in a mystery and/or with more than one character.

    So, read, enjoy and Happy Writing. :)
     
    SaltyDog likes this.
  2. I did a lot of writing in present tense last year, but now I'm switching back to past. This has led to the annoying problem of me unconsciously switching tenses at random in stuff that I write. I'm mostly over it now, I think...but back when I was restarting my WIP I had to go back and change the tense every few sentences because I kept lapsing back into present.

    Personally I really do not understand the use of present tense. I suppose it is effective in some circumstances, but it still sounds awkward and unnatural to me. I tried writing in it for some time, and it still seems that way. Some words don't sound right in it...for example, if you're writing in first person, you have to write "I say" instead of "I said" and that just sounds odd.

    Basically all YA is written in present tense now, almost always first person. No doubt a fad started by the Hunger Games. It is a fad, because it's used in stories that could be told just as well in past--there's really no reason for it. I suppose it's to add immediacy, but limp, lifeless prose won't be made more suspenseful by putting it in present tense. It's not a cheap way to add suspense.

    I don't think past tense gives away that your protagonist lives. They might be narrating from an afterlife or as a ghost.

    Both tenses? If there was a story taking place in the past that somehow intertwined with or related to a story happening in the present, maybe...
     
  3. SaltyDog

    SaltyDog Sage

    323
    103
    43
    Thanks. I always write in past tense, never present, but I might try it. Would be interesting. Hunger games always seemed a little awkward with the present tense thing, and I thought it could of been a lot better if it hadn't chosen that style. I don't read a lot of YA, (Probably due to that I can't stand some of the stuff in it,) so I haven't really been introduced to present tense, but I do read with a lot of books that use past tense, which I like, so I use it.
     
  4. Malik

    Malik Auror

    1,089
    1,312
    163
    You could have stopped right there. I would've.
     
  5. It *can* be done well, like anything...
     
  6. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    2,893
    1,989
    163
    Like using tornadoes? :D

    I honestly can't remember the last time I read a novel written in present tense. My vague memories of past reading have a negative flavor, like dim memories of some foods I've tried.

    I'm trying to reconcile ^that with

    (Incidentally, the latter intrigued me greatly when I first read it.)
     
    Last edited: Sep 8, 2016
  7. Malik

    Malik Auror

    1,089
    1,312
    163
    My first GR reviewer says that she expects to see a SubReddit devoted to finding my world. I think it's working so far.
     
  8. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    2,893
    1,989
    163
    I suspect that the OP's idea of sucking the reader in pairs up with your use of present tense in descriptions to suck the reader into that world.

    Again, though, I honestly don't remember the last time I read a novel written entirely in present tense, and I've never had much interest in writing entirely in present tense. Maybe I need to exercise my faculties by doing it.
     
  9. Malik

    Malik Auror

    1,089
    1,312
    163
    I think that one reason that people write in present tense, especially in genre / pulp fantasy, is that there aren't nearly as many options for construction. It's very lean and it writes very fast. It's also as boring as whale shit because it tends to get repetitive unless you're really, really good; but there is an entire market out there that doesn't particularly care if a book is written past a certain level of competence as long as it's a good story. It's the grunge-rock approach to novel writing. I feel another blog post coming on . . .
     
  10. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    2,893
    1,989
    163
    I do, however, wonder about the differences, the different types of present tense and different uses.

    If you have a 3rd omniscient narrator, then that narrator may be "present" describing ongoing realities and then launch into events that happened in the past, i.e., into past tense. So:

    The river Herte flows north from Yorboton to Wyke, passing through lands held by the elven tribes. The elves seldom allow humans to travel upon this river, although special dispensation is made for any human flying the banner of Fornor. And so when Metish and his band of merry adventurers began their quest to defeat the wicked dragon queen Pessyrol, they first secured Fornor's blessing and permission to fly his banner for the long voyage north. A wagon weighted with fifteen barrels of the finest Antuin ale pleased Fornor greatly.

    In their second week sailing up the Herte, as they passed into elven territory, the young boy Greck stood suddenly in the bow of their small vessel and whistled, pointing toward the eastern bank. "Look! We are being tracked."​

    Ok, that may not be great, just something quickly whipped up and put on the table half-cooked.

    But it's quite different than writing an entire novel, including action scenes, in present tense.
     
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    6,663
    4,677
    313
    Using present tense was a literary trick. An experiment by experimental writers. You just don't find it earlier than about 1960; certainly not full novels written in that tense. And that was fine. Run, Rabbit, Run was written in present tense and I'm not going to critique Updike. But the thing has spread and been passed into far less skilled hands.

    I've always thought it was rather silly. One might just as well decide to write a novel in the future tense. Of course it could be done, but why? I've read works in the present tense that were, well, presentable. Never have I read one that could not have been done just as well in the past tense.
     
  12. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    What about omniscient present? Now there's a headache in the making! :poop:
     
  13. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    11,291
    3,698
    413
    Present tense isn't a new trend (or fad). People (i.e. critics) have been complaining about it since the 1980s, and back then they were complaining about it as a trend among young writers.

    Any criticism of present tense that doesn't boil down to "I just do/don't like it" is bollocks, in my view. People say "Hey this could just as easily been written in past tense." So what? I could say of any past tense book that it could just as easily have been written in present tense. That's an empty criticism, and a pretense at digging up an objective justification for a purely subjective judgment.

    Want to write in present tense? Knock yourself out. Anyone who doesn't want to read it can stay away. Same goes for past tense. This is stuff that writers obsess over to no real profit to themselves or their writing.
     
    Heliotrope likes this.
  14. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    11,291
    3,698
    413
    Oh:

    To get at how far the prejudice and, in my view, reaching for a non-existent objective analysis goes, when William Glass was complaining about present tense as a trend in the 1980s, he associated it with female authors and the idea that they were less sure of themselves and less forceful as writers. Apparently it was intended to display a hesitancy to state that this actually happened. To take a stance. Past tense, according to the argument, was a forceful, male way of taking a certainty-based approach to a series of events.

    If that doesn't tell you what I think of most of the criticism of present tense I hear, this image may help:

    [​IMG]

    :D
     
    Last edited: Sep 8, 2016
    SaltyDog, Nimue, Reaver and 2 others like this.
  15. Malik

    Malik Auror

    1,089
    1,312
    163
    This is exactly what I did in Dragon's Trail, and the narrative style that I want to carry through the series. I didn't intentionally set out to do this; it just kind of happened as my voice developed. And it's a pain in the ass, too. Lots of awkward phrases to work out and it gets trickier the further into the book you go.

    In eastern Gateskeep, bordering the principality of Falconsrealm, the Tower of Horlech stands against all seeming odds, sagging and nearly fallen. From the top floors, the rift-strewn wildwoods and misty cliffs of Falconsrealm stretch out of sight in three directions.

    Known to locals as Edwin’s Folly, the Tower of Horlech slouches to the northeast atop a knob of rock and scrub, looking for all the world like a helm’s crest bent by a debilitating blow. Year after year, Edwin’s Folly stands; year after year, the townsfolk of Horlech wager that it won’t. On the first day of summer, the town holds its Tower Day celebration, in which the previous year’s losers pay their good-natured debts and wagers begin anew.

    Inside the sagging walls of Horlech, on the eve of the celebrations a few years ago, a young sorcerer named Crius Lotavaugus advised the war council of Gateskeep.​


    This is the opening of Dragon's Trail. Two paragraphs of present, then into past to discuss events that happened in the tower; a tower that the narrator is telling you is still there, right now. By doing it right at the very beginning, I set the narrative tone and define the world as extant, then drop the reader into its history. This way, too, it's less of a surprise when I pop back into present a few pages later to describe something else. Because, narrative voice.

    Also, since so many pulps are written in present, I'm hoping that a present-tense opening appeals to this whole new generation of pulp fantasy readers who normally wouldn't touch a literary-fantasy/epic-fantasy thriller.
     
    FifthView likes this.
  16. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    2,662
    1,952
    163
    Go to a bookstore and pick up Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake". One of my all time favorites, beautifully written, hardly a fad, and written in present tense. I have no issue with it. I think she pulls it off spectacularly.

    Give it a read, or at least try the sample on Amazon.

    I would never rule it out as an option.

    In her story she does both, using tense almost like POV, so in one chapter it will be in present tense, showing what is happening to snowman right now, and in another it will be past tense, show g how Jimmy became the snowman. Fascinating stuff and worth a read even just for study.

    Oryx and Crake: Margaret Atwood: 9780385721677: Amazon.com: Books
     
    Last edited: Sep 8, 2016
    Steerpike and Malik like this.
  17. Reaver

    Reaver Kwisatz Haderach Moderator

    3,095
    1,086
    163
    HAHAHAHA Good one SP!


    [​IMG]
     
    Steerpike likes this.
  18. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    2,401
    1,481
    163
    Present tense is fine, and so is criticizing it.

    Any POV or tense comes down to what it always does: whether the author pulled it off. Unless there is a good reason for it, adds to the story in some way that overpowers any drawbacks with readership in a commercial setting, I would question my reasoning. I would avoid present tense in a longer (commercial) work because it can be jarring at first when not accustomed to reading it, and I'm a believer in not giving the agent/pub an excuse to put a MS down.

    Now, just writing my story for me and friends and whatever? I'll roll with anything. It would be fairly natural after screenwriting anyhow.
     
  19. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    11,291
    3,698
    413
    Given the prevalence of present tense in commercial fiction, I wouldn't worry much about now being able to place a manuscript solely because it is in present tense. Apart from that, I agree that it is all about how well the author implements it, and ultimately about the subjective preferences of the reader.
     
  20. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    11,291
    3,698
    413
    By way of example:


    • Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
    • House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
    • Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
    • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
    • Ilium by Dan Simmons (some parts)
    • Olympos by Dan Simmons (some parts)
    • Rabbit, Run by John Updike
    • Line of Vision by David Ellis
    • The Sound of My Voice by Ron Butlin
    • Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins
    • Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger
    • Cat's Eye, Margaret Atwood (parts)
    • Beatlebone, Kevin Barry
    • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell
    • A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James (which won the Booker prize)
    • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (which also won the Booker prize)

    These aren't exactly unknowns we're talking about. The list could be much, much longer and I didn't even get into YA/New Adult fiction, because I figured people would point to that as the only place it is acceptable, which is false.
     
    Heliotrope likes this.
Loading...

Share This Page