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Writing narration in Present tense

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Devora, Nov 26, 2017.

  1. Devora

    Devora Sage

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    I'm currently writing a story where I am experimenting with using present tense instead of the usual past tense for overall narration. (I can blame my endeavor into screenplay formatting.) I'm not sure how it will come off to others but I'm liking it so far.

    I'm curious as to what everyone stance and opinion on using present tense to narrate a story.
     
  2. Peat

    Peat Sage

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    People who write fiction in present tense should receive 20 year custodial sentences with no right to parole.

    I'm kinda serious. It feels wrong and stilted, and generally when I'm reading present tense, I wonder why I'm feeling so distant from the story until about five pages in I'll clock its present tense. Which is usually when the book goes down. I made an exception for City of Stairs as I thought it was everything I wanted from a fantasy novel, but it still grated all the way through and I refused to buy the sequel as a result. Its like someone's rocked up to my table with a Michelin starred meal only to open up a vein right above it and let it rain. It is, in short, the fastest way to ruin a book for me that I know of.

    That said, I must accept my incredible levels of animus against Present Tense are somewhat far from universal, and its not done Jemisin or Bennett any harm that I know of... although, now I think about it, neither seem to get as many props as their talent deserves on forums.
     
  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    In my novella Emma's Story I'm switching back and forth between past and present tense. I quite enjoyed writing it, but reader reaction has been very mixed, ranging all the way from "I love it" to "I found it condescending" so it's definitely not for everyone.
     
  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Present tense works just fine, and is a perfectly legitimate alternative to past tense. It’s fairly common these days, particularly in YA literature, but of course not limited to that. It’s not really that different, substantively, from past tense, and the reactions against it are not entirely rational (though they do exist, so if that matters to you it is worth taking into account).
     
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  5. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Present tense doesn’t bug me, thanks to screenwriting (perhaps), but I also get the odd reaction people have to it. Rational/irrational is up for debate and depends entirely on how you frame the argument.
     
  6. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Like SteerpikeSteerpike, I'd stress that present tense is much more common and accepted than one might think—I mean, one who asks the question in the OP :sneaky:. I'd say, if it's what you want to do, then go for it.

    I also recognize the existence of strong negativity toward present tense narrative. It's a visceral reaction some readers will naturally have. Whether rational or not, that's a real reaction. So that's something to be considered perhaps, but it's probably not a consideration that should stop you from writing present tense narrative if that's what you want to do. Heck, some people react negatively toward the fantasy genre. Or, toward just about anything that can be done in fiction.

    If I put my "Objective Hat" on and try to guess the source of the negativity, my guess would be that bad or mediocre writing can be exacerbated or more noticed when the narrative style is a-typical in a reader's experience. Past tense is by far the most common narrative tense, and the oddness of a present tense narrative draws attention to whatever other flaws or weaknesses might exist. But the other side of the coin is that a well-written story in present tense might easily jump that hurdle of oddness for a reader.
     
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  7. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    What I mean is that the dislike doesn’t appear to be the product of rational analysis, but more of a gut reaction to something out of the ordinary. People are entitled to like or dislike what they want, I’m just distinguishing it from a quantified, reasoned analysis. There really isn’t much apart from familiarity to distinguish it from past tense. You can write any past tense passage in present tense and to me it works the same. People say present tense provides a certain immediacy but I never feel that when reading it.
     
  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    FifthViewFifthView good point—I think anything unconventional (or perceived as such) is bound to result in more analysis of the mechanics of the text, and this flaws that would exist even in a more conventional approach seem to stand out more. I’ve read enough present tense now that I don’t really notice it, except initially, as in: “Oh, this is in present tense.” After that I just read it like anything else.
     
  9. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    It could also be even simpler than that - along the lines of: "it's not what I'm used to, so it makes me uncomfortable"
    That kind of reaction can be really strong.
     
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  10. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Possibly, the initial reaction might prevent discovering whether the rest of the story is flawed or weak.
     
  11. Devora

    Devora Sage

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    There's definitely a bias for past tense since almost every story is told from this perspective alone. Unorthodoxy is almost always met with some contempt, and it seems present tense is one of those instances.

    I think Svrtnsse is right in that most of the criticism is based off gut reaction since people are more comfortable with the familiar and orthodox.
     
  12. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yes, but it is becoming much less unorthodox. A lot of YA is in present tense and has been for a number of years. Those readers move into adulthood and present tense novels don’t faze them.
     
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  13. Malik

    Malik Archmage

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    I approach anything written in present tense with trepidation. It's a severely limiting form, and you have to really have some chops to pull it off. It's like writing an entire novel in iambic pentameter or haiku. Most authors aren't good enough to wear a straitjacket and write a novel with their teeth, which is stylistically what present tense is. I'm not saying most indie authors; I mean most authors. I give it a few pages, but when I start to see repetitive constructions and echoed forms--and I almost always do--I pop smoke. YMMV.
     
  14. <People who write fiction in present tense should receive 20 year custodial sentences with no right to parole.>
    Don't read any of my books, then. It's first person and third person present tense in almost all of them.
    It sounds more natural to me than past tense, and I know how weird that is, but I'm essentially a weird being, through and through.
    Also, please don't arrest me.
     
  15. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    You believe the weirdest you've read in this regard is Halting State by Charles Stross. It took you some time to get used to it, but once you did you found that it worked pretty well. You still haven't read another book like it though, and you often bring up as an example of weird books. You don't think that you yourself would be able to write an entire story in second person.
     
  16. I've written several poems in second person, but so far, no books.
     
  17. ^^Interestingly, the book takes place one year from now.
     
  18. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I like it. All the present tense I've ever read I've liked. It is pretty common now. I don't get the hate for it? Or the trepedition? I don't write in present tense, because I think you need the write story set up, which I don't have in my stories, but I'd love to try it :)
     
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  19. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I saw. I had to look it up as I'd forgotten who wrote it. One of the "risks" of writing near-future fiction. :)
     
  20. Devora

    Devora Sage

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    I guess that's why i decided to write a story in it; I want to challenge myself and I'm getting bored of the same style I've tried using.
     
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