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Writing narration in Present tense

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

  1. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I don’t agree that it is any more limiting than past tense, and I think the two are virtually interchangeable. You can take a past tense passage and rewrite it in present and it is essentially the same.
     
  2. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yes, it is becoming more common in adult fiction. There is tons of YA written this way, and not because YA authors are uniquely skilled and able to pull it off, but because in terms of writing skill there’s really no difference in writing present tense versus past tense.
     
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  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Would this be due to the tendency of YA to strive for more immediacy (is that the right word), with bringing out the events and actions and getting it as close to the reader as possible? I know you mentioned you don't yourself see that difference between past and present tense, but I do think it's there.
     
  4. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    I don't like present tense. Good luck getting me past the first sentence. It's the same with me as first person. I won't read books written in first or present. It's too unnatural a feel for me. I think my head just thinks differently and those tenses don't allow me to use my imagination.

    That being said, I have liked Svrtnsse's scenes in present tense and have read shorts for a fellow writer written in present that was very good but I think her voice shines in those. However, when asked to read round 2 I politely declined. Btw, a lot of new adult fiction is written in first person present and seems to be all the rage.
     
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  5. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Is it more limiting from a marketing standpoint, I wonder? I mean, what's the ratio of "used to it/open to it" and "my visceral reaction is heck no"?

    There's an interesting question of whether, being interchangeable, this is a Buridan's Ass sort of thing. How to choose? Personally, I don't care how a writer chooses—choose to use whichever you want—except to the extent that I'm curious whether there'll be some payoff to the choice made. Also, I know you said "virtually," heh, and I tend to believe that different approaches might have slightly different benefits. That's my tendency for weighing the choices: What will I gain from writing this in present tense? I do believe there are benefits, either way, but I'm not sure we can make a perfectly objective judgment of the relative value of those benefits.
     
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  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    FifthViewFifthView I’m not sure how much marketing difference there is anymore, given how much present tense I see. I think it does create a slightly different effect from past tense. The part where I think they’re the same, basically interchangeable, is the actual writing of it and what you can do with it. I don’t think that part of it, the writer’s part, is any different from past tense. From the reader’s perspective you’ll create a different sound in the “ear” of the reader.
     
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  7. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    There's a big difference between past and present. Present is more immediate and part of what annoys me about it. Like as if someone just grabbed my arm and said that we had to go now somewhere now! Now! Now!

    Nuh uh.

    Past is more storylike, settling into the tale and world. It's less immediate and invasive. Huge difference (for me anyway).
     
  8. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I don't think it is interchangeable. I think it is a literary device that is very useful, almost as a symbol, in certain circumstances.

    It is not a new thing. Dickens wrote Bleak House almost all in present, James Joyce wrote Ulysses all in present tense.

    But here my thoughts:

    Present tense is a lot more cinematic (obviously it is what is used in screen writing). It is less like telling a story and more like watching a movie, which I think is why YA and middle grads prefer it. It is a format that is familiar to them, growing up from infancy surrounded by film and television. Hunger Games was the most popular story written in present and since then the format has taken off.

    This was why it was used in All Quite on the Western Front... to sort of put the reader "closer to the action" as it were.

    As far as adult fiction, I have mostly seen it used as a literary tool to aid in highlighting passing of time.

    The Time Traveller's Wife was written in present and past tense to show the "now" and the "then". Sort of this idea that "The angel of the future walks backwards." The narrator is able to talk about the past in past tense because she knows exactly what happened. But the "right now" moments of the book are happening "right now"... she doesn't know any more than the reader does, so it must be written in present tense.

    Margaret Atwood does the same in many of her books to do the same thing, when narrative flip flops back and before between "now" and "back then".

    Fight Club does the same thing, but that is more to focus on the MC's state of mind. In present tense the reader is only aware of what the character is aware of. You are both experiencing the story at the same time. This helps to highlight the MC as a sort of unreliable narrator. He is unaware of even his own self in the novel, so this format fits the bill perfectly.

    This is why I'm saying that you need the right format and story structure in order for it be done well. If it makes sense within the framework of the story (like highlighting time changes, giving the reader a more POV experience, or you have an unreliable narrator) then go for it! If not then it feels a bit like a clunky literary device with no real purpose.
     
  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    We read it differently, which is cool of course. I believe people can like or dislike the art they want without having to provide reasons for it. They’re so similar to me that apart from the immediate noting of tense, I quickly forget that I’m reading present v. past. It just fades into the background for me as a reader. Which may make it seem odd to choose it, but as a writer sometimes I do choose it just because when I start writing it sort of comes out that way as opposed to past.
     
  10. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    HeliotropeHeliotrope why do you need any more reason for it than for past? I think it is just what is a familiar. If the vast majority of works for the last 100 years were in present people would likely feel similarly with respect to past. You look at the bulk of present tense books, at least in my experience, and the story structure/format is conventional, such that they could just as easily have been written in past without losing anything.
     
  11. One of the reasons why I decided to start writing in present tense is because it occurred to me that while in the past tense, it's obvious that the heroes succeed, because otherwise there would be no one to narrate the story. I know. I have weird logic.
     
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  12. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Except that there are past tense, and even first person stories where the character dies with no ability to ever have narrated the story. Because of that, I never assume that a work of fiction is being actively narrated by one of the characters unless the author explicitly sets it up that way.
     
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  13. That's true, I guess.
     
  14. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    There was a discussion on another forum about this, and I guess it bugs some readers. I think Philippe Gregory had a novel where we stay in the viewpoint character’s POV right up to the very instant of death, so there is no possibility they ever narrate. Someone raised the question of how the story could be told, and my response is that it is a work of fiction/art and there was no indication that this character or any other was ever meant to be seen as narrating the story.

    Some books do have an explicit narrator of course. Sometimes they aren’t proper characters in the story, such as in Brust’s Dragaeran histories.
     
  15. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I think is this true, especially for MG and YA, and I think it has a lot to do with how that generation tells stories.

    I notice with older generation people, if you sit down to have some wine and they want to tell you a story about what happened at the golf course on Thursday they start with:

    "So I was at the golf course with my old friend John, the one who works at the mill... You remember John?"

    However, when I taught Middle School a few years ago I distinctly noticed that they tell stories in present tense.

    "Mrs. B, can I tell you what happened at soccer last night?"

    "Yes please!"

    "Oh, so I'm on the soccer field and this guy, like, at top speed, comes at me...."

    It is the oddest thing. I don't think it has to do with them reading more present tense books. I think it just has to do with the culture of media in general they have grown up in.
     
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  16. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    HeliotropeHeliotrope You know you and I tend to see things quite similarly or at least from the same ballpark angle, heh. I do attempt to weigh decisions based on what I think I might gain with either approach. That's my tendency.

    I think some of this really does depend on how readers have been trained to experience things. I mean that the experience of past/distance vs present/nearness is probably a learned thing. Maybe it was learned from childhood and is inherent in our experience of language, or maybe it's also inherent in the very nature of past tense and present tense. Der, one's past, the other's present.

    For the longest time, I've thought it weird that reading a past tense narrative can make me feel as if I'm present there and as if the things being said there are happening now. Same with first person narrators using past tense but giving me the impression that they aren't speaking of past events but are rather relaying present events. Only just now, I've been wondering whether that's some of the charm or magic of prose fiction. It's odd, but it works.

    Anyway....I have to ask. If those books you mentioned had been written in past tense, would anyone have noticed? Heh. Would someone say, "Whoa, wasn't this supposed to have been in present? This is destroyed because it wasn't written in the present tense that it deserved."

    There was a recent thread about flashbacks, whether to use present or past for them, and I rather liked the present tense version. For the reasons you gave. I do think there are benefits, particular uses, and that these uses have some effect. I'm going to continue to think that one approach might accomplish something the other approach might not, or accomplish it more strongly. Or whatever. I'm not sure however whether this is simply a matter of history, my own and the general history of literature, or something inherent to the tense.
     
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  17. I've used both, though my current WIP is in past. After a while of writing in present, I decided it just felt a little awkward and off. Past tense feels more comfortable and natural.

    The main thing i've noticed is that when you write in present tense, good luck switching back to past. I have about a year's worth of material from my transition back to writing in past tense and for the most part, I switch tenses a couple times in every paragraph, without noticing. If i'm in past and i go into a section of dialogue in which the characters talk in present, I go back to present until two lines later when I switch again for no apparent reason. The habit took forever to squash. I was rereading a draft from about a year ago and it was dotted with random lapses into present tense. I finally kicked the habit by writing my current WIP in past, but still!
     
  18. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I go by experience. Out of all the books I have read and liked, only a tiny percentage have been written in the present tense. Of all the books I have read and not finished, a significant percentage were written in the present tense. So, when I pick up a book and it's written in present tense, my hackles go up. The writer is going to have to make an even better impression on me, even more quickly, than in any other case.

    I agree that writing in the present tense is more difficult. To give one example, try to imagine Game of Thrones, or War and Peace, or any epic story with multiple points of view, in all present tense.

    To reply to the OP, though, all I can say is, you have to write the story the way that makes sense to you. It might be that you feel a strong urge to tell the story in a certain way, but it can also be that you just want to experiment. Both are fine. As long as it's only an idea, you're going to get every answer imaginable. Only after you've written the thing will you get feedback that is useful.
     
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  19. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Yes, I think this too. I think this is why MG and YA are so much more open to present tense narrative. Part of whatever their experience was had led them to be more accepting of it. Whatever that is, I have no clue, lol.

    I don't think so, and that is what I'm trying to say. Tense is a literary tool. It can be used in clever ways to get a point across, but it doesn't make or break a piece, IMO. Atwood had another book called The Edible Woman. It was about a woman who went crazy. It started in first person, then a third of the way through switched to third person, then by the end, when she had "found herself" again it switched back to first. It was a clever tool used to show how the woman felt distance from her own self. Would it have made or broke the novel if it had all bee in third or first? Perhaps not. But it certainly accelerated it above and beyond. It became obvious that Attwood was a master storyteller with all the tools in her toolbox.

    I agree. I liked it too.. It separated the bit from the narrative proper in a fun and engaging way.

    Yes. This is my point. Each approach does different things. They are useful in their own ways.
     
  20. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Why? I’m thinking of those examples, and thinking ok, you go through and change all of the sentences to present tense but leave them otherwise the same. What’s difficult about that? Why would it be any less effective in terms of the final product?
     
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