What is it with writers and tenses? There always seems to be some sort of debate or another about whether the good ol’ past tense is still THE SHIT, or whether present tense is gaining up on it on merit.
You know, some people hate present tense in novels. Like really, passionately, fervently hate it. While others say it makes everything feel more immediate. Some dismiss present tense as an artsy ploy and refuse to read anything written in present tense, while others will completely ignore the tense as long as the story is captivating. (Cheers!)
And let’s not even get into the genre debates, where the fronts are eagerly defended: “Present tense is not for [insert genre here], it’s for pompous literary types,” vs. “A good author will use any tool effectively.” It’s almost universally agreed that present tense has no place in SFF and historical fiction, because, you know, they happen in the past and the future and alternate realities and maybe we should all just write in future past perfect or the French historical past tense just to make sure no editors get heart attacks.
*deep, exasperated sigh*
Writers seem to get most passionately riled up about this. Readers in general, the grand masses, apparently don’t care much. A poll made in a readers’ forum about reading a book in present tense resulted (unsurprisingly) in:
After a few chapters it was okay – 10%
I didn’t notice – 50%
Did somehow fit the story – 30%
Didn’t read it – 10%
Most readers prefer engaging good books period, regardless of the tense, and only a very few prefer past tense simply because they’re used to it and don’t have to put in an effort for a couple pages and adapt to something new. Because Eww, new-ness, gah.
I say it all depends on the POV.
First person lends itself much better to present tense than third or omniscient (even though it’s not impossible to write well in either combination). First person + present tense = maximum closeness between reader and protagonist, and also minimal filtering. And that’s the key: filtering. First person / present tense has no filter. All the awesome stuff that happens right now to the protagonist is immediately rendered to the reader. There’s no mature pondering on past events, no ripe perspective on past reactions, no subtle understanding woven into the memory of past events. The only filter is the author eliminating noise from the protagonist’s mind for readability purposes, but nothing else. The reader lives inside the protagonist’s head at all times, witnessing her experience things, react to them, and then internalize them and have them slowly alter her perception of things. IN REAL TIME.
Is it challenging to write?
Is it fun?
Oh hell yeah!
At least for me. It’s my natural voice. Maybe two decades of writing diaries has something to do with it, but first person present tense feels most invisible and natural to me.
I luuuuuurve writing in present tense!
And I don’t give a shit whether it’s considered acceptable or not. The story needs what the story needs, and the story is KING.
There are only a few “rules” to writing it and they aren’t that difficult to master. As long as a basic understanding of how the mind works is present (and most writers are good psychologists), the rest is easy. Fellow science-fiction writer Juliette Wade has a nice post on writing in present tense.
Also, the POV characters’ personality is a huge factor. Spending so much time inside a person’s head postulates that character’s likeability. Present tense is a magnifier — it makes everything seem closer, bigger, clearer and thus can be easily overwhelming. But if the POV character’s perspective is interesting enough and feels natural to read, then present tense will make the story that much more intensely felt by the reader.
I wanted to exemplify this by taking an excerpt from my MS (which is written in present tense), and rewrite it in past tense. Have you say which you liked better. But my attempt to rewrite it fell flat. I hate how it sounds in past tense. It feels incredibly forced and unnatural, bland and boring, and practically impossible for me to write. Maybe another story, another time, but not this one.
Just for the heck of it, below is the excerpt in first person, present tense. Imagine it in past tense, if you like, and tell me which feels more natural to this story. And tell me if the present tense feels awkward at all. I bet with you all that you wouldn’t notice it after 10-20 pages anymore. I sure as hell have the ambition to become that good at it, because I love writing it!
Here be the excerpt for your greedy-beady eyes. [expand title=”click-meh”]
I grab one of the casseroles, and pick up a vitamin juice and some cutlery. I make my way between the tables and the assaulting smells, trying not to get anyone’s spittle on my food. Then I see Denise and Viktor sit together with two kids further in the back, and head toward them.
Denise sees me before I reach the table and immediately jumps up to hug me. Her bright orange hair flutters around her cheeks in what must be the latest fashion. The uninvited intimacy lasts only a couple of seconds, but I’ve still got skin-crawling chills. I quickly sit down to hide my shuddering.
Why am I so averse to everyone all of a sudden? Maybe I’m just tired. And hungry.
Vik nods in greeting. “I hope Preston’s not giving you a hard time.”
“I haven’t talked to him yet.”
I stare at the casserole in front of me. Protein extracts and bio-engineered vegetable stew, with dry crackers and algae concentrate. I don’t think I’m hungry after all.
Denise is slurping a cream soup that looks like gobbet-filled tar, and Vik sips something thick and yellow through a straw, that reminds me of Dorylini blood. There goes my attempt at breakfast.
“So how was it?” the blond boy asks me, leaning over the table and gawking at me with big, round eyes. “Give us your version of things, the rumor mill is already grinding stone.”
“I heard they experimented on you,” the other boy says, and spreads a buck-toothed grin at me. “Is it true? Did they probe you and whatnot?”
Denise scowls at them. “Don’t, you guys.” But her voice is meek. She’s curious too.
Vik minds his own business, pretending not to pay attention, but I know he’s dying to hear it. They all are. Let the freak talk of her alien abduction.
“I hear they tortured you,” Blondy says with a serious mien. “Rigged your synet with some alien subroutine. But you hacked your way through it and then managed to run away.”
Vik grunts at him. “Yeah, she ran all the way here through space. Just shut your piehole, Leal. Seriously.”
“The Ticks will definitely think you’re a spy,” Hamster-Face says from across the table. “They’ll hunt you down and pick you apart, cell by cell.”
“Yeah, like they did to that Ashmore guy on Procyon,” Blondy says enthusiastically. “Then they’ll process your body through the fungi food-farms, and get rid of all the evidence. And the colonists will have no idea what’s in their food!”
Vik slams his hand on the table, startling me. “So that’s why you scored so bad on target practice—your brain’s full of shit!”
“Stop it,” Denise says. “Leave Taryn alone, she’s been through a rough time.”
“She doesn’t need your help,” Blondy retorts. “She’s an alien infiltrator, she can just kill us all if she wants to.”
“You’re such an asshole.”
I stare down at my untouched food. Blondy has it all wrong, I couldn’t harm anyone if my life depended on it, just like I couldn’t when it actually did. All I do is make things worse.
My heart starts to climb into my throat, and my hands turn cold and sweaty.
“It’s just speculation…” I say quietly, rubbing my palms on my knees. “They can imagine whatever they like.”
“I think there’s a grain of truth in every rumor,” Hamster-Face says snottily.
“So it’s true, then?” Blondy asks. “They turned you?”
My pulse is drumming deep inside my ears.
I shouldn’t have come here.
I’m not just the outsider anymore, the favored target for harmless practical jokes and uncomfortable questions. Now I’m the one who spent three weeks alone with the aliens, selling them god-knows-what intel to save my hide. I’m a traitor in their eyes. I shouldn’t be sitting here with them at all.
“Excuse me,” I stand up, turn and plow between the tables.
I hurry between the countless smacking lips and grinding teeth, between the slobbering maws and sweating bodies—out, out of this hell contracting around me.
I trail between the chairs and random legs of people, my vision narrowed into a tunnel, my breath struggling through my constricting throat. The room throbs around me like a full stomach trying to digest, and my heart pummels fiercely against my mind.
The exit. It’s right there… But it feels a million clicks away.
I stumble and bump against a shoulder. Someone grabs me and pulls me along, and I gasp and swim through the thickening air. I’m dragged into the corridor and leaned against the wall, where I bend over.
“What happened? You okay?”
Jade’s face is only a blur, his voice a hideous echo. My chest tightens into a painful knot. I feel like I’m going to die.
He touches me but I slap his hand away in a panicked reflex.
The sound of so many people chatting and cutlery rattling, the horrible smells and sickening feeling of so many creatures crunching, slurping, spitting, breathing, in and out, in and out, heartbeats, pulses, so many throbbing things–
I drop to the floor and claw at my shirt, but the drumming only gets louder, closer—much too close.
It’s inside of me.
Thoughts, opinions, arguments?