Past Tense vs. Present Tense Madness – And OMG I think I’m gonna write in Future Past Perfect Historical (Mandarin)

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: filteringFirst 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?

Most definitely.

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?”

I shrug.

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.

Thunk–thunk–thunk–thunk.

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–

THUNK–THUNK–THUNK–THUNK.

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.

He’s here.

[/expand]

 

Thoughts, opinions, arguments?

27 Replies to “Past Tense vs. Present Tense Madness – And OMG I think I’m gonna write in Future Past Perfect Historical (Mandarin)”

  1. *shrugs*
    I don’t really care what tense it is if I can understand what the story is about and get into it on a *brainsight* level.

    In my story I use both, past and present, first person POV. The main story is told in the past tense because that’s a certain person’s account. The epilogues are done in present tense, because I felt it should be that way.

    Your piece if fine to my eyes and mind. 😉

    P.S. I usually get stuck on descriptions, when I need to get a dictionary to understand what color or whatever that was. Or I encounter some awkward sentence structure I have no idea what the author meant–because as a non-native English speaker I’ve never seen such a thing (and since this is not a language lesson, I don’t want to find out what the hell is going on there). I like simple prose to connect and enjoy, not feel inferior to someone’s fancy language skills.

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    1. I feel the same way – if the story grabs me and I can follow it easily, then the tense is irrelevant.

      As to the frilly language, I’m split. I don’t enjoy reading authors who use elevated pompous language when there is no need for it, to showcase their own mastery. But I’ve also greatly expanded my vocabulary reading authors who used more elevated language. As long as the style used fits the story (respectively, the POV character’s voice), I feel about this the same way as with the tense — it becomes irrelevant.

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      1. If it becomes irrelevant that means the prose is light and smooth to read to get into the story however complex that is. The pace and language work well.

        Yet I *DO* trip when I’m being poked in the eye with author’s skills. I see the construct and not the idea. It gives me the headache.

        *Not the best example to give here since it’s non fiction, but I can’t read Kant, even in translation to my native language. I’m afraid most philosophers are like this for me–their thought flows like tar too far and wide, and a lot. I don’t think all these ideas can’t be said in a more brain-friendly way. There are writers like that; there are people who comment on blog posts and articles like that.*

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      2. I’ve read a lot of philosophy in high-school and college, especially in German (Kant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, etc.) and I’ve gotten accustomed to their complex thought-pattern. Philosophy is a game of concepts and words, it requires complex language because it thrives off the multiple meanings of words and the complexity of language and human thinking. BUT that doesn’t mean it has a place in fiction.

        Literary fiction, when it has a philosophical streak due to the theme of a particular story, or the POV character’s nature, can accommodate that sort of speech. But genre fiction doesn’t, not without tremendous effort on the reader’s part to humor the writer.

        And yes, I know a few people who always talk like that. I suppose it’s a combination of habit (what they read influences how they speak), and the illusion that complexity of language denotes intelligence, when in fact, clarity does.

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      3. My high-school philosophy class killed the enjoyment of complex though-patterns forever. I’m perfectly fine with philosophical streak in fiction, but I will avoid any writing that venerates the language as god and not regards it for a tool that it is.

        I’m writing so many comments lately. Must be a side effect from writing chapter after chapter and getting close to the conclusion of my book. I am sorry if I get too annoying. 😉

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  2. @Veronica: I’m among those who dont’t like present tense generally. Indeed, present tense and first person, that works. Present tense with third person… not so much, with me anyway. Don’t get me started on present tense and second person. Except for very specific turns of phrase or idioms, you don’t want that. 🙂

    @JELENA: I understand your viewpoint; however, while I, too, am a non-native English reader, I don’t feel belittled when I read above-average English — but maybe that’s because I’ve spent years (figuratively) crying over technical (read: quite below average) English. To me, having a native English language writer water down her/his style to reach to non-native readers seems a losing deal on both sides.

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    1. It’s not about above-average English or watering down someone’s style.
      I’m a tech person, not linguistics major. I don’t like flowery prose. To me, a good writer should get to the point, not play around with wording. I am terrified of people who can tell simplest things in the most complicated, tangled way possible.

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    2. Ugh, second person is really hard to read for me in any longer form of fiction. Flash pieces, maybe, novellas or novels – forget it.

      My novel’s written in first person mostly, but I also have third person present tense. The voice is different there, though, as there are different POV characters and the narrative is more distant and bird’s-eye-ish. Beta readers so far said it works. I hope they’re right.

      But first person was more fun for me to write. 🙂

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  3. Wow! I don’t care about the tense, just when I can get my hands on the book!
    Certainly the present works very well for you in that extract – great job!
    And seriously, I look forward to reading the full thing.

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  4. The YA dystopian series, Divergent, is done in first person present. I found it distracting at first, but eventually warmed up to it. I’m currently writing first person past, which I think is easier, but what do I know.

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  5. Mostly, what I have found about first person, present tense (and the reason “I don’t like it”) is that many (actually, virtually every example I have seen) use it to hide sloppy writing. It becomes a vehicle to be able to TELL the audience what to think or feel rather than to show what’s going on.
    So it’s not actually the first person present that bothers me so much as it seems the POV of choice for people that don’t want to put in the work. There are too many ways to cheat the system, so to speak.

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    1. I don’t use it to hide sloppy writing. Not intentionally, at least. If it does hide (or emphasize) mistakes I make, then I hope I’ll find good beta readers to catch them. 😉

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      1. Well, I wasn’t saying you. I have seen a few good examples, but most if it is… people using it to take shortcuts. But, then, some of that is well-received when it’s published, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

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      2. Hacks use lots of shortcuts to compensate for their laziness, be it POV choice, tense, dialog gimmickry, poetic descriptions, etc. Some of them are even successful with their work. However, the fact that the grand masses are no good judges of quality remains true, and it’s a comforting thought. At least for me, since I’m not interested in numbers all that much.

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  6. Oh, also, I find that people attempting to write in present, then, can’t keep their tenses straight. There will be something they need to relay in past (a memory or something) and have all kinds of tense issues because of that. Granted, more experienced writers don’t tend to have those problems; the issue, though, is that a lot of the people doing that can’t see where their tenses are sliding around.

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    1. I have the distinct impression it’s much harder to write past events when your current tense is the past tense, than it is when it’s present tense.

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      1. Nah, because you don’t have past tense and greater-past tense. It’s all the same. When I’m doing editing work, I spend more time correcting accidental tense shifts than probably anything other than commas.

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  7. I find myself more drawn in by first person present tense, whether it’s a short story or a novel. It feels so familiar and easier for the story to come to me, but then, I’ve been writing first person present tense short stories for years now.

    And the thick and yellow stuff Vik sipped through the straw – that’s gag inducing. Nice.

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    1. Thanks, Malon. 🙂

      Present tense does get easier and more natural the more you write it. I bet most authors who’ve tried it for a lengthier period of time begin to really like it.

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  8. I don’t think there is a right or a wrong tense. As you’ve stated, it depends on how it fits the story. Each writer has his/her own story to tell, and I make my judgement on how the story gels as a whole. I think a writer should concentrate on what works for them, and the rest will sort itself out. There will alway be those that are critical of your work.

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    1. You’re right, Allan. Someone will always disagree with one’s choices, and trying to accommodate everyone is futile.

      Some stories flow better in past, others in present tense, and evaluating the work as a whole, not just based on the choice of tense, is the more sensible way to go. If only everyone would feel that way.

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  9. I write big stories, so first person present just doesn’t work very well for me. My books come from multiple perspectives, with a focus on one character. So third person limited (episodic) is my natural voice. You get the intimacy of first person (almost – just a thin filter).

    BUT, I wanted to grow as a writer, so I’m also working on a young adult paranormal/horror and I’m writing it in first person present tense. I’m pretty uncomfortable, but it’s good to try new things.

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    1. Third person limited is great, it’s my second favorite. 😛 I also use it in my novel (in combination with first person), just that I use it with present tense. So far, I got no complaints about it, but you never know. Tastes are as varied as there are people.

      I’m sure you’ll ease into present tense once you write it for a stretch of time. Wish you fun with it, Jay!

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