Past or Present?

Tense.  This isn’t exactly a new topic for writer’s blogs, but it’s an amusingly controversial one.  If you Google “present vs. past tense writing,” you’ll end up in the middle of an angry battle between the fiercely entrenched forces of the past, and the anti-establishment present.  I’m not going to reiterate the arguments here, you should really check them out for yourself.  This one heats up pretty quick (Fiction Master sounded like he wanted to punch the blog author in the neck).  I think it’s fair to say that we’ll see Glenn Beck and President Obama having beers together in the White House garden before any of the “pro-past tense” folks acknowledge the possible use of the present tense in fiction writing.

I feel like I’m listening to an argument between two sci-fi fans over time travel, and I’ve heard it all before…maybe because I’m caught in a perpetual time travel loop that keeps replaying my past experiences…or I’m listening to an author tell a story, which clearly already happened, giving me the impression that I’m hearing it again.  Does any of this make sense?  Probably not, because if you’re like me, after listening to the time travel argument for let’s say…two minutes, I feel compelled to interject.  “Time travel doesn’t exist, so what exactly are you arguing about?”  The same goes for arguing that the present tense has no place in fiction writing.  It doesn’t matter whether you think it happened in the past, or the present.  It really never happened at all, and only the author holds the key to why the tense was chosen.  This is the heart of the matter, as I have experienced.

The Jakarta Pandemic started in the present tense for no reason at all.  I wrote the story solely from the protagonists view, and after writing about ten pages, the present tense dominated.  I actually had to rework the pages to eliminate the past tense.  About fifty pages later, I re-read one of my favorite writing guide books, Stephen King’s, On Writing.  At some point in there, he discusses tense, and states that present tense is typically only suited for short stories.  I didn’t remember much more than that, because I had closed the book and uttered a few profanities.  I really didn’t want to dig back through fifty pages and shift the tense back to the past, but I did…or at least I fought my way through about five pages.  It was miserable, and didn’t work for me.  For my story, it became clear that the past tense was not the right choice, and that a single point of view, fast paced story was well suited for the present tense.  Not that I haven’t received some critique.  I can live with it, because the past tense failed to propel The Jakarta Pandemic forward.

As for my new novel?  With multiple points of view, changing settings, a much larger host of characters, I naturally tended to use past tense.  I strayed back to present tense for action sequences (out of habit), but upon re-reading a few pages, it became clear that sticking to the present tense would not be a sustainable practice for the novel.  I edited about fifteen pages to conform everything to the past tense, and at first it felt like I was writing in a foreign language, but after a few pages, it flowed naturally.

I think the story chooses the tense, and not the writer.

What do you think?

3 Comments

Filed under author, fiction, fiction writing, Writing, Writing Craft

3 responses to “Past or Present?

  1. Well said.

    I find that I dislike poorly written present tense prose a little more than I dislike poorly written past tense. But the same is true for me with 1st person viewpoints. Probably just because I’m accustomed to reading past tense.

    I haven’t seen anyone complain about Hunger Games being in the present tense. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough. Certainly isn’t hurting sales.

    I suspect readers don’t care nearly so much as writers (hobbyist or professional) or people with literature degrees. The average reader just wants an entertaining story. They probably won’t even notice the tense if you sweep them up into the story.

    I find it easy to write in present tense. I think I write better in the present as well but I have always avoided it because I was always told that it’s a horrible idea and that it puts readers off. I now suspect those who told me this were just traditionalists who are afraid of anything that’s different.

  2. I love present tense. It’s an innovative new way to look at fiction, and it really immerses the reader in the action because it’s unfolding as the reader thumbs through the pages. Fiction writers shouldn’t be afraid to experiment.

    Right now I’m editing my first novel that has been four years in the making. I was reading through it prior to looking up this article only to realize- to my horror- that my action sequences are in present tense and the rest of my novel is in past. But the problem is, the present tense scenes read so much better than the past tense. I’ll probably end up switching the action scenes to past, but this situation is just a testament to the natural feel of present tense. It’s more in the moment than past, although for intricate plots and multiple viewpoints it may not be an appropriate vehicle for the story.

    As you so eloquently put it, “story chooses the tense, and not the writer.”

    • Congratulations on finishing your first novel. Don’t rush the editing…just some quick advice. I’m still experiencing the same challenge with my second novel. 34,000 words in, and I still switch to the present tense for action sequences. I wish a well respected writer would start a movement to establish this as a recognized literary device, because nothing beats the present tense for an action sequence. I will fight this fight until I am the last present tense writer alive in the trenches. As for the non action sequences, it can be clunky, I will admit…and does sound like a screen play.

      That said, you won’t regret converting the entire manuscript to past tense. My editor sent me a few sample chapters of my first book, in past tense, and I loved it, so I hired her to convert the entire book…I certainly wasn’t going to do it! It would have driven me crazy, and I would have found a moral argument for not changing it (again) about 50 pages into the tedious conversion.

      I still believe that The Jakarta Pandemic chose the present tense over past, but enough readers took issue with it, that I chose to back down from my present tense pulpit and listen. I’m glad I did.

      Don’t driver yourself crazy editing, but make sure that your tense is consistent throughout the book. I left one chapter, a visceral flashback, in present tense for effect. I figured that if the book was told in the past tense, and the protagonist had a flashback…then that must mean the two pasts added together equal a present (I’m just making this up now). We’ll see if readers still complain. I also left italicized thoughts in the present tense, so they stand out…once again, we’ll see.

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