Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Tense Question

One of the most exciting things about being a writer, to me anyway, is getting a new idea and having the story flood into your mind and see a whole bunch of seemingly random pieces just fit together perfectly. This happened to me this week. I woke up and the story just played out in my mind. I knew I had to write it all down before I forgot anything. As I started putting words to this story I discovered I was writing it in first person, and not just that but it was present tense. I was kind of weary of this because my preferred style of writing is in the third person. I felt a little out of my element, but I wanted to stay true to the story and the character as she told me her story.

So my question for all of you is:

Does it make a difference to you when reading a book what tense it is? Or if it's first or third person? What about writing, do you have a preference?


  1. I hate books in present tense. I was always taught that it was WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. However, The Hunger Games and Divergent slid through, so I feel like it's a new trend, especially in dystopian fiction, apparently. It still bugs me, though, but it's probably just from training.

    I've also been taught that you should only use first person if you have a really good reason to. In other words, first person shouldn't just be the default tense for every story. Most stories are easier to write in first person, but that doesn't mean that it's the best tense for the story. I've always been of the mindset that if you decide to use first person, you're doing it on purpose, not just because it's easy.

    My writing group has had lot of discussions about this, and there are people with opinions and preferences all over the map with tense. These are my opinions as one writer/reader, but your opinion as the writer of your story is what matters most.

    One more thought, I went to a lecture by Gail Carson Levine at BYU several years ago. She talked about writing Fairest, her Snow White novel, and how she wrote and rewrote three or four times in order to figure out the right point of view. She felt like first-person from Snow White's POV was best from the start, but that's an obvious problem being as Snow White is asleep for part of the story! She said she kept rewriting--from the Prince's POV, the Queen, etc.--to try to figure it out. In the end, it is in Snow White's POV, and she got really creative about how to do that when she was asleep. The tense and POV are perfect for the story. Sometimes it takes some trial and error to figure it out.

  2. Present tense isn't wrong. But it sure it done incorrectly often. It takes a particular type of craft to write in present tense without sounding like a screenplay with all choreography. When it's done well, it can really keep the reader right in the middle of the action. ie Hunger Games.

    I think always, the right answer to both POV and tense are whatever you can write without being stilted so the reader becomes immersed in the story.

  3. For me, present tense is a bit off-putting, but as long as it's done right the story is good I can get through it. my mind will automatically correct to past tense while i read, though it's still pretty confusing for me. I thought it was appropriate for the Hunger Games, even though it bothered me, because it added tension and urgency to the story.

    I like both POVs, I'm not bothered by first or third. But i find first can be a bit limiting, since you can't be in the head of any of the other characters. i myself normally write in third person.

  4. Sometimes I think the present tense, first person thing makes it seem like the author is trying too hard. It’s natural for me to want to write a story in present tense because I’m just kind of narrating what’s happening in my head. But I think sometimes it’s like the author is forcing you into something and it’s unnerving. Sometimes I’d rather be told a story than thrown right into the middle of it. If I am thrown into it, it’s got to be pretty darn convincing!

  5. I don't particularly care for present tense either. I didn't even like it in Hunger Games, frankly. I get used to it, though, so after the first twenty or thirty pages of a book, I can ignore it. But I just generally don't think there's a really convincing reason to write in present (though I'm perfectly willing to concede that there may be compelling reasons I haven't thought of).

    First or third person, though--I like both. I think there are compelling reasons to choose which voice to use.

  6. Well, first person is a point of view, not a tense, but I get what you all are saying.

    I don't think there is a right or a wrong answer to any of this. Present tense seems to work better for first person action based stories. Past tense is obviously the default, but I've DEFINITELY seen writers mess it up. Writing first person narrative in the past tense gets dicey, and I've seen a lot of tense-confusion errors.

    The bottom line is you have to be comfortable with your tense (and your point of view, since people are bringing that up also). You have to be able to flesh it out consistently and not make it confusing.

  7. I have kick against the pricks and admit that I really enjoy present tense. It adds tension and allows the reader to keep pace with the narrator. One never gets ahead of the other. I also enjoy first person. Some of my favorite books (Jane Eyre, I Capture the Castle) are first person. To be perfectly honest, when a book is good, I don't even think about the tense or the narration and just devour the words. I tend to think that if a story comes to you in first person that is the way the story wants to be told.

  8. Thank you all for your comments and insights. I appreciate them!



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