Friday, April 22, 2016

Questions from Readers

Stephen McCutchan asks about tense in fiction. He adds, “I know it is traditional to write fiction in either first or third person past tense, but for both dialogue and certain action scenes, present tense seems more intense and immediate.”

Traditionally, authors used simple past tense. That’s in flux these days. Several novelists now write in present tense. I will say that it’s a bit jarring for the first page or two but after that, readers flow with it.

It comes down to preference and style. If you’re comfortable with using present tense, do so.

Here are arguments for using present tense.

1. As Stephen pointed out, present tense can have more immediacy than past tense. The action occurs to the readers as it happens, and the story is projected into the reader’s now.

2. Present tense simplifies our handling of tenses. We’re always in the moment. We don’t have to worry about when to use simple past tense and when to move into past perfect. We can always shift into past tense for a flashback and back to the present after we finish.

3. Present tense shows realism in time. That is, the action remains continuous and as forward moving as it is in real life.

4. You want to make your readers feel that the events of the story are happening as they read them.

5. The best argument is that authors can show the major character’s growth or enlightenment, and this can make for more intense reading.

FYI, whenever you refer to any historical event such as the Civil War or the story of David and Goliath, it’s acceptable to write it in the present tense even if the rest of the text is past tense.

For example: Moses comes down from the mountain and hears the noise of debauchery below. . . .

1 comment:

  1. I prefer to write in present tense, but I didn't plan it that way. In fact, my first manuscripts are in past tense. But when I started my first published novel, it just came out in present, so I went with it.

    Now it's hard for me to write past tense. I will when the story seems better that way, but it can take a while to rewire my brain. I'll find places where I slid into present tense without even realizing it.

    Some of the toughest struggles with present, for me, are not overusing "I" & "me" & avoiding passive/be verbs as much as possible. Following the guidelines of deep POV certainly helps.

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