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readsandreviews

As a writer do you prefer the past or the present tense? Why?

As a reader do you prefer the past or the present tense? Why?

Any other thoughts on this issue? :)

6/1/2008 #1
AbCarter

I write in both past and present tense (though not in the same stories). I read in both past and present tense. Though fanfics that are in present tense are often unintentionally in present tense. The author keeps switching from one to the other.

There is a lot of recistance against present tense. I have two books on writing and both authors say "don't write in present tense". Their reasons: they don't like reading it. Really, no other reason than that. If they don't like it, others may not like it. But then some people don't like horror novels, that's no reason not to write horror novels. I recently read a book by Michael Chabon that was in present tense. I hold Chabon in higher literary regard than those two writers of writing books. I think I am not alone in that.

It is said that it is harder to do present tense well. Well, with the amount of people that fail to do past tense well here on Ffnet I doubt that is any easier. Most books are past tense; movies and TV shows on the other hand are present tense.

----

And out of curiosity: why do you ask for other thoughts on the issue without giving any kind of thoughts in your own post? There can only be other if there already is one.

6/2/2008 #2
readsandreviews

And out of curiosity: why do you ask for other thoughts on the issue without giving any kind of thoughts in your own post? There can only be other if there already is one.

Apologies for not being clear. When I say "other" I mean "other than preference". People may have advice to offer, or experiences that are not to do with preference. The reason I haven't given any of my opinions (yet) is that I find if someone who asks a question gives their opinion at the same time, the people who respond tend to comment on the questioner's opinion rather than answer the actual question. I've been thinking about these issues lately (pov, tense) and I'm interested to find out what other writers think about them.

6/2/2008 . Edited 6/2/2008 #3
miarath

As a reader I cannot really say that I prefer present tense since I read none in present tense yet. As a writer I write usually in past tense but slip into present tense when doing characters thoughts or writing about something that is always from the character's pov.

I think I don't care whether a fic is written past or present tense as long as it's done well and it captures my attention. ^_^

6/2/2008 #4
ExtremeWriter

As both a reader and a writer, I prefer past over present. Past feels more natural to me, as all the stories I've written so have been in past tense. However, in most cases, I think that the tense really isn't as important as whether the story grabs you. So, I like past better, but overall, there are more important aspects to me.

6/2/2008 #5
SMARTALIENQT

I'd say I prefer past, since it's the most commonly used and it feels more natural. Present... one of my favorite books is in present, but that is a rare exception.

6/2/2008 #6
White Eyebrow

As a reader, I have no preference as to whether the story should be in past or present tense. Really, it depends on how the author chooses to implement the narrative that determines which tense is more appropriate. Moreover, I think most would agree that once a tense is chosen, that it should be consistent throughout.

As a writer, I prefer to use past tense. Not because it is superior, but rather I think present tense is harder to pull off (with the difficulty being directly proportional to the length of the story). My reason for thinking this is because past tense is more intuitive. When reading a narrative, our brains automatically organizing it like were going over a news story. There is a narrator (whether he be explicitly defined or implied) who reports to his audience on a series of events. Furthermore, the narrator, being a witness to these events, implies that said events have already happened. This is just the way we naturally relay information to one another. This is why you'll never read a news article written in present tense: it just isn't possible. Therefore, right out of the gate, an author who writes in present tense has to overcome this mindset. In addition, I think what turns most people off about present tense it that, in the wrong hands, it can be rather monotonous. After all, you're just relaying a series of events in real time: event A happens, now event B, now were at event C ...etc. I claim that this inhibits the use of introspection and analysis. That is, if you're at event C, you can't readily go back and ponder the significance of event A - not without using some kind of plot device. Of course, these things can be overcome; I'm just saying that it makes certain things harder.

Having written this, I'm sure there will be a number of replies that will extol the virtues of present tense, which I’ll be eager to read about. :p

*edit*

I stand corrected on my statement about the news article (that'll teach me to speak in absolutes :p)

6/2/2008 . Edited 6/3/2008 #7
Maryilee

I prefer past tense and most often when I read something in present tense, it grates on the nerves. Having said that, I recently wrote a couple of short fics for a 2nd person pov challenge on another fanfiction site. Somehow, both of those were written in present tense without me really thinking about it. Normally, I very rarely slip from past to present, so for both of those to be written entirely in present means to me, that it was a natural fit for 2nd person pov. I also wrote a couple of short 1st person pov fics that also are in present tense. Somehow, it worked for those too. I think because in both those povs, the character is telling the story more directly, whereas in 3rd person, they aren't and it doesn't feel right to be able to have the story told as it's happening when that third person would have had to 'watch' it first before being able to relay the story to the reader, if that makes any sense whatsoever. lol

6/2/2008 #8
AbCarter

. This is why you'll never read a news article written in present tense: it just isn't possible.

Not true. The news papers I read all use present tense. Particularly for actions that may have started in the past but have not yet finished. Such as a strike, an accusation, or a threat to kill someone. Those are all news articles too. I've just looked through the paper again and it seems that present tense is actually used to give things staying power. "The minister says this" not "he said this". If he said it he could have already changed his mind. No, he says it. This is the most current up-date of events.

I claim that [present tense] inhibits the use of introspection and analysis.

That is true. When a person is on the run from something he doesn't really have time to reflect on who he had breakfast with, or even why he is on the run. But then. In a past tense story I get bothered too if in first person POV the narrator tells me he was extremely tired and put his head down on the light green pillow. So you were dead tired yet managed to notice the colour of the sheets and remember it?

6/3/2008 #9
White Eyebrow

I've just looked through the paper again and it seems that present tense is actually used to give things staying power

I stand corrected. I think I was reading an expose' written in past tense at the time. Someone should create another thread on the evils of absolutes. :p

6/3/2008 #10
readsandreviews

To answer my own questions:

As a reader, I enjoy reading both the past and present tense, just as I enjoy reading first- and third-person. I think the combination of first person and present tense can work particularly well. It puts you right in the characters mind and in their immediate surroundings. I think that's the main advantage of the present tense: immediacy. It puts the story in the here and now. I also think the third person combined with the present tense can be used to good effect. For example, let's say we have someone secretly observing the actions of another. Writing it in the third-person and the present tense could give it a really creepy feel.

As a writer, I try to decide which tense will serve my story well. I think we are so used to reading stories in the past tense that this is what we automatically have a tendency to do. It wasn't until I did a bit of reading on the subject that I actually started to consider the present tense as an option. Nowadays, I use the present tense if I want to make the story feel more real, more immediate or create a certain feel, like the creepy feel I mentioned above. Of course, using to present tense could be a disadvantage for the same reason. Sometime it's prefereable to be able to distance the reader from uncomfortable subject matter. The past tense (and third person) can be better for this.

I've often re-written drabbles and stories in different tenses and from different points of view before deciding which ones to go with. It's worth trying it because the tense and pov can radically alter the feel of a story.

6/3/2008 #11
LittleRedDog

I'm still trying to get all the 'first person, narrative, tenses, show versus tell' stuff straight. One of my writing books states that the most popular writing forms is a story told in the past tense with the dialogue written in the present tense. Ok. That does seem to be the most comfortable style to write in, whether in first or third person.

I recently wrote a short piece in first person, present tense; where I thought I needed to be right in the protagonist's head, to get the best angle on the story. It was very hard to do and I don't think it's a practical device for anything more than a single scene. (I seem to remember a B/W film, Humphrey Bogart playing Phillip Marlow, that took that odd line, but filmscripts aren't written stories and stray off the subject of this discussion.)

6/3/2008 #12
Saeth Ceirwyn

In English, it is incorrect to write fiction in a present tense. The logic behind this is that you can't tell a story that hasn't already happened. Technically, present tense is reserved for playscripts only, because a playscript is considered a set of instructions to be performed in the present.

Frankly, writing in present tense just makes most writers look uneducated and foolish because few choose to break the rule for the benefit of the story (at least on FF.net). Most are just being lazy because they have trouble grasping past, present and future tenses in English. English is an informational language, and when it comes to time, the rules are very ridged.

Also you can't switch tenses within a paragraph, whichever tense you choose. There's way too much of this happening in certain places of FF.net.

4/4/2010 . Edited 4/4/2010 #13
AbCarter

In English, it is incorrect to write fiction in a present tense.

Someone should tell all those published authors that write in present tense that they are doing it wrong. Their editor might have told them. Surely, if present tense makes the author look stupid, it makes their editor look twice as dumb.

Writing in past or present tense is a personal choice. one way doesn't make the author look smarter or dumber than the other.

What does matter is that, as you correctly point out, many people can't keep their tenses straight. It's inconsistent use of tenses that makes an author look uneducated.

4/4/2010 #14
Resident Bishounen

As a writer and as a reader I prefer past tense.

As a reader, I'm used to past tense stories, so reading something in present tense makes the writing stand out, and then I have a hard time paying attention to the story, because the writing itself is calling too much attention.

As a writer, whenever I try to write a story in present tense, my mind always wants to switch back to past tense and I end up with nasty tense flip-flops that take a million proofreading passes to fix. I'm sure with practice I could teach myself to write stories in present tense but I don't feel it adds enough to the story to make it worth it.

4/5/2010 #15
pyrrhicvictoly

In English, it is incorrect to write fiction in a present tense. The logic behind this is that you can't tell a story that hasn't already happened.

I have to disagree with that. It's only incorrect if you're strict about following prescriptive grammar rules. Who made up those rules? And what logic? If we're able to understand that the story has already happened despite the fact that it's written in present tense, then that logic doesn't hold. The way the mind processes language is a lot more complex than that, not to mention that the rules in any given language are always changing.

People tell stories in present tense all the time. If you really listen to the people around you, it's common to hear a switch from past to present tense in order to make the story sound more immediate. "So I'm going to the store, right? And this guy comes up to me..." Most people don't even notice that they do this, and a lot of listeners are also unaware of it, but it happens. The "rules" may be against it, but present tense definitely works in oral storytelling. Bringing some of that into the written word isn't a bad thing.

4/5/2010 #16
Wildcard999

In English, it is incorrect to write fiction in a present tense. The logic behind this is that you can't tell a story that hasn't already happened.

Actually, there's nothing that says once can't write in any tense. Even future tense, although it'd p*** a lot of people off if you did that, not to mention being hard to read. Of course the story has already happened, but there's nothing that says you can't experience it as it's happening within the story. All books have already happened, but inside the story, it can be happening right now. There's nothing wrong with that.

Tense changes are stupid mid sentence/paragraph. Even mid-chapter tense changes need to be handled with care and used sparringly. Honestly, I only ever used it mid-chapter for something drastic like a dream or altered state.

4/5/2010 #17
Ragnelle

I tend to think that there are no absolute rules when it comes to any kind of art, whether it is writing, drawing or dancing to mention three very different forms. But, and it is an important but, there is things that work and things that do not work. In telling a story, the question is not whether it is more correct to use present or past tense, but whether present or past tense is what works best for the particular story you are telling.

From what I have seen, in the majority of stories past tense works, and is even the best way to tell the story. I am an oral story-teller, and I have never once used present tense in story-telling. I might do it one day, but so far I have not told a story that called for it. I have written in present tense, but so far only one vignette has called for it.

I have noticed that athletes and sports-reporters, in my country especially football players/trainers etc (soccer for you americans), tend to tell about the games in present tense. So often, in fact, that it has been named after them. But it always sounds wrong to me. It is grating. One reason, I think, that I prefer past tense.

Back to writing - when there is a story that calls for it, I do not mind present tense and can find it fascinating. And as a experiment, and to practice, I think it is good to try out different tenses in writing. However, there is a difference between an exercise and something written for publishing - whether on paper or the internet. In exercises we try, and fail and struggle to master something we did not. It can be good to see examples, but when I look for a story to just enjoy, I at least want a good, well-told story rather than an experiment that was only partly successful.

So I would say that past tense in some ways are best because it is a safe bet. I have not read a story in past tense where I have thought "this story would have been better is written in present tense." I have read stories in present tense where I have thought they would have been much better in past.

4/5/2010 #18
pyrrhicvictoly

What works for some people may not work for others. Both tenses work for me. I've even read something that was written in future tense and found it to be an amusing joke, but that's still a bit odd.

Part of it could be influenced from the way our thoughts are shaped by the language(s) we know. People who have only been exposed to languages like English, where the tenses are fairly strict and bound to the verbs, may have a harder time getting used to reading stories told in the present tense. I grew up in a household where Chinese was the predominant language, so I have a looser way of looking at tense. When I translate from Chinese to English, almost everything comes out in present tense because there are no tense markers on the verbs. When writing in Chinese, you don't have to choose a tense. It's just implied by the time frame of the narration and maybe an attached particle. For someone who's just starting to learn the language, it might seem as if every story written in past tense keeps suddenly shifting into present tense because there will be an odd mash of sentences with and without the supposed past tense marker.

Similarly, it might be more common to tell stories in present tense in certain dialects of English.

4/5/2010 #19
UndeadWithoutCoffee

In English, it is incorrect to write fiction in a present tense. The logic behind this is that you can't tell a story that hasn't already happened. Technically, present tense is reserved for playscripts only, because a playscript is considered a set of instructions to be performed in the present.

Frankly, writing in present tense just makes most writers look uneducated and foolish because few choose to break the rule for the benefit of the story (at least on FF.net). Most are just being lazy because they have trouble grasping past, present and future tenses in English. English is an informational language, and when it comes to time, the rules are very ridged.

Also you can't switch tenses within a paragraph, whichever tense you choose. There's way too much of this happening in certain places of FF.net.

I think parts of what you wrote here make you sound foolish. I´m sorry, but I disagree. The problem with most stories around FF is that the authors can´t stay within one tense.

I also think that present tense is odd on a story, but I have read stories where it turned out just fine. I have a problem with it when the fact in which tense the story is written distracts me too much from the story it´s self, which happens very very often with present tense. But I think that´s more a problem of quality.

4/5/2010 #20
Lorendiac

By a mild coincidence -- it just happens that within the last several weeks I have posted two short stories in the "Batman Begins/Dark Knight" fandom on this site. Each is written in the present tense.

Near as I can recall from when I started drafting out some of that material last year, I had a vague idea that describing events as happening "right here and now" might give the experience a bit more of a cinematic feel, similar to watching an action movie on the big screen (hopefully).

I don't know how well that worked.

For what it's worth -- nobody has yet complained about the relentless use of present tense in either story. But each of those stories has only received one little review thus far, so that's not much of a test.

I have also read professionally published stories and entire novels which used the present tense as the default condition. I seem to recall that when I started reading Jane Lindskold's fantasy novel Changer it took a little getting used to, but I adapted and pressed onward, and still enjoyed myself.

I have read several books on creative writing, and I don't remember any of them trying to forbid the constant use of present tense in a particular piece of narrative prose. They are likely to mention that simple past tense is the traditional method, and thus is what the readers are usually expecting, but they don't pretend that nobody ever succeeded with any other approach to the problem!

P.S. I had written most of the above before I looked down to UndeadWithoutCoffee's recent post in this thread. I tend to agree with those sentiments. I have certainly been known to tell people, in my reviews, that they are jumping back and forth between past and present tense without rhyme or reason, even within a single paragraph! But criticizing that as an inconsistency which can jar and confuse the reader is very different from trying to say as an absolute statement that "it is incorrect to write fiction in a present tense."

4/6/2010 #21
melisse

As both a reader and a writer, I prefer past over present. Past feels more natural to me, as all the stories I've written so have been in past tense. However, in most cases, I think that the tense really isn't as important as whether the story grabs you. So, I like past better, but overall, there are more important aspects to me.

Same here. I prefer writing in the past tense, though I also have a fic that was writtin in the present tense. That one was an exception though. I slip too easily in other tenses to pull a present tense fic off and in generally I prefer to write in the past tense.

For reading the same. I prefer past tense, though I may read the rare fic written in present tense. Reading those however doesn't feel naturally and it always take a while untill I can adapt. And what I notice, those writers too often mess up and begin to slip in other tenses, which just creates a mess which is frustating to read.

Pick one or another (tense), but be sure you can pull it off, because it's really frustating if you can't and the fic becomes a chaos of different tenses.

4/10/2010 #22
Wildcard999

Pick one or another (tense), but be sure you can pull it off, because it's really frustrating if you can't and the fic becomes a chaos of different tenses.

Yeah, I've found that if I write any tense long enough to write it consistently, trying to write the other tense can be a train wreck the first time through.

4/17/2010 #23
Letter to Miss

Honestly, I prefer to write and read in present tense. I know, I'm a weirdo, but I love feeling like I'm right there in the moment and standing right there in the scene. I also like the nontraditional aspect of it. Past tense works, too, but present is my favorite. (:

4/19/2010 #24
Wildcard999

Mine too, if it's done well. I actually have no concept of time, really, so past and future are tough for me to connect with. I live in the now. That's all that exists for me. Before I knew about present tense, I read past tense like it was present, but now that I've read present tense I just feel like there's this huge chasm between me and everything that happens in past tense.

FYI, even though I have no real concept of time, I've learned to adapt. Sort of. I can't really judge time, but I do plan to an extent and I can sort of remember things.

I know, I'm a weirdo...

The way people talk, it sounds like present tense is all the rage in some fandoms. Can't be that weird.

4/20/2010 #25
EclipseIllusion

I usually write in past tense, unless it's thoughts and I think sometimes those are in past..

I kind of thought that it was incorrect to write in present tense in fiction writing. I have seen it done in some fics though, not just on here. At first, I thought the writer just wasn't doing it correctly, and the inconsistency (I think I remember there being some) I sometimes found kind of backed that for me. So, I guess in a way, I was wrong myself, since it is possible to write in either past or present as long as consistency is maintained within the story. I'm not really use to reading present tense so, when I do come across a story that is in present tense it may take a minute for me to adjust to it.

4/20/2010 . Edited 4/20/2010 #26
Wildcard999

I kind of thought that it was incorrect to write in present tense in fiction writing.

That's a myth. It's rare, but I've seen published books in present tense. It's just common to write in past tense, probably so people don't have to keep acclimating to a new style every book. I don't know. Or maybe people didn't used to be adventurous and past common-practice became present tradition.

Yes, inconsistency is not a good thing, so you'd be right about the author doing it wrong. But there's no rule against present tense writing.

4/21/2010 #27
Lorendiac

I started Googling for a list of "novels written in the present tense" and found something interesting. A blog post written by a man named Jonathan Rowe. I am not familiar with his work, but evidently he is a published author who, about two months ago, received an email from a reader who wondered why Rowe had written a novel in the present tense. The reader boldly asserted that "no bestselling authors use the present tense."

Rowe starts out by calmly taking that sweeping statement and shooting it full of holes by providing a list of counterexamples; novels which did very well for themselves while making heavy use of the present tense; one of his examples was written by Charles Dickens in the nineteenth century!

Then he goes on to discuss, in a businesslike way, some of the potential strengths and weaknesses of using the present tense as the default condition in a piece of storytelling.

The entire piece can be found at http://jonathanrowebooks.com/blog/?p=37

4/22/2010 #28
Ripdos A.K.A The Bad Ash

I can't write a whole story in the present tense. I mean I could but I would need to change as a writer.

4/22/2010 #29
Mr. Peachfuzz

For me, tense hinges on POV. I prefer to write third person in past tense, and first person in present tense. With the latter it's to the point that I can't write first person in past tense anymore.

I don't get people who hate on present tense. I just love the immediacy of it.

4/22/2010 #30
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