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September 30, 2011
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After chatting up one of my critique partners yesterday, I’m curious about reader preferences when it comes to verb tense in fiction.

My friend had just taken a glance at my new submission and noticed that I changed from simple past /past progressive to simple present/present progressive. The first thing she said was, why the change? She wondered if there was a specific reason why I did this to my story because she found the use of the present tense distracting. Of course, I find this fascinating!

Do you have a verb tense preference when choosing which fiction to read? Do you have a difficult time reading books that take place in the present tense? Do you even notice the tense while reading, or does it hinge on whether or not the book captures your attention?  Will you put a book down or refuse to read it at all if you see that it is written in a certain tense or point of view?

Quick peek at the tenses of which I speak:

Simple present – Marcy sings

Present progressive – Marcy is singing  (is/am/are)
   
   
Simple past – Marcy sang

Past progressive – Marcy was singing (was/were)

My novel is a fantasy adventure. It’s written in the first person, and I am editing it to move from past to present tense. For my story, I believe it is the right change because of the way the story has to unfold for the main character as he discovers what’s happening. I also feel that use of the present tense helps with the sense of urgency and the feeling that you’re right there in my character’s head as he is trying to come to grips with his whole world falling apart.  I could be wrong… but I am finding the process of changing it over exciting.

While the decision to make this change has felt right on, the execution has proved difficult for me. I grew up reading books that take place in the past tense. The main character is retelling the story from some point in their future and it’s like we’re sitting across from each other and I’m just listening.  Or the whole thing is told from the omnipotent point of view, yet in the past tense, so you do some head hopping but you still have the sense of the story being a retelling of events.

There is a sense of comfort in the first person past tense as well. I mean, if the narrator is telling you this tale, surely they must survive the ordeal? When I was a kid perhaps, but of course this is not always so. I remember when I was younger and stories were being told in the first person past tense and it was mind-blowing to learn that the main character was actually dead and speaking to me from the grave!  What a concept.

Which makes me wonder: How much of this is trend versus device used for a purpose? A lot of the YA novels I have read in the past few years are told in the present tense. Personally, it doesn’t bother me or distract me if it is done well.  In fact, I was surprised to find that my critique partner disliked it in general. (Hence today’s blog post!)

So, I am curious. What say you, blog readers?  Does tense matter to you when it comes to your choice in reading a book? Do you notice it? Does it make it difficult to read at your normal pace if a book is in a tense you’re not used to reading?

About the Author Corinne

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  1. You always hear that present tense has more “immediacy” but it the opposite for me, because I find it so distracting. It’s become so popular in YA that I’m learning to deal with it–although I don’t read much YA, just from time to time.

    At best, I stop noticing it after a few pages. Of course, there was one I was reading only yesterday where I quit noticing it as I read, but every time I’d have to put it down and come back to it, I had to mentally reset to deal with the present tense again. It only lasted a few sentences at that point, but still. That’s not what you want the reader’s experience to be like. For it to be an effort to get in sync with your character.

    I’ve never had any feeling of past tense not being “immediate” or even the sense of it being a story I’m just listening to. A good writer can put me right in the moment with the POV character even though he’s telling me what Mary did, not what she’s doing right at the moment. It only makes sense to me that if there’s been time to put it on the page, this story’s already happened.

    I think I just have too a hard time suspending belief that I’m really there in that moment for present tense to work. I KNOW I’m not there, no matter how much I like feeling like a part of the story. So I can experience it as it happens in past tense, but the present tense keeps tripping me up because it’s harder to believe I’m there to be narrated to as it’s happening.

    And don’t get me started on crap like “As I sit here, I don’t think about what they’re doing, or why I’m not there, or what my future will be…” when my head’s screaming “yes you ARE thinking about it. You’re talking about it right now!”

    But I get the sense that the publishing industry doesn’t care what I think, because almost all YA is coming out that way now. ;)

  2. I find it hard to “believe” past tense. In order for it to work, the reader has to believe that the speaker is stepping away from the action of the novel to tell the reader about what he’s doing. This is doubly true when we have a first person speaker instead of an omniscient third person narrator. It might not seem this way to the author, but to me as a reader, it is constantly at the forefront of my thoughts when reading a present tense novel.

    And I don’t think tense should ever be something the reader thinks about. That’s why I choose past tense for my writing. That, and I find I can’t keep up a present tense story. It’s probably because I never write that way, but I’m having to constantly go back and rework my tense if I try it. But I think this might just be me. Or at the very least, I’m in the minority. :)

  3. I don’t really mind any tense, so long as it’s written well, and it doesn’t tend to affect my reading. My current WIP is present tense, while all my other projects have been past tense; it’s a bit of a new experience for me.

  4. I can’t stomach present tense for more than a piece of flash fiction; novels are right out. I just can’t get into it.

    I think jendauthor’s description is spot on: Someone detachedly narrating their own life as it is happening feels unnatural.

  5. So interesting to hear such strong feelings about this! Thanks for taking the time to share your opinions.

    I’ve never really thought about the present tense being unnatural. I don’t think about the logistical problem of a person telling it as it happens. For me it sucks me in and I am there. Which is at odds with my feeling about past tense which seems like I’m sitting across the table with a past tense narrator.

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