On the Verb Tense Fence


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?

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