PRESENT TENSE MAKES ME TENSE


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Out of the last four or five books I’ve read, three were written in present tense. I don’t know if these books were classified as literary fiction, but one was definitely a mystery. I picked them up because the premises intrigued me, and they had a lot of good reviews. I rarely check the Look Inside feature on Amazon, depending more on word of mouth and reviews to pick what I’ll buy next. But after this experience, I will check inside every single time Look Inside is available.

It was a shock when I started reading each new story to find it was written in present tense. My first thought when that happens is, I don’t like present tense. Why not? Mainly because I’m not used to it. I’m reading, not listening to someone tell a story, and usually, writers write fiction in past tense. Also, there’s the pretension factor. Used to be only literary works ever used present tense. Now they’re used in some of the mysteries I read. I’ve heard it’s to help the reader get into the story more. Doesn’t work for me. And when I put the book down for a while and then go back to it, that present tense jars me every time. It often also jars me at the beginning of each new chapter for some reason.

The current book I’m reading has immediately disappointed me, as did the others written in present tense when I first started them. The author is going to have to work harder to make me like her book. And she’d better not slip and suddenly write in past tense for a few paragraphs. (Haven’t we all seen that?)

But wait, there’s more. This book started off in present tense. Very quickly, the character is remembering something in the past, so the tense switches to past. But it’s not obvious at first that the person is thinking of the past, so as a reader, I thought the author made a mistake. It does make sense to go to past tense when a character is remembering something. But now I was even more annoyed. I was annoyed when I figured out that the book was going to be in present tense. Then I was annoyed when I thought the author switched to past tense by mistake. Then I was annoyed at the change not being well set-up.

All within about three pages.

Are you a writer? Please do not try this at home. Or anywhere. Especially if you don’t have a stable of good editors to look out for the pitfalls. This was published by a big NY publisher, so it was edited several times, I’m sure. And I’m also sure the editors thought this was just dandy.

I carried on reading because the premise was still good.

Then this book got even stranger. The second chapter switched point of view and to past tense. And then, and then, when we went back to the first character’s POV, it was in past tense.

I have whiplash. Excuse me while I go get my neck brace. And maybe a new book to read.


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4 thoughts on “PRESENT TENSE MAKES ME TENSE

  1. Present tense is of the devil. I hate it. I hate reading it; I hate writing it.

    I really really really hate when a story demands to be told in that tense. It happens to me on (very rare) occasion, and always entails a lot of swearing and pulling out of hair. Sometimes rum is involved. It’s a difficult, tricky tense to write in, much more so than people think at first blush. I think I’ve done all of… two? out of forty-nine stories, in present, and one is a horror piece in which the first person protag dies in the end. The other one started in past tense, and it just wasn’t working until I put it in present. Surprise! It’s another horror piece. Horror just seems to lend itself that direction, for some reason.

    Amusingly, I once started a story in present tense because I honestly thought it wouldn’t work any other way, and that one decided it needed to be in past tense! So. I don’t even know. Clearly my Muse hates me. Or something.

    I’ve gotten a little more used to it because the roleplay is in present tense, but RP is a different critter than fiction writing. I can take it in small doses, but a whole novel does get wearing, and there are several books I have not read yet because they’re in present tense. Hunger Games, I’m looking at you, because WHY.

  2. Hi, Jan,

    First person present tense works for some books and not others. It works with YA and literary fairly well, and I’ve used it for both. In THE THIRD EYE: A PINES BARRENS MYSTERY, I alternated chapters between two speakers. One was a teenage boy whose voice was first person present tense alternating with his mother whose point of view is third person past tense. Their two stories come together and mesh. Admittedly, the novel is a bit experimental but all reviews have been good.

  3. A lot of YA is written in present tense. I also just read a mystery thriller in first person present tense. I used to not like it, but I’ve read enough of it over the last few years that I like it. I wouldn’t want to read it all the time, but I wouldn’t put the book down because of it.
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  4. Thanks, Julie, Jacqueline and Carol. I guess I need to get over it. LOL In the back of my mind, I think of it as being just another way agents and editors are using to quickly reject our work. “The rule now is that you have to write in present tense, especially if you write YA.” And as it has also now hit mainstream novels more and more, it may become the newest “rule” there as well.

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