A Tense Topic

I’m editing a young adult novel and the author tells the story from two points of view in one character – one from the character’s diary (present tense), and one from the character’s interactions within the world (past tense). This adds depth to the character development because the reader gets to see the ‘self-view’ and the ‘world view’.

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My world view

One of the discussions we had concerns the difference between past and present tense. This author felt she struggled to understand tense because she had some passages where the tense overlapped. I believe she’s actually struggling with transition between tenses. As in, writing in one voice and then transitioning to the second voice, while managing at the same time to stay true to the point-of-view character’s voice. Sound overwhelming? It can be, but this author is doing a much better job than she thinks she is.

The process has me thinking about tense, obviously. Past tense as in ‘I sat’ and present as in ‘I sit’. I’m not going to get into all the sub-categories of tense here.

Few people can write in present tense and do it so well that the reader isn’t aware of it. Author Ellie Griffiths is one.

So why is present tense so difficult to write, and a lot of times, difficult to read?

Past tense is invisible to a reader. This might be because it’s so common in everything we read, but I think it’s more than that. It’s how we tell stories. By the time we’re telling someone about something that happened, the event is past. We’re not narrating our story as it happens. Well, with social media, some people do. ‘I’m walking through the freezer section!’ ‘I’m eating pasta!’ But I’m sure you get what I’m saying here.

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I’m crocheting!

Past tense also, oddly, feels more ‘present’ and more intimate to a reader. This, again, is probably because it’s so familiar. Readers don’t have to adjust; they simply become immediately immersed in the story.

Present tense does take some adjustment on the part of the reader, who has to be convinced that the action is happening right now, right in front of them. That can be a stretch. And present tense is difficult to write, I think, simply because it isn’t as familiar. Additionally, having that action happen right in front of you is like watching a movie, not reading a book. There’s distance between a movie and a viewer, while a reader loses himself in the story world and becomes part of what is happening.

As with all rules of writing craft though, it comes down to neither way being right or wrong. A writer finds the voice of the story and that’s the right voice to tell it in. After all, aren’t rules made for breaking? Just be sure you know the reasons why you choose your tense, that you’ve thought about intimacy between the reader and the story, and that you feel it’s the right style for the type of story you’re telling.

And now I’m off to sit in my chair and drink tea. Which, by the way, isn’t present tense in spite of ‘sit’ and ‘drink’. Confused? It’s because I’m saying something that hasn’t yet happened. The phrase ‘now I’m off’ implies something yet to come. For present tense, the kettle has just boiled and…

I sit in my chair and drink tea.

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4 thoughts on “A Tense Topic

  1. This is fun! As a middle school teacher, I am constantly surprised how many students write in present tense. I think it is a reflection of students who are completely “in their head” and seeing the story happen as they write it. Unfortunately, the writer is experiencing it as he/she writes and the stories tend to go on and on. UGH!

    Don’t even get me started on kids that write all in dialogue! Ha! (Although I halfheartedly submitted one of these dialogue stories to a writing contest – AND IT WON! So go figure, call me wrong.)

    • I wonder how much the internet, social media, texting, etc. contributes to writing in present tense. Interesting topic for discussion some day though – will it become the norm for books authored by these younger generations to be in present tense? Will past tense become a thing of the past?

  2. Tense can easily trip up a writer! Kudos to your client for taking on the challenge with a great idea, and kudos to her for seeking your help to get it right! I’ll bet it’s going to be a fun book to read!

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