When I returned to the joys of reading a few years ago, a couple of books I bought were written in present tense. They sat on my shelf for a few months as I delved into other books written in the more familiar and comfortable past tense. But when I eventually got round to reading one of them, I found that after a few chapters my brain had been reprogrammed to recognise present tense as normal. It didn't bother me any more and I simply enjoyed the stories.

Since then I've branched out and read books written with multiple viewpoints (first, third, different characters), as well as books written in either tense. CITIZEN VINCE by Jess Walters even switches to second person for a few paragraphs every so often and it actually enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

The novel I'm writing now is mostly in present tense, with semi-dream sequences in past tense. My reasoning here is that I want it clear that the dreams are set in the past.

But I'm wondering, how do all of you feel about techniques like this, switching tense and characters? Is it gimmicky, does it add to your enjoyment of the novel, or does it all come down to how good the writer is and how well the techniques are handled?

I'm especially interested in the views of readers on this, because of my novel, but also just plain old curiosity.

Views: 93

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

I don't think it is the tense that matters, it's the skill of the writer and the reader.

Sorry, Karen. You and I were writing at the same time -- I wasn't referring to what you wrote. :0
That's an interesting point, 'the skill of the reader.'

In a way, that could be taken to mean that every extra technique used makes the book appeal to a narrower audience. The more skills a reader needs, the less readers there are to read the book.
Teresa Schwegel recently won the Edgar for best first novel (for "Officer Down") using present tense. I'm a fan of it, and I think we'll see more of it in the future. Way back when, the omniscient author usually provided the POV, but today's readers seem to enjoy something more immediate, and you can't get more immediate than present tense, I don't think.
Very little to add that hasn't already been said -- I think it's entirely dependent on the quality of the writing and the "immersive" element of the story. The more wrapped-up the readers get, the less chance they have of finding the tense, perspective and any other narrative devices intrusive.

Weirdly, back when I used to write work-for-hire novels - syndicated stuff I'd frankly rather forget - the editors used to actively discourage us from using first person or present tense in our novels. "It's far more difficult to sustain", they'd say. Nowadays I tend to write everything in 1st person present tense, and I find it far more liberating and free-flowing than anything else. Whether that makes me a freak or syndicate-editors Just Plain Wrong, I don't know. My view has always been that's it's far more emotionally involving (and therefore, hopefully, powerful) if one "becomes" the voice of the book, rather than attempting to disseminate everything through the filter of some omniscient narrator, or indeed adding degrees of separation through the conceit of a retrospective tense.

But then I come from a comics-writing background, where past-tense narration-captions look creaky, and 3rd-person just doesn't work as well as 1st, so I might be on my own there.

Very interesting topic, though. I'd love to know how the earliest historical stories - oral tradition stuff - was tensed. Does Beowulf *slay* Grendel, or was Grendel *slain* long ago?
I've recently been writing a book where I've drafted each chapter as a screenplay before adapting it back into prose. Screenplay are always written in present tense and it messed with my head a bit converting everything into past tense, because after reading a few paragraphs of reading the script present tense would seem right and natural and then I'd go back to the story and find I was oscillating between past and present tense in consecutive paragraphs. Bah. And I usually work so hard to avoid the job of editing afterwards.

That was the one of the things that tempted me to write the third of those stories in past tense, but with regular flashbacks in present tense. It's good to keep your readers on their toes. Though perhaps once a few more people have read it, that's when I'll start getting the complaints.
I so often start out with first tense, first person but usually change it at some point. I like the sense of immediacy but dread delivering on it at the same time. Stepping back makes me breathe easier.
I recently read Harlan Coben's The Innocent, where he used second person to great effect in the prologue and epilogue. The rest of the book is in third, multiple POV, past tense.

But, you know, he's Harlen Coben. Until one develops some serious writing chops, I think it's best to keep things linear and simple. Single POV, past tense.

I've only been able to force myself to read one novel written entirely in present tense. It might be hip, but I just don't care for it, no matter how skillfully it's done.
First person present can be really gimmicky if it's not done well. At the same time it can create a lot of immediacy. When it works it just takes over, like watching a subtitled film. After a while, you don't really notice that you're reading all the dialog.

I think it works better with first person because it lends itself to a casual conversational style, but I've seen a lot of third person that works just as well.

Personally, I prefer writing in first person present. It's just more fun for me.
i think it's interesting that we're seeing such POV variety in books right now. at one end you have the extreme distance of books like the kite runner and the historian. i have no tolerance for that kind of delivery because i crave immediacy. at the other end you have books written in first/present.

daniel, i recently went through a similar struggle. wrote a character is first/present, then third/past, then finally settled on first/past with a bit of first/present. but i think a lot of it depends on the tone and pace of the story itself. i decided to briefly use first/present during an intense scene, and i think that shift gave it more of an impact. hopefully.
Alternating POVs are not a problem - just ask Wilkie Collins. But tenses are another matter. The present tense is frequently an irritant, though David Rosenfelt handles it with grace. I have just finished reading an historical crime novel, however, that leaps like a gazelle from past to present to past again, for absolutely no apparent reason. The present tense is difficult to justify in historical fiction to begin with, since presumably the point is to write about the past; to have two tense structures going for the same time frame and same series of events is bewildering. The approach you describe is at least logical; it would make me happiest if you would avoid italics for the dreams.
Thanks for your input, Yvonne. You're right in that any technique has to be used for a reason, just like italics.

I hate italics.


CrimeSpace Google Search

© 2024   Created by Daniel Hatadi.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service