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.

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Present tense is often told in the First Person, but it can be clumsy. "I go into the store and there he is, pointing that shotgun at me..." etc. You gain immediacy, but if a reader stands back, she must wonder: is he carrying a laptop or a pad of paper and writing down things AS THEY HAPPEN? How goofy can this guy be? Readers don't like to be confused, which is why the convention is not to have more than three points of view in a story. Shifting POV and tense is a risky business. You mnight find yourself to redo the whole thing and shift to past tense.

I wonder if anyone had tried writing in future tense? Now THAT would be strange. Science fiction? Fantasy? Or an alternative sense for the clairvoyant narrator who has choices for future alternatives. Might we worth a try...

Harley L. Sachs www.hu.mtu.edu/~hlsachs
Present tense can be so intense (that sounds dumb). You can't beat it for immediacy if you want to be in a character's head or in tight focus. As a reader, I sometimes find it distracting for an entire novel. One thing I do like about it, though, is that it presents wonderful possibilities for interesting endings to stories. It sounds like you're aware of the challenges and aren't letting it get too complicated--Good choice, changing things up for the dream sequences.
Harley L. Sachs made an excellent point. Present tense has the feel of someone writing down what happens as it happens. I visualize the character speaking into a microphone, camera rolling as they report the current events. With Past Tense, the narrator relates the events after the fact. The narrator already knows the ending and is merely telling the story.

I've tried writing in the present tense several times only to find I've written myself into a corner. At that point I usually change the tense. If I'm confused, the reader will also be confused.

As a writing instructor and a former editor, I read many unpublished manuscripts. When I come across one written in the present tense, I usually ask the writer why they chose that particular tense. The answer in most cases is that it's trendy. Not a good enough reason for me.
It definitely comes down to how good is the writer. If I am aware of the tense or of the story switching tense, it takes me out of the story. If I find I haven't really thought about it, good on the writer.
As with all writing, the enjoyment of the work varies with the skill of the writer and how well an element meshes with the story being told. For the most part, stories told in the present tense annoy me because I can't imagine why the author picked that particular voice and since it's not used that ofter (or at least not in what I'm reading) it is distracting. I don't want to be distracted as a reader. I want to lose myself in the author's world, so unless they can really pull off the unusual in pov or tense or some other element, to my mind, better off without it.
I'm currently The Blue Girl by Charles De Lint and last night, thanks to reading this topic, I realised for the first time that it's written in first-person present tense. It is very much written as though the viewpoint characters (of which there are three) are talking directly to you and telling you what they've done and perhaps that familiar, conversational style makes the technique less gimmicky.
ANONYMOUS REX by Eric Garcia was the book that I was hesitant to read in the first place, because of the tense. At the time, I was looking for examples of quirky PI novels as inspiration for my own work, so the tense really jumped out at me. Much like your experience, with CITIZEN VINCE it took me a few chapters to realise it was in present.

Good point you have there about conversational style. Some people talk that way all the time.
I really can't get into the first person or present tense books. It's really hard for me to read it and accept it.
I started off my latest WIP in past tense and after about a chapter came up with the idea of trying it in present, mostly because I wanted to have dreams from the past, in past tense. When I converted to present, I found that the voice had changed, and it's now closer to how I want it to be in terms of mood and rhythm.

The replies on this thread have made me doubt that, but not enough to change it until I get feedback telling me to do so. That's a ways off yet.

Thanks for piping in, John. I knew if we said your name three times you'd magically appear.
I think it depends on the skill of the writer.For some reason, I dislike books written in the first person, yet if it's done skillfully I don't even notice. Tense is similar. There are many more books in the present tense these days and they can be very enjoyable. As far as head-hopping is concerned, it takes a really good writer to pull that off without the reader getting confused. Most of the time I use chapter breaks or scene breaks if I go into another person's mind.
Morgan Mandel


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