Monday, August 2, 2010

Tenses: How to choose?

With the beginning of each new story there is always so much to decide: character names, hair color, which POV (first or third, etc) you want to write in, and who's POV you will write in, etc. This list could go on and on.

As of late, I've been trying to decide on the tense for my story. It's such an important decision that can truly make or break your MS. There's a part of me that wants to attempt present tense, work a little harder to see it if will pay off. Lately I've read many books that were written in present and were executed flawlessly. When written correctly, I believe, present tense can bring a character to life, put the reader in their head, connect you to the MC on a completely different level. However, I've also read books were I found the present tense distracted me from the story, leaving me to only focus on the fact that the book was written in present tense. I don't want that.

And then there's this other part of me that loves the feel of past tense, and the ease of which it comes so naturally. So, needless to say, I'm torn. Past or Present. Present or past. I haven't a clue as to what I will, or even want to do.

So, per the usual, I've been practicing my techniques. And since these will be put to no other use, I've decided to share another writing exercise. (I'm full of them, apparently.)

Past Tense: Here's what naturally comes out when I write. It kind of just flows out of me effortlessly.

My father blatantly avoided the topic of “my car” as we drove past it on the way to school this morning. Though, I could tell the way the crinkling lines lightly furrowed along his brow, he wasn’t very happy with me. Not that I could blame him, I wasn’t very happy with me either.
Until last night, I had a car. It wasn’t new, but I loved it—even despite its age and missing paint chips. Okay, okay… and the huge dent in the front fender, which actually was the only one not caused by yours truly. I know it wasn’t much, but it was mine. All mine. And that made all the difference.
This morning, my blue Civic was exactly where I had left it last: nose deep in mud, teetering tail up in the shallow creek at the end of the vacant, vineyard lined road that lead to our house.

Present Tense: And here's the same snippet (for the most part) in present tense. It took a little more work, but turned out okay, I think.

My father blatantly avoids the topic of “my car” as we pass it on the way to school this morning. I can tell by the crinkling lines that appear and furrow along his brow, he isn’t very happy with me. Not that I can blame him, I’m not very happy about what happened last night either.
I love that car. Well, I think a correction may be in order now: I loved that car. It wasn’t new or anything, and it wasn’t even in perfect condition. My little black Civic had weathered many years in the salty breeze that blew in from the San Francisco bay. The missing paint chips proved its loyalty to the Bay Area. It even had what I like to call a, “love tap,” permanently decorating the front fender.

I'm still torn. Ultimately it is a decision that will have to be made soon, and I think that Past vs Present tense is something every writer tackles on a case by case basis. It greatly depends on the "feel" you want to achieve for your story.

Obviously, I'm still trying to figure the "feel" I want to achieve. But I'm curious: How do you all choose a tense for your stories? Does it come by decision or just happen to flow out naturally, one way or the other?


  1. OMG. I've so much time on the very same question past or present. I was always so scared to move my writing out of past...the perhaps easier of the two. But then I finially did it. I took my current WIP at about 40K and started changing it to present. I think it feels so much better now. Now whenever my character thinks those quick thoughts I can just add them into the discriptions without worry about tense and italics.
    That being said...I think I liked your story in past better. But there overall really isn't that much difference. Your call.

  2. Oh yeah, and now that I'm a present writer...I like to read it in other novel so much better. It puts me deeper into the story. If you're like how I was: writing in past tense but feeling so torn then I suggest going for it.

  3. I'm trying to decide the same myself. I love the challenge of writing in present tense, but it's not my comfort tense the way past is.

  4. I had this same decision to make a while back, but it was the opposite of me. I get that a lot of people have issue with present tense and such but it comes naturally to me in a way that past tense doesn't...

    I think you get better at it the more comfortable you feel so it's TOTES up to you what tense you go with.

    I think it's more important to think about the reasons for the tenses, maybe. Like past is great for tension and living in the moment, but it will also exhaust the reader because they're constantly on edge. It isolates the main character from the world too. I like that feeling, I use it to emphasise things, but it can be a lonely tense I think. Sometimes it doesn't fit the story...

    So, in conclusion to my lengthy ramble, go with what you feel fits. :)

  5. Except in very rare cases, I find present tense annoying. It often feels awkward to read and I find it throws me out of the narrative at times. I much prefer past tense for both reading and writing - it just flows better for my brain.

  6. I love present tense, but it only works in some genres, I think. For example, I'm writing historical; present tense would NOT work for that because it would be stupid - the story is supposed to have taken place thousands of years ago. For contemporary (especially chicklit), I really like present tense. I actually find that writing in present tense is easier for me if I'm in first person, but that's just me. Sometimes, I'll read through my rough draft and see that I've shifted to present tense for a page or two without realizing it. Weird.

    For your excerpt, I actually liked the present tense better. But that's just me. Good luck deciding! :)

  7. *holds up hand*


    I meant PRESENT is good for tension

    *headdesk* *shakes fist at Monday*

  8. Mine seems to come out naturally...and what seems to flow the best in past tense. Hmmmmm...never thought about why that is.

  9. Mine just flows off the pages.

    Okay so it doesn't, but I thought if I wrote it that it would make it so. Sometimes I may write the entire story one way it doesn't work until I've written it in another tense. I have to test all versions out before finding the perfect one!

    Good luck deciding yours :)

  10. I think you answered your own problem when you said that present tense took you a little longer--if something like tense takes too much of my time, it takes away from my focus on my story.
    But that's just me. ;)
    Maybe you should try writing a short story in present tense first... see how long you can keep up with it. Or type out pages from a book that's already in present tense to get a feel for it. If that's really what you're wanting to try. :)

  11. I usually write in past tense, my writing seems funny to me when it is present. On your ultimately it is your choice, but in-case you were curious, from a reader stand point, the past read better to me then the present. but I could also be a biased reader. :)

  12. I've struggled with this, too. It's a tough one! I've heard that writing in present tense, first person is extremely difficult to pull off. I've tried; not sure if I've managed.

    Good luck!

  13. The only time present tense is jarring for me (as a reader) is when it's not done consistently. There's nothing like lapsing back into past tense for a paragraph or two to jerk me right out of a story! When it comes to my writing, I usually write in past tense, but I've had a few WIPs where it felt more natural to write in the present tense. So I just tend to go with whichever tense flows better.

  14. I think with tenses and writing it has to do with the way we would normally converse face-to-face. If I call you on the phone to tell you something that happened (IE: tell a story), obviously it's going to be past tense. As humans, that's what we're used to. You never tell a story to someone as it's happening to you, right?

    That being said, I become much more enthralled with a story when it's present tense because I feel like I'm going through that particular experience WITH the character. Meh, just my two cents!

  15. I've struggled with this same dilemma myself! For my NaNoWriMo novel last year I couldn't decide which tense to use, and when the first of the month rolled around, I ended up writing in past tense. Only whenever I got into a writing flow, I would start to write in present tense, then I'd have to pause, delete and rewrite in past tense.

    Halfway through I decided to change it to present tense, because it just felt better for the story! When NaNo ended, the first half was in past tense, and the second in present tense!

    I definitely agree that it's a case by case sorta thing. My last story was third person past, and my current project is first person present! It all depends. Just write what feels right!