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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Let's Talk Tense

Last week we talked about Point of View so I thought this week it would make sense to talk about verb tense and how that affects the viewpoint choices we make.  The choices are pretty simple and there are only 2: past and present.  (Yes, there's also future tense, but, really, have you ever seen an entire short story or novel written only in future tense?  If you have, please post in the comments and you will make my day.)

When it comes to tense in fiction writing, there's one essential "rule" to remember: be consistent.  If you decide you want to write in present tense, stay in the present.  If you choose the past tense, stay in the past.

But how do you choose the verb tense to begin with?  The best way is to understand the benefits and limitations of both, then decide which one serves your story best.  Here's a little cheat sheet to help you choose.

Present Tense
  • Immediacy - You feel like you're right there with the main character.
  • Suspense -  This is especially important if your story is one where the POV character is in peril.  If the story is in present tense, the reader won't know until the end if the POV character survives.
  • It Can Sound a Little Unnatural - Let's face it, present tense is relatively new in the world of fiction writing.  Our ears are more used to hearing stories told in past tense (e.g. "Once upon a time there was a...")  This is not to say that all present tense sounds weird, but for some writers, it may not come as naturally and could end up sounding hokey or gimmicky.  The trick here is practice, practice, practice.
Past Tense
  • Distance - The narrator has more distance from the events in the story it because they happened in the past.  This gives the narrator some perspective about those events and allows the narrator to have some hindsight.
  • Location in Time - Using the past tense, you also need to consider where the narrator is telling the story from.  (This is especially important if you're using 1st person.)  Is the narrator an old man looking back on his early life?  Is she telling the story just after having lived it?  Depending on where the narrator is NOW, it can effect how he or she tells the story.
  • Less Suspense - If you're writing in 1st person or 3rd person limited and it's past tense, the implication is that the POV character has lived to tell the tale.  In most stories, this is probably not a problem and won't kill much of your suspense, but if your novel is all about whether or not the POV character survives, then past tense could lessen the suspense.
Choose wisely.  Be consistent.  And don't tear the fabric of the space-time continuum.

8 comments:

Lindz said...

Insightful post, Tense is one of those beasts I struggle with. I love the immediacy in first person present tense POVs, but yes, I was firmly raised on third person past tense stories. I've always written in the ladder too, and have only now just started playing with a first person POV.

Ann Best said...

Consistency is the main thing here. And what tense works for the subject matter.

M Pax said...

Many places say in the guidelines they won't want first person present tense. So, that should be a consideration, too.

Carol Riggs said...

Great summary on tenses and POV. I ALWAYS write in past tense, 3rd person limited (boring, aren't I?), and I guess I'm not worried about the reader assuming if the MC makes it through or not. I like the "hero triumphs" kind of stories anyway, and all my endings are at least partially gloriously happy. ;o)

Plamena Schmidt said...

I really have trouble connecting with writing in present tense.

gabi said...

Thanks for the great comments, everyone!

I definitely hear what you all are saying about present tense. I think one of the reasons 1st person present is often discouraged by some markets is because it's so difficult to do well and to get readers to connect with the protagonist.

One great example of a 1st person present tense novel that works is Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. In that case, the main character's survival is a central question to the story, so present tense is the best choice. Also, it pulls the reader right there, into the games with the protagonist.

I think genre also plays a role in choosing verb tense. In some genres, past tense just works better, while in other genres (say, Dystopian YA) present tense tends to fit more.

Maybe it all comes down to knowing your genre, knowing your story and choosing what fits best for you as a writer.

Cheers! :)

Elaine AM Smith said...

And don't tear the fabric of the space-time continuum. ? Me and my doctor feel right at home here ;)
Great post - I agree that some genres suit one POV and tense more. It is always about finding the best well to write/tell the story.

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