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PRESENT AND PAST TENSE

May 15, 2013

You’ve heard me preach ad-nauseum about how much I hate reading first person narrative in fiction. However, that’s a personal choice and I’m not here to tell you not to write your novel that way. I strongly believe it’s the way to go in an autobiography or in any autobiographical story.

The one thing I and a lot of other readers find very distracting is present tense in any point of view, but especially fiction. This is one reason there are certain authors people avoid. Regardless of whether they write in first or third person, they insist on writing in present tense, maybe with the philosophy that it instills a sense of urgency to the writing, which in my mind (and from feedback I’ve received from other readers), it doesn’t!

I find present tense, used consistently in fiction to be irritating to the extreme. In fact, I can’t even read it, regardless of point of view. It spoils the reading experience. One author in particular has a penchant for that and though she is quite popular with certain readers, she seems to gain an entirely different audience when she reverts to third, or even her first person stories in past tense. There is also an icky bug author I used to like that has a penchant for present tense. He writes third person but the present tense makes for an uncomfortable read and even though I like the stories, it’s a struggle to get through them. Unfortunately, I’ve had to take a pass on his work lately.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, the real reason for this article is to talk about mixing past and present tense in your story. Let’s forget point of view a moment and look at past and present.

I compile and do the first edit of the Las Vegas Astronomical Society Observer’s Challenge. It’s a non-fiction collection of observer’s notes of astronomical objects Roger Ivester and I and other members of our Challenge group choose to observe each month. Every participant sends in their notes, sometimes along with a drawing or image and I compile them into the report, do the rough and main edit, send the final draft to Roger, he does the final read and looks for anything I miss, then I send it to Rob Lambert. Rob runs through it and looks for anything we miss before posting it on the club web site. Roger and I both post it on our web sites as well.

Since I get the rough data and have to turn it onto the readable draft, I get all varieties of writing quality, mostly very good but still in need of editing. This is where I got the idea for this article because our members notoriously mix present and past tense. I always convert every observation into past tense unless it’s a direct quote in parentheses. It can be tricky because sometimes the tenses are mixed within sentences and Roger will catch them even after I’ve gone through them twice or more!

Since most of us are fiction writers, I’ll use this example:

Detach goes to the edge of the lake where he takes a look into the deep black water. He sees his reflection and shivers. It reminded him of when he was a kid and nearly drowned. His legs stiffened, a surge of adrenaline raced through his veins.

Notice anything wrong?

Detach goes to the edge of the lake where he takes a look into the deep black water. He sees his reflection and shivers.

This is in present tense. It doesn’t match the next two sentences which are in past tense. It can’t be both ways!

Detach approached the edge of the lake and gazed at the deep black water. His reflection stared back up at him. The near drowning when he was a kid came back in a rush. A surge of adrenaline raced through his veins.

One of many ways to correct that problem.

This applies to separate paragraphs, scenes and chapters. My strong recommendation is to keep on tense throughout the novel, unless it is used for special effect. Maybe a letter or, of course, in dialogue, which breaks normal rules. Also, keep the change short and specific.

If you insist on writing a novel present tense, go ahead, just make the entire novel present tense (except for the special effects as noted above). Don’t slip where you shouldn’t. Consistency is the key!

Happy writing.

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