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MIXING TENSES

January 1, 2020

I’ve made no secret that I cannot stand to read (or write) present tense.
I once experimented with it when our writer’s group had a thing going on called “Who Wrote It.” It was where members wrote something either in or out of character and the other members tried to guess who the author was. I wrote in a style so alien to me that nobody ever figured it out until the big reveal.
Funny how I have since taken that seed and turned it into a regular short story, but (of course) written correctly in my style.
I wrote the story in present tense. Nobody in the group had a clue it was me!
I can tell you it was a real struggle for me. I cringed at every sentence.
I bring this up because as many of you know, I usually screen every book I buy at the bookstore BEFORE I buy it.
Unfortunately, there have been a few times I’ve been burned by an author because while I’ve been expecting third-person, past-tense out of them, given their history, a few of them have decided to mix things up. One in particular, John Grisham decided to go all out and wrote his latest in first-person, present-tense.
I’d assumed, to my chagrin.
I couldn’t get past three chapters, and took the book back for a refund. It was horrible.
MY AVERSION TO PRESENT-TENSE
I know this is personal. Some people can tolerate, and even like present-tense. While some may think this is a millennial or young adult thing, think again. While that may be true, to some extent, it’s not new.
I was a reader LONG before I was a writer. However, it wasn’t until I was a writer that I started to analyze WHY I didn’t like certain writing styles, and loved others. It wasn’t until I became a writer that I figured out why with certain books, the writing didn’t get in the way of the story.
I found I never really liked first-person. It was too myopic. However, I could almost tolerate it if the writing was exceptionally good.
I found I never liked literary fiction that droned on and on about description and emotion and internal bla bla bla. I liked a story to get to the point.
I never the liked omniscient point of view with a cast of thousands, where head-hopping reigned supreme.
However, the most irritating style, the one thing that turned me off and made me stop reading, was present tense. It not only made me anxious, it made me feel rushed, like the author was trying to drag me through the story and force me along. It was highly annoying and made reading nothing but work. I’d lose interest in the story. This was something that bothered me way back in the early 60’s, so don’t think it’s a modern-day phenomena.
Since 1995, as a new writer myself, I wanted to see if I was the only one with these feelings. I did unofficial polls with other readers.
I’m not alone in my feelings. Not at all.
However, there are some authors that write exclusively in present-tense, like Patricia Cornwell. She has her fans, which is fine with me. I avoid her like the plague since I suffered through Predator many years ago. At least that entire book was solid present-tense and didn’t switch around.
With that out of the way, time to move on to mixing tenses.
MIXING TENSES
Sometimes an author wants to change the writing style to make certain characters stand out from the others.
The one hazard with doing such is that it can turn off the reader.
A radical change in style to highlight a new character is a good way to get someone to close the book and move on to something else.
It doesn’t happen to everyone, but for some, it’s at least from a mild irritant to a show-stopper.
When you get right down to it, it’s completely unnecessary, and is more of an effect than a necessity.
Switching from past to present-tense throws the story off-kilter.
The book I just read has done just that. The author went from past-tense to present-tense for the bad guys. I’m skipping chapters because I don’t want to deal with it.
In Dean Koontz latest series, he’s done that with a certain character. I skipped those chapters as well.
When you radically change style, whether it’s from past to present-tense, or third to first-person, you’re radically changing the reader’s flow. This can be very jarring.
Now, on the subject of a diary, or a letter, that’s perfectly fine to switch from third to first-person, because it’s to be expected. However, that’s a short passage, or should be, not entire chapters, over and over again.
SUMMARY
As I’ve stated many times here at Fred Central, I’m not everyone. I don’t have everyone’s personal taste. However, I’ve talked to countless people over decades who feel the same way. Unfortunately, not everyone does reviews or expresses their true feelings like I do. I have over a thousand reviews to reflect how I feel about it. I just wish more people would also express their feelings as well. Maybe writer’s and publishers would get a more accurate picture of what their readership thinks.
Happy writing!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2020 5:09 pm

    Exactly. I HATE it when they move from third to first. Omniscient is a pain in the ass because I keep flipping back. There are so many characters you forget who the hell the writer’s talking about.

  2. January 10, 2020 2:13 am

    Exactly! Limited is by far the best and the easiest to read. An author who writes that way keeps the writing from getting in the way of the story and makes for much more solid characters. Thanks so much for the feedback!

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