Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Choosing Tense

She sits, second row on the left side of the chapel. The pew in front of her remains empty, and so as she weaves her fingers together, apart, together again, she has an unobstructed view of the open casket and Silas, his forehead and nose bumping up past the line of the box.

Present tense. You are in the moment, yourself a spectator.

Now let's shift gears for a moment...

She sat, second row on the left side of the chapel. The pew in front of her remained empty, and so as she wove her fingers together, apart, together again, she had an unobstructed view of the open casket and Silas, his forehead and nose bumping up past the line of the box.

Past tense. Already done and gone, relayed to you by a first-hand observer.

Same excerpt, two tenses. Which stands out to you more? As writers and readers, each of us has a preference.

When reading, does one form put you off? I'm in the middle of The Nanny Diaries, written in the present tense. As a proponent of past tense, particularly in longer works, I find it stops me short at times.

When writing, how do you choose the tense you'll use? Is it intrinsic for you, something you don't even consider? Or do you weigh the options against the work, the ultimate output and the characters who live the story?

33 comments:

Melanie Avila said...

Nice timing. I'm working on a short story and midway through I switched from past to present tense. I knew it was wrong to do that, but as it was the first draft I let myself play. I ultimately switched it all to past -- mainly because there's a good chunk of backstory -- but I liked the dramatic pull of present.

I love Nanny Diaries but had forgotten it's in present. I can't say I've read many that way.

Melissa Marsh said...

I write in past tense and it's my nature to do so. It has to be a conscious decision for me to write in present tense.

Kristen Painter said...

Past, definitely.

Jessica said...

I always write past tense, third person, though I'm not averse to first person.
In a story, if it's compelling enough, I won't notice the tense. Cool post! I like your examples.

Janna Qualman said...

Melanie - I've done some playing around, too, and past is where I'm much more comfortable. And I think you're right! Present is much less common.

Melissa - I think past tends to come so much more naturally with storytelling.

Kristen - You're not alone!

Jessica - I was planning to do a post on POV, too. :)

JLC said...

They both work for me. One seems more like a play by play account of something happening, the other seems more like a storyteller recalling events. If the writing is good, the tense isn't noticeable to me.

Nice examples. Now I want to know what happens/ed next. ;)

Rebecca Nazar said...

I like the present but rarely use it. Past has a grip on the market.

Lori Tiron-Pandit said...

I don't think we choose the tense but it chooses us, or the story that's being told.

Sharla said...

I like both, but feel I really have to pay close attention with present, because I'm all up in the Koolaid and might miss something! :)

It stops me sometimes too, I think because it's kind of invasive, it forces you to be there and not just relax and read about someone else being there. I have to say I think only really good stories can get away with it, but when they do, it's genius. It makes it stand out so much more.

I always write in past tense, but first person, so it's personal but still easy to read.

scarlethue said...

It probably depends on the story being told, doesn't it? I liked that example you gave in present for some reason. I don't write fiction so I don't know what I would pick, but yeah it would probably depend on what story I'm telling at the time.

Nadine said...

I always write in past tense and I always seem to prefer reading in past tense, although I've only read a few books in present tense.

RE: Nanny Diaries - I felt the book was so much better than the movie. Thoughts?

Janna Qualman said...

JLC - Maybe someday you'll find out! ;)

Becca - So true. It's far more common. Makes me wonder if it's always been. And because it's most natural to writers? Or because it have evolved into that and no one messes with it?

Lori - There's a lot to be said for that. And it's true for my current WIP.

Sharla - All up in the Koolaid? ROFL! You're such a cool mom. ;)

scarlethue - I honestly think you should give fiction a try. Something short, just to experiment.

Nadine - I haven't seen the movie, though this makes me want to. It's very good! I'm slow with it, though, and only about a quarter through it.

Cindy said...

You know, in this case, I preferred the first one, present tense. I think it's just habit for me (and comfortable) to write past tense, third person. I've yet to write an entire story (except for one from my youth) any other way. I am going to try first person one day. We'll see how far I make it.

Kara said...

Good points. My WIP is in present tense. My crit partners were continully stumbling over the tense as they would forget it was in present. You are right that is not the norm for most novels. Even I have to correct myself at times to make sure every action is in the present. I can't tell you why I write this way, part of it the challenge and part of it is just what feels right for the story:)

Sharla said...

btw, Nanny Diaries book was 100 times better than the movie, I thought. So much funnier, more sarcastic.

thedomesticfringe said...

I think I like present tense...especially in your example. It's funny I'm reading a book now and late last night (when I should have been asleep), I had a slight recognition that something was a little different about the writing. Maybe it was the tense. Now I'm curious...going to check. Thanks for making me think. It's always good for me to do that occasionally.

-FringeGirl

Janet said...

Past tense is the default story-telling tense, so it's essentially invisible. Present tense calls attention to itself simply by being different. It's like a strong flavour, usually better in small doses.

I don't know if I've ever read an entire novel in first person. If I did, it was well enough done it didn't bug me enough to stick in my memory.

I wouldn't automatically put a book down because of the tense. If it works, it works.

Janna Qualman said...

Cindy - I'm a past third, too. I've done first, but it doesn't flow as well for me. I'll be curious to hear how it goes for you!

Kara - THAT'S what's most important: Doing what the story calls for.

Sharla - I just can't stop picturing Scarlett Johannson!

FG - You crack me up, lady. :D

Janet - Oh, yes. I'm more apt to put a book down for far more reasons than its tense.

Tess said...

I tend to write more naturally in past tense, but have had some conference critiques where I was told to switch. I did it, and I think it made that particular work stronger.

Hard to know what to do in some cases.

Jody Hedlund said...

I definitely write in past tense. I think that's still what is commonly expected of new authors--I could be wrong. But it seems that past tense attracts the largest base of readers and so as new authors, we might be stuck with that as we try to break in. Not sure! But it seems that way!

Lady Glamis said...

It's intrinsic for me. I just do what feels right. So far it's been third person limited and multiple POVs. But I've written short work that has used all points of view. Great post!

Woman in a Window said...

THIS is an extremely interesting question. I choose instinctually, whatever that means, probably that I'm lazy. But it is so important. I'll spend a lot of time thinking on this one, Janna.

ChristaCarol said...

Past is most natural for me. But, if most books were written present, I'm sure present would be more natural :P BTW, you never mentioned in your comment if you'd be interested in the writing prompt idea! ;)

Janna Qualman said...

Tess - That where a good critique group can be so beneficial!

Jody - I've heard that, too; that first timers should avoid first person. Something about it coming off self-indulgent maybe? But to each their own. I'm with what Janet said (I think): whatever works.

Lady - And maybe that's a good thing, that you've given yourself opportunity to try it all.

Woman, you floor me, because there's no way my posts are as interesting and thought-provoking as yours. ;)

Christacarol - That's an excellent point.

Carrie Miller said...

I don't know if you can answer this for me but I have struggled a lot with tense in the novel I am writing. It starts out in present tense and then goes to past tense as almost the entire novel is flashback. Finally in the end she comes to the present moment. I am having problems with tense where the switch happens. Any suggestions?

And thanks for the great examples :)

Angie Ledbetter said...

Interesting topic, Janna. Glad to see you back!

Amy Sue Nathan said...

My WIP, the novel, is in past tense. When reading something long present tense feels cumbersome to me - and past tense feels like story telling. Of course I just wrote a flash fiction piece intentionally in present tense, and because it's under 600 words, the hurried nature I felt within the story - is ok.

Janna Qualman said...

Carrie - Hi and welcome! :) My WIP has multiple flashbacks, too. The whole thing is more cohesive - and there's less confusion during the writing stage - if both parts are written in past tense. What's happening "now" might be like this: Sally burst through the door like a hot hornet, and aimed for her target with mad vengeance. And as a flashback, you set the scene using slightly different wordage to express to your reader that it's a retelling. In addition, hard returning (two returns), so you've started a new section with the flashback, creates a visual difference, and your reader will understand what you're doing. The day of the fire, so long ago, Sally had burst through the door like a hot hornet. She'd aimed for her target with mad vengeance... The difference between the two examples is subtle, but the reader will sense it.

I hope this helps!

Janna Qualman said...

Angie - Thanks. :)

Amy - Right on! I think present is perfect for shorts like that, when you want it intimate and intense.

Jenna said...

Great topic Janna!

When I first started writing I didn't make a conscious decision on tense I just wrote. But over the last few years I have become more aware of "how" I write.

My WIP is in first person and I move between present tense and past tense--the present being told in present tense and the past told in past tense.

Being that I'm still in the rough draft phase I have some parts that I've bobbled and will need to fix but for the most part as I move through the story shifting from present to past my writing shifts too--it's just the way my brain works.

But we'll see when I'm all done whether it works or not.

Kathy said...

I normally write in past tense, but in your example, I liked the present tense version better. It did make me feel as if I were right there witnessing what was happening.

Carrie Miller said...

Thanks Janna, your response was really helpful. I had been trying to take it into the present tense after being in the past and I just couldn't get it to sound right. I think I will have to play with it more. The only thing that bothers me is I wanted her to have a moment of change after flashing back. I wanted the reader to experience that with her in the place it happened. I can see now how I can still do this if I have it in past tense. I also had another writer suggest changing it to third person. A daunting task since the book is complete but I am thinking about trying it out on a few pages just to see what it looks like.

Janna Qualman said...

Jenna - It's good to see you! And I'll be curious to find out if it worked when you're done. :)

Kathy - Thanks! That's actually good to know. ;)

Carrie - Yay! And I'm glad you're playing around with things. Sometimes we have to be okay with that, because it really could make the book better. Keep us posted!