Friday, March 25, 2011

Why are you so Tense?

Tenses. They are my number one weakness. My Darth Vader, if you will. I never really paid attention to them before, and now, I switch them on and off like a light switch. I haven't found the all out answer on how to stay in one tense while writing except. . .practice. I did a little research, which helped some. I am also proud to say, I'm beginning to recognize it in the books I read. Like I said, never really paid attention to it before. I know you are possibly smiling, maybe laughing. "She's a newbie," you shout, but we all start somewhere and I'm sure you have been at this point before.

When I'm writing, I'm usually concentrating on the character, voice, heart, does this chapter relate to the story, you know, all the rules. I never really know what tense is best so I guess my mind just switches back and forth from past to present then back again. Maybe it can't decide. I've been told to write the story then go back and fix tense in line edits. It makes sense, but I would love to know if there are any tricks to fix this as I go along. I tend to write in first person POV. I have written in third person, but I like first person better. It feels natural for me.

Now, I know it's all up to me in the end until an agent or editor gets their hands on it (one day, I hope). I can't help but wonder the best way to approach my little issue.

Let's review the little thorns in my side:

Present tense--I've been told when writing action, this is the best tense. Since I write a lot of action and tend to have quick pacing, this could be the best tense for me.

What's present tense? Here it is in simple form. It's what's happening right now. Example--I run towards the door.

Books with this tense--The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (she's brilliant) and Matched by Ally Condie.
Past Tense- This is the tense you probably see most often and the tense that I tend to switch to.

What's past tense? Well, it happened in the past. Example--I ran towards the door.

Books with this tense--Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead, The Body Finder by Kimberly Derting and Twilight by Stephanie Meyer.
In YA, it seems there is more and more present tense. Neither tense bothers me as long as it's written well. I also read that present tense is a cop out. Not sure of your thoughts on this. I guess in the end it takes lots of practice and what I feel is best for my story.

Here are some links to posts I've found to be helpful.
Kidlit- So Tense about Tense!

Nick Dawes writing Blog

Ask Betty:Tenses

My questions:

Any secrets on writing tenses (basically staying in one tense while writing)?

Have you written in one tense then switched it to another tense after you wrote the whole thing?

What's your favorite tense to read or write?

Any books you would like to share in the present or past tense?

This may be a silly question. Can something be written in more than one tense?

This post wound up so much longer than I planned. :) I'm sure you may have better examples. If you do, please share.

 Have a great weekend!


  1. I write in past. I think present tense is much much harder to pull off and there should probably be a specific reason to write in it - not just to follow the trend of some YA books.

    The biggest thing I learned when writing in 1st person past is that I should use present if it's something that is still happening. Something about family or a living situation should be present.Like I wouldn't say my dad was alive - if he is in fact still alive.

  2. I feel like present tense in YA is starting to become a gimmick.

    A book that I found particularly successful in present tense is Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City", which is also written in SECOND PERSON.

    I don't know how I'd feel about dual tenses, unless one of them is in a diary or letter or somesuch like that.

    I occasionally will accidentally slip a paragraph of present tense in, usually during a moment of intense emotion/experience, but since I always re-read the previous day's writing, I catch it and edit it out right away. I think once I'm firmly established in a particular voice, the tense just comes naturally. It also might help to read the sentence in your head as you're typing it--it's much easier to catch improper tense usage when spoken aloud.

  3. I used to fluctuate between first present and past for the LONGEST time, and it wasn't because I didn't understand or get the tenses.
    This is why it happened...I was told to write in simple past tense. It was "better" for the reader. I was all impressionable and said, okay, keep aiming for simple past. BUT I would make the mistakes OVER and OVER again. Why? Because I am a very comfortable first person PRESENT tense writer. I had to know my strenght and comfort first and then after that, I don't switch my tenses anymore.
    That would by my biggest suggestion, magical advice ever. I have seen your work and I would say "Write in present tense. You do it well. Very well. And stay in the present tense because your one of the rare peeps who can!" and I bet your tense issue will resolve itself

  4. I used to switch back and forth a ton too. Now, not so much and it just came from writing and writing. A few times I'll still switch, but now it is usually a sentence here or there and when I go back and look at it, the sentence is usually one that I had a hard time getting the wording right. I feel more comfortable writing in past tense.
    I think you really have to think which way would the story make more sense and go from there.

  5. I love to read books in present tense, and that's the tense I predominantly write in. I don't have too much trouble drifting in and out of the tense.

  6. This issue is a huge one for me. When I get my work critiqued this is always mentioned. When I write what happens is I start out with past tense but when I move inside a characters mind I'm writing as if I'm there and that always throws me into present tense. I need to "live" it to make sure it's believable so it always comes out as present tense.

    I haven't found a way to fix it as I go. I have to write it and then go back and I tell myself that this already happened and the characters are telling it to me after the fact and then I can catch them. It's a lot more work but that's all I've come up with.

    I don't think it can be written in more than one tense unless you are doing a lot of flashbacks. It has to be consistant.

    I don't prefer one over the other because I don't usually notice those kind of details. Sad to say.

  7. I tend to write in first person, past tense. It seems easiest to me because I envision the main character retelling her story as I type.

    (Now just watch. I'll go back to my revisions and see a lot of present tense!)

  8. Present tense is NOT a copout. Bu I'm biased, because that's what I write in. I write in both first person and third and third omniscient. But all still in present tense. I think present tense is more intimate and can really work to the advantage of drawing your reader IN to the story. Good luck!!! :o)

  9. I started my first book in present and found that I was all over the place, switching between present and past. I personally think present is harder to pull off. That doesn't mean you can't do it, it's just harder to make it sound like it's supposed to. The best way for me to think about tense while writing is to think about telling someone a story that happened to me in the past. Since I write first person POV, it's like I'm sitting there telling them all about the fight, the kiss, the dialogue, everything. I hope that helps.

  10. I write in the past but as I get really involved w/ a scene the tense tends to shift to the present. It makes for a lot of work in editing.

  11. tense-switching happens a lot. I see it in published books quite often, and I do it. You're right, though. Practice makes perfect! :o)

    and LOL at that picture!!! <3

  12. Great post, Christine. Thanks for the links, too.

    I'm not fond of books that switch tenses. And I generally prefer past tense. But HUNGER GAMES seemed so right in present tense.

    Here's another book for you (coming in May; I just reviewed on my blog): DIVERGENT. And it's also written in present tense. It just seems perfect for that kind of action-filled book. I know a lot of people say they don't like present tense but sometimes it seems the only choice.

  13. My friend and I were talking about this just the other day, in fact. I feel like present tense works best for a story like Hunger Games, when you're not sure if even Katniss will survive. It draws you right into the story, whereas past tense is more about "this is what happened already." So it depends on what kind of tension you're trying to bring to the story.

    As for switching tenses, I've played around with it. Also, when I'm stuck, I'll sometimes write out a scene in first person (instead of third person like the rest of my story) and it's interesting what kinds of things come out with the different POV.

  14. I got into quite a quandary about this, because at first, present tense feels unnatural for a couple reasons. 1. Who walks around narrating what they are doing as they do it? Like, only megalomaniacs and people on reality TV. 2. Telling a story to someone else, you're typically going to tell it after the fact, not during the action. This is why past tense works best for most books.

    I honestly think the only reason a story should be told in present is because it's central to the theme and characterization that the character not have any of the benefits of hindsight (and the wisdom that comes with it). The reason present is so hard to maintain is because of the credibility obstacles I mentioned above. It's not the natural mode for storytelling.

    Regarding switches in tense--If you have a frame story yes, and if you're writing in present but include flashbacks, yes. Otherwise, stick to one tense.

  15. I'd like to attend a workshop on tenses if for anything, just to examine what I'm doing in my own writing. Most of my choices seem to be unconscious decisions and I'd like to change that.

  16. I love past tense when writing, although like you, past or present is fine for reading, as long as it's written well.

    When it comes to writing, I dislike present tense, even though I'm more of an action writer. Maybe once I got used to it, I'd be better at it.

  17. I see a lot more past tense books than present and tend to write it myself, so much so that after a pause while writing today I slipped into past and had to correct a paragraph. Tense hopping unless you have a dual narrative or mention something that happened in the past (memory or flashback scenes) is a no-no, same as head hopping.

    I'm not sure why I 'chose' present tense for my current WIP or if I naturally gravitated towards it because it felt right for the characters. I like the immediacy, for a once-in-a-lifetime episode in a teen's life, it seems (seemed?) appropriate. During the drafting of my first novel I contemplated editing the dual narratives so one was third person past and the other first person present because it fit the characters but since I haven't revised it I haven't yet debated the saleability of that format.
    - Sophia.

  18. I noticed that a lot of YA books were trending toward present tense, and I gave it a try. Didn't like it one bit!

    So I stick to past tense.

    As for using more than one tense, I read an indie book that used more than one tense. It was written in third person, multiple POV. Most of the book was written in past tense, but all sections written from the point of view of one particular character were in present tense. Since this character was supposed to be a dreamy, possibly mentally disturbed girl, it made sense. As I read the book, it seemed as if this one girl was somehow out-of-step with the other characters. Took me awhile to catch on to the fact that her parts were written in a different tense. For this book, it worked.

  19. Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver is a great YA example of when present tense really works. I absolutely loved this book and thought the present tense added to the suspense. I reviewed it on my blog recently, and gave it 4.5 out of 5.

    My current WIP is in 1st person past tense, but in a sense I'm struggling with tense too - i.e. should it be recent past tense or distant past tense? For example, "I thought of the conversation we'd had yesterday" versus "I thought of the conversation we'd had the day before" I keep alternating between the two and am not sure what to go with.

    Hope I haven't just complicated things even more for you by mentioning this! Best of luck with making your decision. :)

  20. One of the things I've learned as I've written is that present tense has to be RIGHT NOW. You can't really skip around on your timeline because it's right there. Writing in present tense gives a more... sense of immediacy.

    I wrote 1st present once and it was pretty hard to get used to. I personally prefer past tense, I think it makes more sense.

  21. For my Grammar class...yes, I took a grammar class, I had to make a website with 5 topics of grammar. One of my pages was tenses. EVERY ONE OF THEM, with examples. Check it out. It might help :)

  22. The Hunger Games was the first book I noticed in the present tense. It took me a few pages to stop noticing it. I agree, it gives immediacy to the action.

    Currently, I'm writing a book in the present tense and past tense. When it's present time, it's in the present tense. Flashbacks are in the past tense. Yeah, it's crazy.

  23. I am the SUCK at tenses. My stuff is first person, and they write as if they are telling a story to a person so it's all past tense, until they want to interject a thought they had while relaying something, then it switches to present tense.

  24. I like past tense. I can't seem to get into writing present tense. It confuses me! LOL
    The Hunger Games was also the first book I read in present tense and actually noticed it. I loved it, but I could never write it.
    So all in all, I write first person past tense. :D

  25. My current WIP is in the past tense. I still find that the easiest to write. I think it's easier to pull off than present tense, which sometimes sounds a little self-conscious and MFA to me. But in the end, all that matters is that you're comfortable with what you choose. Oh - and that you stick to one or the other. (And even that's not a hard and fast rule. God I love writing.)