Thursday, November 10, 2011

Choosing The Right Tense For Your Novel

When I write, I tend to immediately lapse into past tense. That would be fine, except for my tendency to then occasionally slip into present tense, then back into past tense, and so on and so forth. Do you do this too? How do you choose which tense is best for your story?

There are many schools of thought on which is the most pleasant tense to read. I've heard writers argue that writing in the present tense allows your reader to experience events along with your main character, so they are in no way ahead of him, and therefore feel everything as he/she feels it. It creates suspense effectively because the events are unfolding in real-time. However, the downside to using present tense is it can make flashbacks or back story feel a little less flowy because it demands a shifting of tenses. Also, for some, reading in the present tense can get annoying in a long story.

There seems to be a growing trend in novels of late to write in the present tense, but because this is not the conventional choice, you should carefully decide if there is a strong reason to.

When you choose to write in the past tense, the events of the story have already occurred, and it allows for the MC to have had time to sit with their experience and perhaps have learned something from it or grown from it in some way, let alone survived it, etc. This can help provide greater overshadowing at the beginning of a story and create suspense.

Sometimes, the only way to know what the right tense for your story is is to write it both ways. Which sounds more natural? Which makes the reader feel more involved in the story and wanting to know what happens next? The tense you choose to write in can change the entire feel of the whole book. And above all, when you've completed your manuscript and made your choice, go back over it (more than once!) to make sure all your tenses agree. Nothing is more jarring than being pulled in and out of the past and present in a story unless the device is intentional (i.e. a flashback.)

As you read, take note of the tense the writer is using and think about how the story would change if it were written in the past vs. the present and vice-versa. Do you agree with the author's choice? I'd love to hear about some books you've read recently where the tense made the difference for you in making the story great!

3 comments:

ucanpreschool said...

I struggle with switching tenses too, and I now feel guilty that I gave my students such a hard time for doing it. It is very easy to slip. I am also struggling with point of view. I usually write personal essays and memoirs, so it's hard not to write "I" because the main character is one I can relate too. I am enjoying the freedom of an omniscient narrator though.

Kaytee said...

I have to agree that the present tense make you feel "there" as it happen. But I find it easier in the long run to write in the past tense. Some sentences or actions do feel weird when everything is in the present tense (I have tried it). I did not struggle so much with switching tenses when I wrote in the present tense, but I did and still do with the past tense. Some sentences, I find myself thinking out loud "well, this is a timeless statement, shouldn't it be in the present tense since my character still feels the same towards the subject?" and I wonder if I am correct with this thought...

Kaytee said...

I have started this book called "Bite me" from Christopher Moore, an author I like (Lamb is very funny!), and it is written in the first person past tense, but it's so dynamic, it feels like it's the present tense! I find this amazing!

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