Monday, May 9, 2011

Tense Tension

Writers tend to have their preferences on certain things.  For example, past tense or present tense.  An ongoing argument in the writerly world.

Whoa, wait?  What is past tense?  Is present tense when you, like, are nervous about someone's birthday gift?

To those of you who don't know, here is the difference between past and present tense.  (This isn't supposed to be an example of good writing...it's just to show you the difference.)

Past: things that happened in, well, the past.
Example:
"Hello everyone.  I just got back.  What are you watching?" Mary said.  She walked over to the couch and sat down beside her sister.  She tried to grab the remote, but her dog was chewing on it.

Present tense: things that are happening right at this moment.
Example:
"Hello everyone. I just got back. What are you watching?" Mary says. She walks over to the couch and sits down beside her sister. She tries to grab the remote, but her dog is chewing on it.

See the difference?  Notice the verbs.
Past:  "Hello everyone.  I just got back.  What are you watching?" Mary said.  She walked over to the couch and sat down beside her sister.  She tried to grab the remote, but her dog was chewing on it.

Present:  "Hello everyone.  I just got back.  What are you watching?" Mary says.  She walks over to the couch and sits down beside her sister.  She tries to grab the remote, but her dog is chewing on it.

The difference is that all the verbs in the top version are in past tense, and in the present tense on the bottom.  Notice how the actual dialogue doesn't change at all.

So, for most of you, here's the real question: Which one do you use?

Past tense is more, er, traditional, for lack of a better word.  It wasn't until fairly recently (no, not last year...think relative, people) that people actually starting using present tense a lot in commercial literature.  Personally, I very much prefer past tense.  It seems more...clean.  Present tense is a lot tougher to write well, trust me.  Anyway, present seems weird to me in first person.  After all, who narrates their life as it's happening?

How do you pick one?  Well, the easiest way is this: Write with both.  Take something you've written and change the tense, then compare the two.  Which do you like better?  Which flows better?

And remember, don't be afraid to experiment with your WIP.  If you start with one tense, but midway through decide you don't like it, that's okay.   :)  You can always change something if you don't like it.

1 comment:

  1. I started to write a Dystopian novel in present tense, and after I finished the book it took me forever to get back to using past tense (which is what I prefer to write in). I think you should only use present tense to establish the sense of immediacy. :)

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