Monday, November 7, 2011

Present or past?

Project Fun started in present tense. Then I slipped into the past. I've tried to stay in the past, except whenever my scenes get dialogue-heavy, I inadvertently switch back to present, sometimes for multiple pages. So, what will it be, present or past?

When I wrote Project Sparkle, I automatically wrote in present tense. I guess I had been reading a lot of present tense (it was becoming the hot thing in children's fiction). Later, I found it suited my character's impulsive, forthright nature, and the thriller genre. That's the magic of present tense. It's immediate, intense, and the reader doesn't know the future anymore than the main character, even whether or not the main character survives.

Check out this opening from White Cat by Holly Black (which I'm currently listening to as an audiobook and LOVING all over again):

"I wake up barefoot, standing on cold slate tiles. Looking dizzily down. I suck in a breath of icy air."

If you keep reading, you discover Cassel has sleepwalked onto his dorm's roof. But even before you know that, you can feel the tension, the height, the precariousness.

When I drafted Project Demo, I intentionally wanted to distance myself from Project Sparkle, with a quieter, more thought-provoking character and style. So I went with past tense. It suits Project Demo perfectly, as most of the novel involves the character debating whether she made the right decision. Not only is past tense more traditional, and more storyteller-like (Once upon a time...), it allows for more reflection than is usually possible in present tense. But that definitely doesn't mean boring.

Check out this opening for Ally Carter's Heist Society (one of the books on my to-read pile):

"No one knew for certain when the trouble started at the Colgan School. Some members of its alumni association blamed the decision to admit girls. Others cited newfangled liberal ideas and a general decline in the respect for elders worldwide. But whatever the theory, no on could deny that, recently, life at the Colgan School was different."

A great set-up for whatever's about to happen, no?

And that's the heart of the present / past debate. Either, done well, is practically invisible. Most writers seem to prefer one or the other. Others say the project suggests the tense. But what if I really don't know which to use?

How do you decide what tense to write in?

*By the way, I've been playing with the design of Critically Yours. Hopefully it won't look too weird or different over the next few weeks, but you've been warned.*


  1. I've also had project where I've flip flopped between tenses. I don't have an answer as to how to ultimately decide though, as that project ended up on the compost heap of ideas.

    Love the new blog look!


  2. I also loved White Cat.
    I think it's best to experiment with tenses (and first person/third person) at the beginning of a book and see what takes. I like first person present tense because it enables you to play certain tricks on the readers, and it is very engaging and immediate.

  3. Elisabeth: Aw, thanks for the compliments on the blog look! It's definitely a work in progress! ;)

    I'm glad to know I'm not the only tense flip-flopper!

    Keren: White Cat was even better the second time, when I wasn't racing to the end, but could relish Black's writing and humor!

    I'd love to read a whole post from you about the first person, present tense tricks you get up to! Of course you're right about experimenting. Hopefully all of this will help me figure out what will suit the narrative best.

  4. Sometimes I'll write the same thing in different tenses and see which one works better. I'll also let my critique group look at the different tenses and get their opinion too.

    Great post!

  5. I keep going back and forth with the past/present tense thing. Still slanting towards present but who knows what will happen during my next revision phase!

  6. I love present tense, but I reserve it for when I write stories for the very young.

  7. Great examples.

    I tend to get stuck in tense. For many years I wrote past tense, then I switched to present and I've been using it for the last few projects. I'd like to go back to past tense for the variety, and perhaps because some stories will be better with it.

  8. CR: That's a GREAT idea! Thanks for the suggestion!

    Karen: Oh good, so nice to hear I'm not the only one jumping around between tenses!

    Mirka; That's interesting; is that how you think it works best?

    Medeia: Thanks! I agree, it's easy to get caught in one tense, which is usually fine, and certainly makes it easier to choose which to use. But it is an important element of craft to play with, too.

  9. I love it when the story tells you, for sure, which tense to use. It's just obvious. But when that doesn't happen, I've written a handful of pages both ways. That usually helps me decide.

  10. Ruth: I think that's what I'm going to need to do! I had mostly decided on past tense, but today brought an excerpt in present tense in for my critique group. They loved it, and told me I should write the whole thing in present. Grrr! Now I better put together a past excerpt to show them!


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