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Author Topic: A Tense Query for You Textuals  (Read 1675 times)
Christopher Beats
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« on: July 22, 2013, 06:05:13 pm »

So a friend of mine pressured me to read Neal Stephenson's books, starting with Cryptonomicon and then moving on to the Baroque Cycle.* Stephenson has a curious writing style. Every sentence is written in this intense, full-to-bursting informative style. What really strikes me though is that it's written in the present tense.

As a writer, this irks the hell out of me. I mentioned it to my friend and he said this was quite common in recent books. At least one other series, the Atrocity Archives (a modern Cthulhu-meets-spy-thriller) is also written in the present tense.

To my mind, books occur in the past, even when they're about the future (Think "A long time ago, in a Galaxy far, far away..."). I guess I prefer to imagine stories as being the memory of a fictitious narrator, even if the narrator is a disembodied omniscient spirit. Writing in the present tense destroys that illusion and creates a different paradigm entirely.

I've given it some thought and come to the conclusion that these authors write in the present tense to create a sense of immediacy, Both of them are, for lack of a better word, kind of hip and technology-driven, throwing out terms and concepts in a ruthless narration that expects the reader to keep up or give up.



So what do you think? Is this present tense thing really all that common? And as writers, what do you think about that (implicit side question being: would you write in it or have you?).

On a more pertinent note, what does this mean for Steampunk? On the one hand, Steampunk is written in an alternate past, so for me, the past tense seems logical. But on the other hand, building a sense of "this is happening now" might be good for making the pseudo-past seem alive.





*[For those that don't know, the Baroque Cycle is a looong story arc that follows several families through the last three centuries. It isn't really Steampunk, though the books have a strong inclination towards engineering, math and real-world machines that might appeal to some Steampunk readers. I can't say much more because I'm still in the Enlightenment era book].
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Lazaras
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« Reply #1 on: July 22, 2013, 06:24:23 pm »

Even when writing in mush's, which most people seem to think demands present tense, I write in past-tense because 'from everyone els'es perspective what happened has happened, the rest is reaction.'

Then again present tense feels clumsy to me. I don't know why.
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Christopher Beats
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« Reply #2 on: July 22, 2013, 07:05:40 pm »

It does to me, too.

I don't ever recall any of my creative writing teachers saying "Thou shalt not write in present tense."

The naturalist side of me says it's just habit from the books I've read, a rote memory.

The romantic in me says that it's because it goes against my bardic heritage, against the sacred fire-lit storytelling that helped us as a species define our place in the universe.
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Lady Chrystal
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« Reply #3 on: July 22, 2013, 10:28:18 pm »

I write largely in a past tense, but I use (sparingly) present tense to engage the reader with my narrator. So if my narrator's remembering an event that was particularly, she may talk in present tense for a page or so. Some people hate this, some find it really works for them. I suspect a percentage of readers don't even notice.

Present tense is also commonly used with the second person PoV. Two no-nos for the price of one!

As a rule, I'd avoid it.
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Xenos
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« Reply #4 on: July 22, 2013, 11:08:37 pm »

I've only ever once written in present-tense, and that was at the very end of a first-person, limited perspective story-present tense was the only way to carry out what I was showing-which was

Spoiler (click to show/hide)

it felt clumsy then, it feels clumsy now.  I don't like present tense.

Past tense, past tense, past tense.

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« Reply #5 on: July 23, 2013, 04:37:21 am »

It's a bit...I dunno. It's not as strange as second-person writing, but it feels affected, afflicted, something like that. If you can pull it off, that's different, but I tend towards past tense.
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Gaijin_King
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« Reply #6 on: July 23, 2013, 04:54:39 am »

I write in past tense. After all, what is a book but a record of things that have already happened. I don't think I mind present tense, though; you're experiencing the story as it happens, regardless.
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Altoidian
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« Reply #7 on: July 26, 2013, 07:05:55 am »

I cite Mary Stewart's tetrology of King Arthur's legend as told my Merlin- all written in first person present tense. An absolutely thrilling and fascinating work of fantasy/fiction. It should not matter what tense the author uses so long as the writer has the skill to keep the reader intrigued with his or her story. Writing is all about entertainment. The contract between the writer and the reader is all that matters. The writer makes an offer and the reader makes an acceptance or rejection. Nothing else matters. The only critic of the work that is of any value at all is the cash register.
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Madasasteamfish
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« Reply #8 on: July 26, 2013, 07:44:29 am »

I'm not sure what the OP is driving at here, as most of the stuff I read, and I personally write, is written in a mixture of present and past tense, just because I find using the present tense makes the narrative flow better in when writing in the 3rd person and I don't see anything wrong with that.

But, just a quick question here, Mr Beats, are the works you refer to narrated by a single character in the 1st person (and based solely on their perspective)? Because given the descriptions you've given I suspect I know what you're talking about.
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Christopher Beats
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« Reply #9 on: July 29, 2013, 07:14:32 pm »

Lady Chrystal: I also like the idea of present tense sprinkled in as the narrator muses on his story. It makes it feel like the narrator is talking to you rather than dictating a story to the ether. Unfortunately, my editor did not  Embarrassed

Madasasteamfish: The Stephenson stories I read were third person omniscient written in the present tense. The Atrocity Archives were written in the first person present tense, which I especially didn't like because it felt like first person narratives are a person recounting what happened to them in the past rather than telling you about it over a cellphone as it happens.
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Madasasteamfish
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09madasafish
« Reply #10 on: July 29, 2013, 08:47:56 pm »

Lady Chrystal: I also like the idea of present tense sprinkled in as the narrator muses on his story. It makes it feel like the narrator is talking to you rather than dictating a story to the ether. Unfortunately, my editor did not  Embarrassed

Madasasteamfish: The Stephenson stories I read were third person omniscient written in the present tense. The Atrocity Archives were written in the first person present tense, which I especially didn't like because it felt like first person narratives are a person recounting what happened to them in the past rather than telling you about it over a cellphone as it happens.

Well the styles you describe sound like they're a variant on stream of consciousness (which is essentially where the narrator is the protagonist's inner monologue) which is quite awkward to read because it's so difficult to write (and especially write well).
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Xenos
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« Reply #11 on: August 04, 2013, 07:45:25 am »

Lady Chrystal: I also like the idea of present tense sprinkled in as the narrator muses on his story. It makes it feel like the narrator is talking to you rather than dictating a story to the ether. Unfortunately, my editor did not  Embarrassed

Madasasteamfish: The Stephenson stories I read were third person omniscient written in the present tense. The Atrocity Archives were written in the first person present tense, which I especially didn't like because it felt like first person narratives are a person recounting what happened to them in the past rather than telling you about it over a cellphone as it happens.

Well the styles you describe sound like they're a variant on stream of consciousness (which is essentially where the narrator is the protagonist's inner monologue) which is quite awkward to read because it's so difficult to write (and especially write well).

Only ever read one that did it well in my opinion-Ulysses, by James Joyce.
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MWBailey
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« Reply #12 on: August 04, 2013, 03:47:12 pm »

As you've already alluded, there is more than one way of writing in the present tense. Some ways tend to be more acceptable to people in general than others; which one "fits," so to speak, depends largely on Context, Convention, and Personal Opinion.

Here's the whole tedious explanation of that:
Spoiler (click to show/hide)
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MWBailey
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« Reply #13 on: August 05, 2013, 03:50:38 am »

Hmmm... seems I killed another one. Sorry about that. Embarrassed
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pakled05
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« Reply #14 on: August 05, 2013, 05:54:50 am »

made me look...Wink I started Quicksilver, and it's noticeable, but not overpowering.
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Gaijin_King
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« Reply #15 on: September 18, 2013, 11:57:35 pm »

I'm currently working on a short story that takes place in present tense because the narrator may die at the end (and he can't be telling the story if he has already died). If that weren't the case, I think I would always keep it in past tense.
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Rory B Esq BSc
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« Reply #16 on: October 23, 2013, 12:55:03 pm »

It depends on the context, for example I doubt anyone would write 'I'm going outside' He is saying (present tense) rather than 'I am going outside' He said (past tense). but it is acceptable to say 'as He was going outside' (present tense) even within a passage written predominantly in the past tense.

As soon as something happens it becomes the past, so the past tense is appropriate unless it is describing things as they unfold i.e. where they take longer to happen that to be described. 'As he ran down the street he could hear his persuers behind him' works as much as 'as he was running down the street...'

As for the future tense, try writing two pages in the future tense, leave it for a week then try reading it.

Good writing makes use of whichever tense is appropriate at that point in the story, a single sentence can include all three tenses. 'I'm going to go to the pub' (future tense) he said (past tense) as he was buttoning his coat (present tense).
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