Monday, October 28, 2013

The Writer's Alphabet - T is for Tense

No, I don't mean how your shoulders get when the words won't come and your characters keep misbehaving.  No, this is different.  Tense refers to the time your story takes place, past, present, or future.

Determining tense is a decision you need to make even before you write the story.  It has nothing to do with if you are writing a time-travel novel, so don't freak out!  Mostly, you will need to decide if your character is experiencing the actions at the moment, or the story relates them as they happened.

Interestingly, present tense is not a favorite for many.  There are readers who will refuse to read a story in present tense.  I am also aware of agents who will not accept one written in present tense, and publishers have been known to make it a guideline that they will not accept a manuscript not written in past tense.

Personally speaking, I find it difficult to impossible to write in present tense.  To me, the present tense sounds artificial and awkward.  However, it is a matter of intensely personal opinion.  If you do choose present tense, there are a couple of general rules for commercially accepted manuscripts.

  1. Present tense = first person.  I honestly can't see it any other way, but nothing surprises me anymore.
  2. Past tense = third person.  Even if you are writing as the first person, your character is still relating evens that have already happened, so it would still be past tense.
  3. Present tense works better in short stories or flash fiction.  Writing in the present makes the action more immediate and you want that in a short story.  You have limited space to convey angst, emotion, etc., and writing in the present tense makes the action seem more, well, present.
  4. Longer stories are better in past tense.  But, consider this: you could write in the present tense and still need to weave flashbacks in your story.  So, you are back to past tense anyway.
  5. Present tense also sometimes strings together monologues, the inner thoughts of your character.  For a reader, that can sometimes be tedious.  Present tense can be as hard on the reader as the author!

The most important thing to remember is consistency.  Whatever tense you choose, keep it constant throughout.  The reader will absolutely NAIL you for it if you don't.  

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