As some of you may know, I wrote this funny little book called SPACE CONTEST: CRAFTER BATH —
Okay, apparently it’s called something else? Whatever.
Point is, that book — like many of my books — is written in third person, present tense.
Now, that’s a particular stylistic choice. And for some, I imagine a bit jarring. I’ve seen the style more and more lately, but when I used it in Blackbirds, not so much. (Not suggesting I invented it or anything. I JUST MADE IT COOL. Okay probably not, but shut up.)
As you know, Bob, a few weeks back Entertainment Weekly released a short preview of Star Wars: Aftermath, whereupon eager fans and readers discovered that I was, indeed, taking this particular stylistic highway with the book. Some folks said they liked it, some said it grew on them, others did not like it at all, and a few were just like… fucking super mad about it. (Spoiler alert: do not read the comments under the Entertainment Weekly article. Or anywhere else on the Internet because comments sections are the Internet’s septic systems. Okay, you can read the comments here because people are cool and because I actually moderate this place, as should anyone governing any comments section online.) Some readers even said that because the classic prologue to the stories is A long time ago, that the books must absolutely be written in past tense or otherwise, Jar-Jar becomes Emperor and Greedo kills Han Solo back in the Mos Eisley cantina and BB-8 is never born.
I understand the complaint. It’s different. It’s a stylistic choice. It isn’t for everyone.
But it is for me.
And so, I’d like to unpack a little why it is exactly I like to write in this style.
TAKE MY HAND AND LET US GO ON A MAGICAL JOURNEY TOGETHER.
*takes your hand*
*throws you into the Pit of Carkoon*
Ever read a screenplay?
Third person, present tense. All of ’em.
Ever watch a movie?
A movie doesn’t happen in the past — even if it’s set in the past, it’s unfolding literally before you.
There’s an argument to be made here that, a-duh, books are not movies. Which, yeah, I know. I’m mule-bitten sometimes, but dang, I’m not that dumb. Just the same, the types of books I write — while not anti-intellectual, I hope, and certainly not in defiance of literary form — feel better to me when they’re more cinematic. When it feels like something playing out on the screen inside your head. That’s not to say I ignore the internal dimensions (mental and emotional) of the novel form. But it give me the freedom to write a book and imagine a camera running behind the words and pages. Dynamic and alive.
I write in what you might consider “thriller pacing” a lot of the time — a sense of danger and escalation, a vibe of threat and ticking clocks and present dread. A lot of books to me read like, Once upon a time, which is to say, “This already happened.” It’s history. A re-telling, not a telling. Events gone past, times gone away, characters who have already come and gone and who did the things they did and now it’s all over.
Present tense affords me the chance to subvert that. It lets me write a story that feels all the more dangerous because its outcome isn’t set — by making it now instead of in history, it becomes a living document. It’s an evolving narrative. Just that tiny shift in timing lets the narrative (to me) become fresh, unpredictable, as sassy as a downed powerline sparking and snapping in the street. It feels like fate isn’t yet written. The destiny of the characters is ever in flux. As such, it lends itself to urgency — and you read less to find out what happened and more to find out what’s going to happen next. Every page feels like it exists only because you turn it. Less an excavation and an archive and more an act of shared narrative creation. The reader makes the story happen just by reading.
Close, But Not Intimate
Third person present lets me get close, but doesn’t demand intimacy. I don’t have any problems with first person present, but to me the combination can — though not always — feel too close. The characters run the risk of becoming irritating or over-sharing. And first person also limits us to who we know and who we see. It undoes some chances for suspense or mystery because we’re living in a character’s head all the time. Here it feels like we’re hovering close enough to hear the character’s surface thoughts — to get some internal history, but not to stand under the waterfall of their thoughts and drown there.
Simple And Elegant
No great description here to unpack — I just find third-person present to be a really clean, clear way to write. It’s not like looking at a painting, but rather, like watching someone paint.
It’s Sometimes How We Tell Stories To Each Other
Maybe this is more a factor of how we tell stories in the American Northeast, but we tell stories orally to one another, and they tend to skew to the present tense: “So then the guy at the counter says, ‘No, we ain’t got no fucking otterburgers,’ but I know he’s got fucking otterburgers because I’ve seen the guy eating ’em right out of the jar. And Betty over there, she’s walking by the Joust machine in the corner looking like someone just peed in her Lucky Charms because she wants otterburgers too and now this clown is telling me no goddamn otterburgers. Right? I mean, fuck.”
We tell stories like we’re all there, right now, present and accounted for. Even if it happened earlier that day or two years ago. We tell them actively, urgently, presently.
So, your turn.
Do you like present tense? Why?
Or, moreover: why don’t you like it?
Better with third, or only in first?
Sound off in the comments.
* * *
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96 responses to “Third Person, Present Tense Is My Space Jam”
Great discussion! I tend to write in 3rd person, past tense but have written short stories in present. I think if the author is comfortable and can be consistent with whatever POV and tense he or she has chosen, most readers will also be comfortable with it.
I wrote my first novel in 1st present tense, but got some feedback from a Hugo winning pro to go with 3rd past. So I did. I know a lot more now and I think I’m more inclined to try something new. I haven’t actually used 3rd present, but I like the immediacy of it. I may switch my WIP to that to see how it feels.
I prefer present tense myself, though I also write in first person. I wrote a first person past tense once in the style of memoir, in fact it was a faux memoir. Writing in 3rd for some reason has always come off as weird to me. I guess I like to live the story I write through the character, not outside of them. People need to remember that writers like to try things, different styles and povs. Sounds like people just want to ride your success through a couple of ‘likes.’
This may be a weird take on this, but I just realized that, when I write reviews, I almost always do the plot summary bit in third person present tense, regardless of how the book is written. I feel that it allows the person reading the review to get more involved in the review and maybe feel more “connected” to the book I’m reviewing.
I think third-person present was a smart pick for a Star Wars novel, because it’s supposed to be fast and cinematic.
While we’re on the subject though, I was wondering about this line, “This particular ship has seen action: plasma scarring across the wings and up its tail fins; a crumpled dent in the front end as if it was kicked by an AT-AT Imperial walker.”
Is it grammatically correct? I thought a semi-colon separated two independent clauses, but the latter clause (“a crumpled dent… Imperial walker”) has a subject without a verb (“kicked” being a verb but not one that properly goes with “a crumpled dent,” if that makes any sense?)
I know you also have some incomplete sentences, but those work because it’s part of the fast-paced style you’re going for. So maybe the last clause is okay because, while it’s not an independent clause, it’s similar to the way that some of the incomplete sentences work? And honestly the colon before hand further complicates the issue.
I’m sorry to say I’ve been thinking about this every since you posted the link to the excerpt. So I’m posing this question to Chuck, or anyone else: does this work grammatically?
Fragments are a perfectly valid style choice, as long as they aren’t overused. So I say it’s fine. I’m not a fan of semi-colons myself (and have learned to not use them both as a personal choice and because house style at my current and past publishers). I think semi-colons are odd in dialog, even though they can and do work elsewhere.
Yeah, sentence fragments don’t bother me. I suppose I was just wondering if the post-semicolon fragment was as acceptable as the sentence fragment.
A semicolon separates two clauses, and a colon sets off a list. So the author wrote, “The ship has seen some action” and then lists the types of action like dent and so on (I can’t see your post as I’m replying and can’t remember all three examples of said action. So the colon here is correct. I proofread court transcripts, and the semicolon or colon question comes up a lot.
I can’t see the point of the semi-colon. A comma would do perfectly well there. As a general rule, I think semi-colons are old-fashioned; they probably should be avoided; imo.
I have never understood the rage over tenses and POV. When people complain they usually do so about first-person and present tenses. In order to have an opinion on these things, I assume experience (because what average person even remembers POV definitions). But at the same time, if you’ve read a lot of books how can you complain? You should have experienced all of them by now. Sure, it’s rare to find a second-person narrative (Bright Lights, Big City), but certainly not first or third? And classic literature tends to be past tense, but there are examples where it’s not. Complain about these things when they’re used incorrectly, but not because they’re used at all.
you don’t need experience to have personal taste
I’m not a fan of present tense writing, regardless of viewpoint. Reason? I don’t want to read a screenplay, and I don’t believe that present tense does any better at conveying tension or immediacy; that is a matter of skillful writing. In 2011 The Horn Book invited writer Deirdre Baker to write a piece on use of present tense, and it’s worth the read: http://bit.ly/1DNEm9i.
I am definitely NOT a present tense fan–but I will admit that most of my rage on that front has been lobbied at first person present tense for the reasons you mentioned above and because, frankly, a lot of people do it very very poorly. There have been a select few that passed muster (Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me being the first…I made it 80 pages in before I realized it was in present tense…she does it VERY WELL). In general, I find it jarring. But that may simply be lack of exposure…it feels…WRONG because almost everything I’ve ever read is in past tense. I think of that as narrative tense. And I freely admit to avoiding stuff in present tense for that reason. But I shall strive to expose myself to more of it before I make a true decision.
present tense is not narrative. It is instruction. Screenplays are in present tense because they are instructions for the actors. Do this at this time, say this at this time, set the scene up this way. The content and narrative are secondary to the instruction. DO you like to read instruction manuals for fun? If not Why torture your readers in that way?
The problem is that a story is an account of things that have aready happened, otherwise there would be nobody to tell the story as it is written. For example, in the alternate history graphic novel 300, the whole wouldn’t exist or wouldn’t be remembered as anything other than a footnote in history if it didn’t have a storyteller who survived to tell the tale.
There are some authors who thought it a good idea to try using present tense to convey a sense of urgency and action. Suzanne Colins, for example, used it in Hunger games.
The problem is that, far from engaging people in the action, it actually robs people of immersion. It destroys tools writers have been using for a long time, the biggest of which is foreshadowing. How do you use foreshadowing if everything is occurring in the here and now? How do you use reflection? how do you handle the character’s ghost in real time? You can’t take advantage of the flexibility of time. Things have to be sequential. Present tense robs the author of a whole pallate of tools and robs the reader of the satisfaction of a narrative.
It is almost impossible to write in present tense without straying outside of the tense, if for anything, just to make sense of what is there. Can you stay in your character’s head? Why is your character talking to the reader, does the character literally have an audience in her head that she feels justified explaining what she is seeing as she is seeing it?
The best tense is simple past. This is a form of past tense which avoids use of the verb “be” (am, is, are, was ,were, and (has, have, had, would have, should have, could have) been) and simply states this is how the experience occurred. It’s not how it was or is, or should have been, or had been , or was immutably so, it is a perceptive tense, hinged around the targeted witness or character, in that person’s frame of mind.perspective, but it is also a recognition that these events have already occurred, so that the narrative can now have more freedom to explore the surrounding circumstance. It has the freedom to be reflective.
So you’re saying you don’t find Chuck’s work reflective? I thought the Heartland series had plenty of freedom.
“It is almost impossible to write in present tense without straying outside of the tense,…”
So stray. I’ve read many works that do, and if the writer is skillful, it works just fine. Just my opinion.
This is wrong. And I don’t mean like, “I respect your opinion,” I mean, your facts are inaccurate. Present tense is a form of narrative, and not an unusual one. If you don’t like it — more power to you. But it is, in fact, a legitimate form of narrative — not the best, not the worst. A stylistic and narrative choice.
Further, present tense doesn’t need to be inflexible and linear. Flashbacks are totally doable. I’ve done ’em. Foreshadowing is also possible — in fact, I love to use foreshadowing in present tense.
As for a character explaining everything in her head — that’s first-person present, not third. Again, a stylistic choice, one that doesn’t demand we believe the protagonist literally believes herself having an audience.
Not a fan of present tense, at all. And I love you, word nerd, but I’ll be honest that while I buy your books and pimp you out, I have had problems getting into your fiction because it’s present tense.
BUT I’ve gained more knowledge from your non-fiction, and I enjoy the hell out of your blog, so I’ll STILL buy ALL your books (fiction and non-fiction) so you can keep B-dub in juice boxes and yourself flush in beard weasels.
((HUGS that aren’t at all creepy or linger too long.))
Because, value, yo. (And no, I’m not one of those assholes who won’t finish a book and yet leaves a crappy review. I hate that shit with a passion.)
BUT…the bottom line is, YOU are the writer. YOU have to write for YOURSELF first and foremost. If YOU aren’t happy with what you produce, the work will suffer. If you like and enjoy and are comfortable storytelling in that method, rock on. Just like I won’t shame a reader for their preference, I won’t shame a writer for their preference. As long as you are aware of the market and willing to weigh risk versus what YOU need to write, go for it.
I also have found that where I used to LOVE third-omni (a la Stephen King) now I have a hard as hell time getting into books that are third-omni. I prefer third-limited, or first person. (I hate second person with the heat of a thousand suns.)
I always tend to stray to present tense at some point in my projects. I also find that it helps me add sparkle and voice (and usually, badly needed humor) to the third person narration. I love it. It’s the best way to really set me loose on a page, no constraints. Which, you know, needs editing later, but it’s still my preferred default.
1. I see what you did there, re: “Space Contest: …” xD
2. I quite like third-person present, for both its combination of immediacy and flexibility, though I have an enormously difficult time writing in it – I always have to comb back through for places I’ve slipped into past-tense. I actually kind of hate first-person present, though; seeing it won’t make me immediately put something down, but it will garner an extra dose of skepticism for the writing to overcome (and I never use it).
I’m trying to unravel the reasons why, and I think the answer might well be that I’ve just read too many terribad attempts at smutty fanfiction in that tense structure….
Loved it. It totally works for the story. Yay, Chuck. (And also, HOW COOL IS IT THAT YOU WROTE THE BOOK?!?! *cue epic-like tympani and big brass*)
I write my historical fiction in third person past tense. I’m now writing first person present tense for a series set in the present featuring young women protagonists. It’s immediate and intense and emotionally tight and feels right. It also allows me to play freely with grammar, which is crazy fun.
I remember the first time I read a book of yours (Blackbirds as well) I immediately felt like I just snorted a shot of low-end whiskey up my nose. It was jolting but oddly satisfying? And so I kept reading because, I mean, you can’t just snort a shot of whiskey up one nostril and not try it with the other, right?
But I wish you also had the chance to express these thoughts to those in the Entertainment Weekly blog because skimming through some of these here comments already, I’m sure you’ll find mostly fans of your style or those that at least put up with it because they are level-headed individuals that understand it’s just your damn style and so deal with it.
The comments sections in mostly every other online landfill is full of garbage and it doesn’t take Ken Jennings to tell you that maybe one-third of the comments come from people who probably didn’t even maybe read the book past the title.
I probably bury my head too much in one genre because I only remember ever reading third-person past style. I need to get out more… 🙂 Third-person present sounds interesting, though. I’ll need to pick up one of your books to see how you implement it. A first-person book–any type, present, past, whatever–is hard for me to wrap my head around. I suppose I need to pick one of those up, too, so my brain is better rounded and all that. I personally write in third-person past (duh, right, because that’s all I read). 🙂
I think Kait Nolan hit the nail on the head in her comment. It’s “jarring”. If I read a sample of a book on Amazon, and it’s written in present tense, I usually pass on it. Unless the story grabs me right away, and in that case, I often forget the tense. As a general rule, my favorite is third person, past tense.
Loved Blackbirds, by the way. It was one of those books where the story was compelling enough to make me forget the tense.
I’m cool with FP/past 3P/present and 3P/past whatever works for the story (and I did find writing 3P/present “flow” better)
but first person present? that tense can go die in a fire….overly limiting, overly jarring, very little redeeming value aside from making the narrator sound like an idiot
could it be done well? no doubt but most people don’t
I might have forgotten Blackbirds was in third person present *headtilt*
I just read a book in third person present that shall remain unnamed, but it really irritated me. I switch between audiobook/reading for a variety of reasons, but listening to it, the whole thing felt stilted and strange. Reading it I would just make the switch to third person without realizing it until I got jolted by some verb choice. It was strange and I did not like it (admittedly, I was not super in love with this book and it was a huge disappointment).
But in trying to come up with reasons why, I suppose it comes down to that uncomfortable feeling you get when you have to upgrade your operating system. The ‘Ugh, but I know where everything GOES in this one. HOW DARE APPLE CREATE A SPOTLIGHT! EVERYTHING WAS WORKING!’ feeling. It’s not something we’re currently used to, and it might take some time for people to adjust.
What weirds me out is that people got SO UPSET over the choice of tense. If you don’t like a book, don’t read it? Like, it’s THAT simple.
Welp. You’ve just gotten me thinking about doing more third-person, present-tense writing. You made a very good argument for it.
Third person present tense is my least favorite form of story. I once heard “telling” described as if you’re sitting in a room listening to someone else looking out a window and telling you what’s happening outside, which is exactly the feeling I get when I read 3rd person, present tense. It often feels like I’m reading a bullet list off a Powerpoint slide.
I like dabbling in present tense, particularly when I’m not writing an epic and I do enjoy reading it as long as it’s done well. Too often writers seem to drop out for just long enough to jar you out of the flow.
I love present tense. As a reader, it is so much more engaging and readable than past tense, though it’s hard to pinpoint why exactly that is. I wish more people would write in third person present–it strikes a balance between the “in the moment” feel of present tense and the more removed and focused lens provided by 3rd person.
For my writing, I default to first person present tense. I used to write in past tense, but phrasing and sentence structure can be a lot cleaner in present tense, and of course, it lends itself more easily to dramatic or action-y scenes. I’m still getting comfortable with writing in third person present–sometimes the way sentences end up being phrased strikes me as really weird–but I find myself using it for alternate POV scenes in my WIP, as well as for random short stories.
[…] Third Person, Present Tense Is My Space Jam by Chuck (NSFW) Wendig. […]
Just for giggles, I did this last week’s flash fiction in third person present. It was an awkward fit for that particular story, but it was a fun exercise. I’m impressed that you make it work. It’s not something I’m comfortable with right now, but…practice makes competent.
It’s because of you, Chuck, that I am going to be writing in present tense. I already warned my editor, lol. He’s cool with it, but I figured he should know what tense I am going for in case I slip out of it like knucklehead.
As a writer I like the idea of experimenting with POV and tense, and I also think that certain stories (or parts of stories) are just better suited to a particular POV or tense. That said, I’ve never really been into present tense (first or third). I find it takes me longer to get into the story, it gets in the way a bit, and I’m not sure why that is. If the story is engaging, though, I’ll stick around and stop noticing the tense.
I wrote an SF novel (not naming it here) in three parts, with three POV characters. 1st past, 3rd past, and then 1st present. I was experimenting, i.e. doing it wrong with negligent disregard for commercial viability.
But each person/tense combo kind of suited that character’s voice, so I’m happy with the result.
The more I use it, the more I like present tense. Some stories “feel” more natural in present tense to me, while some “feel” more natural in past tense. Also, BLACKBIRDS worked perfectly in present tense, and there was a thematic element to it, considering her talent is seeing how people die.
[…] I do know is that the present tense makes the story pop (something Wendig explains on his blog), the characters are interesting and Wendig fills Aftermath with plenty of snarky humor. Like […]
Very well argued, Chuck. I’ve just started writing a book (space opera) and I decided to try present tense on the strength of your arguments. I think it works for some constructions – some verbs, I think I mean – but not so well for others (‘she says’ for example). I recall putting a comment in somewhere a few weeks ago (maybe here) on this subject. At the risk of repeating myself: the wonderful Perfume by Patrick Suskind uses present tense just for one short passage on the top half of page 6. The rest of the book is past tense. Also, I’ve noticed German authors seem to switch tenses quite happily. Hans Fallada’s famous book Alone in Berlin, has chapters that start in present tense and then switch, and vice versa. That works beautifully both ways.
Oops! I found my original comment above (August 12). Feel free to dump these 2 comments in ye olde spittoon / oubliette.
I wrote my YA trilogy in first person, present tense. LOVED it.
Then…when I went to work on my MG mystery series (which I had started years before and I was doing a re-write) I found that I just couldn’t get into the story writing it in past tense. As you say so well, I SEE the story in my head, as if it is a movie playing out. It’s just WRONG for me to tell it in past tense, as if it already happened. It didn’t. It is happening as I write it. 🙂
So far, based on reviews and other forms of feedback, you either love it or hate it. Kids seem to always love it, older readers, not so much. They are too expectant. They don’t want to experience something new, even (IMO) if it’s better. So be it.
I have to write in a style that works for me as a storyteller, and aside from first person, present, third person present is my second choice. Leave the past in the past and the action in the present. 🙂
I’m just now rewriting a Past, Third novel as Present, Third. It involves changing all the hads to has, the was to is. Not too hard, eh? The backstory parts stay in the past; because they are still back there. I stay away from Future Third.
Do you have any advice on writing in third person omniscient within an historical present tense? If so, does the following meet that standard? (background- the book is written with both a present story line and a past story line, each separated by alternating chapters. The present is third person omniscient present tense while the past is third person omniscient historical present tense): Directors, wearing long draping dark green capes with fraying twine closures at the neck, stood along the hallway, directing the students to their assigned rooms. OR: Telling herself to be strong, she laid it flat and carefully stretched it out over her couch. Do the tense changes work here to fit into an historical present tense? Any thoughts?
I’ve nearly finished reading ‘Aftermath’, and have loved it thus far. It’s different from Stackpole’s X-Wing books, which were different from Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, which were different from Stover’s books. Experimenting with form, style, perspective – these are fun things. All the authors I’ve mentioned have done just that in the Star Wars literary universe. So not sure why fans are so outraged by something that doesn’t seem terribly out of place for a Star Wars book.
But moving on to my main point (and reason for posting here): your writing style in ‘Aftermath’ reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s ‘Cryptonomicon’, which I adore almost as much as I adore puppies and kittens and poutine. Especially poutine. Poutine is the best. THE. BEST. …But I digress.
Likewise, the approach of using fragmented, and almost staccato-like sentences – it’s reminiscent of Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, William Gibson, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Bruce Sterling, Tom Robbins, and Jim Dodge, to name but a few. Are they writers you’ve read in the past and/or are a fan of?
Thanks for taking the time to read this (if you do!)
LOVE this post. Was thinking about writing my WIP in third present and stumbled upon your blog! I’m gonna try it. I think the change will creatively inspire me 🙂