Third Person, Present Tense Is My Space Jam


As some of you may know, I wrote this funny little book called SPACE CONTEST: CRAFTER BATH —

*receives note*

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*

*cackles*

Cinematic

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.

Urgent

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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95 responses to “Third Person, Present Tense Is My Space Jam”

  1. I find it difficult to not phase-shift out of Third-present into past when I try to do that, which makes the second draft a bit of a “clean-up on aisle three.” Kudos to you for making it work!

  2. Seems natural to use the first and third person in the present tense when relating anecdotes. Oral history before written communication must’ve been a mix of the first and the third person, past and present tenses.

  3. Funny you brought this up. Yesterday, I got into the car with my husband who is listening to the audio for Mockingbird and I remarked on the third person present. (He’s a reader, I’m a writer.) He hadn’t noticed, but he replied, “Of course it has to be present, so we don’t know if Miriam dies in the end!”

    I write short stories in first person present. I love the immediacy and perspective, but I can see how that limited view could be tedious in a novel-length work.

  4. Chuck, I love you for writing this article. I’ve written a novel in third person present tense and I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to justify it and figure out why I like it. Now I know. It’s the sense of urgency. I want the reader to experience it while it’s happening. I also write screenplays, and just realized that they’re all third person present too. That makes so much sense I can’t believe I didn’t think of it. Thank you for explaining why it works. I feel better now.

  5. I do both depending on the story but since I mostly write young adult,the majority of mine are in first person,present tense. And yes, some don’t like it but I think it affords a unique perspective for YA readers. They want that closeness, that intimacy. There’s a distance with third person that is sometimes applicable but I prefer first person, present.

  6. Yup. You pretty much hit the proverbial nail on the equally proverbial head. I prefer present tense because it puts you right there in the moment. It’s all happening now. It feels more natural to me. Probably why when I write in past tense I tend to drift into present for several paragraphs before realizing it.
    I do prefer to write in first person, though. I like the main character to be the voice of the work, despite the handicap of only being privy to what that character sees and knows and not what’s going on elsewhere.

  7. I have to admit, I found it jarring at first. And the first novel I ever tried to read in present tense, I just didn’t connect with. I thought, perhaps, it was because it was novel length and maybe present tense worked better for short works.

    Then I read Blackbirds and that theory went out the window, because I found it worked well. So my new theory is that it suits the style of your writing,whereas the other person I tried to read would have perhaps worked better with 3rd past.

    So it’s not for everyone, but it works for you. Or something like that.

  8. I’ve tried present, but haven’t liked it that much. It makes a book I tried reading hard. I’m just used to past tense, and don’t like a lot of deviation.

  9. Being a fine arts major in college, I never studied about “tense” & stuff, and kind of zone out when people start talking about it, because what’s important is “do I like the story?” “is the characters decision process so stupid that I don’t care how good the writing is, I’m going to chuck this shit out the window right now?”

    Now that I’m writing, this is the natural way I started writing. Now I know it’s a “thing”, lol. Thinking about it I do realize that sometimes I’m reading from the perspective of the main char, sometimes not. I do prefer things happening in the present as well.

    Maybe because I’m such a HUGE movie nerd? That could be it. I don’t see words in my brain as I write, I see pictures, then work to describe the story I’m seeing. Very interesting blog post, I’ll be looking at my current story differently tomorrow, I’m sure. 🙂

  10. So I have a confession: I’ve not yet read any of your books (*hides*)

    I had already been planning to grab Blackbirds this month and start there, because I’m super-excited about Aftermath and wanted to familiarise myself with your style before it came out.

    I’m always looking to expand my horizons when it comes to writing techniques, so I’m now even more eager to get my hands on Blackbirds 🙂 I’m very much a third-person past-tense writer, it’s easier for me to slip into and work with, but several books I’ve loved (such as Hunger Games and anything by Hannah Moskowitz) are first-person present tense, so I can’t see why third-person present tense wouldn’t work just as well.

  11. I have written stories in third person-past and first person- present. I feel more comfortable with first person present because it allows me to get into the skin of the character, stick to their POV and speak. Telling a story from one POV is what I can handle right now, with my current practice. But third person-present sounds interesting too. It is difficult to tell a story from many POVs- you have to have different scenes for each character and give them all different voices. It speaks of your literary merit, Chuck, that you can do it. I went through the excerpt of Zeroes, and I must commend the way you have handled the third person present way of narration. I felt like I was watching a movie 🙂

  12. I rewrote a few of my chapters in third-present, after originally doing them in third past, as I’ve always done. I loved the way it sounded, but I find it difficult to actually write that way. So kudos on making it work, I loved Blackbirds, reading something written in this style presents me with no problems at all. As to those who think you have to write a certain way because the original movie started “A Long Time Ago…”, I just say “Huh? What?”

  13. Some stories work when told that way, some don’t. It’s not a style I dislike reading, when done well, but not a style I use.

    Most of what I write unfolds in word form; there’s no problem getting the story down on paper. Occasionally I see a story as a movie in my head; those are the ones that I struggle with. And as I read this post I had a “Duh” moment. I’ve never tried to write those in third present; it never occurred to me.

    Think I’ll give it a try. Thank you, I Bearded One.

  14. Third person, present tense is my favorite to read and to write. I am not a fan of first person, but it becomes almost unreadable when coupled with first person.

  15. I really REALLY like writing in third person present tense. Story seems to flow better for me that way, and makes more sense in my head. I love the immediacy of the tense, and the cinematic scope of third person. I don’t care if it’s not cool or whatever, it’s just how I write.

    As a reader, to be honest, I generally don’t even notice tense or POV. If it’s a good story, it doesn’t even ping on my radar. The only time I’ve really gone ‘huh’ is coming across books in second person (The Bride Stripped Bare) or first person plural (Then We Came To The End) (ooh, which also has the BEST first line too.)

    Where was I? Anyhoo. I’m pretty sure in the YA genre, present tense is what the cool kids are doing these days. Eg., Hunger Games.

  16. Good article, Chuck. I noticed straight away on page 1 of Blackbirds. It didn’t spoil the book for me, and after a few chapters I felt the present tense worked well. But it doesn’t always work, and I was aware of it all the time I was reading. In Hunger Games it felt like an artifice – didn’t really work. I’ve read books that mix present and past tense, and this usually seems to work well. Hans Fallada’s book Alone in Berlin (I think it has a different title in USA) mixes tenses within chapters. Some chapters start in present tense and then slip into past; others do it the other way around. I have an idea this is a German way of speaking. The wonderful Perfume by Patrick Susskind has one half page in the present tense (page 6) and the whole of the rest of the book is in past tense. Have you read it, btw? If not, you should. It’s a wonderful book about a mass murderer in eighteenth century France. They made a great film of it, too, with Dustin Hoffman in it.

    As for pov: I hate it when an author mixes first and third. This makes no sense to me at all. Like two (or more) manuscripts that fell on the floor and got mixed together. Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith is written like that. For me it was close to unreadable. The main problem with first person is that it restricts you to a single point of view (or it should). And I’m a great believer in subtext which requires that parts of a story be told from different points of view.

  17. I have read and enjoyed several books written in present tense (either third or first person) but it takes freaking phenomenal effort. I have to really like the characters because I have to translate the present tense into past tense as I read. Without compelling characters it’s just not worth the brain ache. As a story teller/writer I see the stories unfold like a movie as well…usually without knowing what the hell will happen next, but mine always hit the page third person past tense. I don’t think my brain really computes the reality of a present tense. I may be doing something, but as soon as I’m aware of it it’s done…it’s gone…it’s in the past. It’s past tense! Stories are like a vinyl records…they’re made…they’re part of the past, yet when we play a record (or read a book regardless of the tense) it’s part of the occurring present.

    I can’t help but wonder if the growing trend to write in present tense is linked to our culture of “now”. In the West we want to be able to have what we want immediately…whether it’s communication or owning something…buy on credit pay later…we don’t want to save up for the sofa we want to sit on it now. If we want cake in the middle of the night we want to be able to go buy it (and then eat it immediately). It will be interesting to see how/if the taste in tense will evolve with our culture.

  18. Hannu Rajaniemi writes in both first and third person, and in his case it works very well indeed. ‘The Quantum Thief’, ‘The Fractal Prince, and ‘The Causal Angel’ – where ‘the thief’ is first person/present (he’s such a wonderful character, with a really strong voice, he’s just got to be in first-person), and the other POV characters are third person/past. Nicola Griffiths ‘Slow River’ is another great example – only one POV character, but with sections written from different parts of her life (e.g. as a child=first person/present; her ‘now’ in third person/past–there’s a different middle time-period too, but right now I can’t lay my hand on the book). Mixing first, second, third – it all depends on context and on the strength of the character’s voice.

  19. I think it really depends on the needs of the story. As a reader, I had no problem with 3rd person present in Blackbirds. The immediacy definitely ramped up the tension. When I write, I switch POV and tense according to a) how the characters are talking to me, b) how visceral the story needs to be, and c) whether it benefits the story to not have the POV character’s survival as a foregone conclusion. I usually start with 3rd person/past as my default, but I can usually tell pretty quickly if that’s going to work or not. The short story I’m working on now is in 1st person present. I will admit, I find present tense harder to write, mainly because I’m used to working in the past.

  20. I love present tense for all the reasons you listed. It’s immediate, it’s intimate, it’s got that sense of urgency and danger and suspense and OH SHIT, IT’s HAPPENING RIGHT NOW, WHAT’S GOING ON, AAAAAAHHHHH.

    Ahem. It -can- be a little jarring in third person, but in all honesty, I stop noticing a few pages in. Once I (or most people who bother, I would guess?) get engrossed, tense and perspective become background noise. The story is pipelined directly into my theater of the mind (D&D phrasing, I should stop).

    I stop hearing the individual words, start seeing the images you paint with them. I stop seeing the strokes, so to speak.

    That said, personally, I prefer present tense in first person. To me, it feels more natural that way, the way we tell stories to each other. “So I says to the guy….”

    If it’s done well and it serves a purpose, tense and POV are not things that stand out as glaring as syntax and vocabulary sometimes can.

    IF it’s done well.

    Which I know firsthand is not a problem for you, Chuck. Keep on keeping on.

  21. the book im writing can be split into two parts. The first part takes place over 8 years and the second over a couple of months. When I switch over to the second part, I transition over to present because the nature of the narrative changes.

  22. I had an editor do a ‘girl’s gone wild’ on my wip and put it in 1st present. I stared at the pages and went huh. I read it out loud and went hum. I revised a few chapters in 1/P and HOLY you know what.

    I can and have drafted in 3rd/past, but as another fine arts major, the distance of 3rd does a number on my imagery. 1/P lets me 1. tighten prose, big time. Language becomes far more me talking to you. 2. organic in the sense that the stream of nonsense up in the skull comes out exactly the same way. 3. emotive. Wow, grab by the throat emotive.

    First time I read Hunger Games, I had first page What’s, but Suzanne handled it so freakin’ well, by the second page I was there and stayed the entire book. (Talk about a superb job of writing yourself into the corner!)

    The same editor who teased me into trying 1/P also pointed out — just like any other writing. If you don’t have mad story telling skillzzz, 1/P won’t fix squat.

  23. Thanks for your thoughtful post. I’ve written more than 30 plays, and the blocking, or descriptions of action are always in third person present tense. I always thought that was because the script is a blueprint for the director and cast, not a finished work. It’s not the final performance. It’s more of a pitch or a proposal of what might happen, or could happen, and then they go and change it to fit their own staging needs. But I guess our imaginations are like that, too, picking and choosing, re-staging in our minds.
    When I read third person past tense fiction, I am not in the “director’s chair” planning out how this is going to be performed. I’m sitting around a primordial campfire hearing (new) tales of old brought back to life in my imagination. I want to feel as though I am participating in something that happened a long time ago, and sharing it with other readers. Or, as in journalism, what happened just the other day. It feels more trustworthy, more solid and dependable, and real. Past tense helps me suspend disbelief and invites me into a community of readers. For me, it doesn’t diminish tension and suspense, it assures me that at least ONE of us knows where the story is going, and will be able to take me through to a satisfying conclusion.
    I don’t read plays for fun, and I’m guessing that would be true for screenplays, too. Third person present tense doesn’t sound like a fun read. It sounds like an outline.
    Can’t remember what tense Hunger Games was written in, but it irritated the hell out of me. And here’s why. I decided, “If this is going to be written like a movie, then I’ll just wait for the movie.”
    I’m totally looking forward to reading your Star Wars books because…Star Wars. I just hope that the style doesn’t interfere with my ability to escape into the story.
    Thanks for your dedication to giving us the swift kick we writers so often need.

  24. I’ll be honest, my initial reaction on opening any book written in present tense is ‘aw crap.’ If it’s well done, however, I stop noticing about 2 paragraphs in. Most of what I read is third person, past tense, and I tend to write in limited third past tense as well. It’s what I’m most comfortable with. But if it’s well done, I stop seeing it. I’m engrossed in watching the play. I don’t pay attention to the people backstage.

    And one outstanding advantage present tense has over past (aside from the immediacy of it) is that there is no need for the past perfect! (Something my editor and I are wrestling with now, as we have differing opinions on its use). 🙂

  25. Wow, love you. I had my first book reading/signing last night at B&N and I’m exhausted and elated. And you know what? I have no idea which POV I wrote my book in! My agent, my editors, my publicist…I never asked them. Ignorance is bliss? Shit. I’ll figure it out today.

    Thanks for your guidance. I truly appreciate how generously your sharing your knowledge with us.

    Nina

  26. This was a cup of cool water to read today. I am writing my thriller in first tense first person and I know I like the sound but had no idea why. Thanks for telling me why. You’re right.

  27. I personally love present tense first or third, it is so much tighter and the imagery for me comes off cleaner. There is something addicting and engrossing in reading ‘as it happens’. I love reading it and have found writing in it to be much easier. It flows so much better to what’s happening on my head.

  28. I tend to change things up depending on the story. If I plan for a lot of action and want it to feel more fast-paced, I go with third, present. For something I want to dive deeper into, where I need to get into the head of my character, I go with first. However, for those times, I usually write in past tense, depending on the plot. (Again depends on the action) I have done it both ways. Then there are times when I want it to read more like a memoir. I have trouble with third omniscient. I don’t like reading it and can’t write it well. It’s probably just a matter of preference–feeling more in touch with the individual characters. I don’t mind multiple POV’s so long as they are separated. Head-hopping bothers me.

    That being said, I truly love your style. It’s a very, very close third person style where you are sort of in the head of the character, but still a little outside. I love a good close third person narrative done well.

  29. I’ve never bought into the “present tense means we don’t know what happens” argument. I always wonder if people who feel this way think the narrator is following everyone around with a notebook. “OK, now she’s going into the bar. She’s sitting on a stool. She’s realized she has toilet paper on her shoe. Now she’s trying to get it off without drawing attention to herself. Hahaha the waiter totally sees her, you guys should see his expressions.”

    I don’t like it because it’s simply not what I’m accustomed to. I can adapt to it and get used to it, but the narrative form should never detract from the story. If I notice your cool way of doing your paragraphs, you’re getting in the way of your own story. For the first few chapters, I keep noticing that it’s in present tense (and holy craptickles is it worse in first-person present) and it takes me out of the story just when I should be getting the most invested in it.

    So it’s a risk on the author’s part. Will the reader get over the unfamiliar form in time to get drawn into the story? Or by the time they adjust, will they no longer care about the characters because all that getting-to-know-you time was wasted by getting distracted? Like trying to speed-date with someone with a booger. You spend all your time staring at the booger and not hearing about how they went to space and wrestled crocodiles and saved puppies from a burning building.

  30. I do find this style jarring at first (it’s supposedly gaining popularity, but the Miriam Black books are perhaps the only books I’ve read that use it), but after a few pages the distraction disappears. It’s ridiculous that people would get angry about it.

    Also, I’ve tried writing in this style before. I am garbage at it.

  31. My initial writing tendency was towards first-person and I think first-person lends itself well to present tense. These days I write in third-person because it helps separate me from the protagonist. I don’t get mixed up between what “I” would do and what the character would do. That step back also felt like it needed to move back from the present tense.

    You make some good points about the value of the present tense, however, so I think I’m going to try looking over a couple of stories that felt a little dragging and see if pushing them into present tense helps. Thanks!

  32. At first it put me off Chuck’s books, but the thing is, he’s honed this style over time and it’s pretty damned sharp. If people try to use it as a gimmick, it’s crass and annoying, but if you can wield it as well as Chuck then it can be very effective. It does have its limitations but it’s very immediate. I’m trying it out in a short story I’m working on and it’s very hard to do – like learning to write all over again. Hats off to Mr. W.

  33. I’ll admit that the prose in that Aftermath excerpt threw me a bit at first, but I definitely wanted to give it a chance. Ages ago I would have said that a prose form like first person present just didn’t work for me, then I picked up ‘The Icarus Hunt’ by Timothy Zahn and saw what happens when that method is executed well.

    So with that in mind, my wife and I picked up your Heartland trilogy. In the span of three weeks I devoured the whole thing and really appreciated what third person present brought to the story. I keep telling folks who are concerned about Aftermath now to go grab at least Under the Empyrean Sky to see how well you use third person present.

  34. My husband is a writer and we have this discussion often. At first he only wrote in third, either present or omniscient. Lately though he has written one in first, because that is what the story demands. To me I get fairly sick of seeing EVERY stinking YA in first. I think sometimes it is just lazy writing. I think stories are different in scope and pace and you should write in whatever style best serves your story. First, Third, hieroglyphics, whatever, just write a good book.

  35. Until recently I’d never read any books written in present tense, either 1st or 3rd, but then I started exploring YA and it’s everywhere. It takes some getting used to, but I can see why it’s the right choice for some stories. Just a few days ago I finished Under Heaven, which used 3rd-person past for one character’s scenes and 3rd-person present for another, which I thought was interesting because the character written in past had a slower-paced, more contemplative bent, while dire and interesting things were happening to the character written in present. So used judiciously, I’d say it’s pretty effective.

    Though I’ve only ever written in past tense, 1st or 3rd. I guess I should try present sometime if I think it will suit the story…

  36. As long as the narrator is honest, I don’t have a clear preference for third or first person. My problem with third person is when the author can’t decide if his narrator is subjective or omniscient. Seems too much like “cheating” to me for some reason. As for past versus present tense, I find past to be more comfortable, but I’ll break into present tense when my narrator has a sudden thought or observation. It’s sort of my way of doing an aside to the reader without breaking the “fourth wall.”

  37. I’ve been writing first person, present tense, but I’ve gotten some feedback from agents that my characters don’t draw them in. Now I wonder if it’s because my character has become annoying or irritating and I just didn’t notice. Thanks for the heads up, I will be taking a closer look at that. *face palm*

  38. I love third-person present and it’s become my default in fiction, for similar reasons to you. I love present tense because it’s like writing a comic book–although contemporary comics seem to have largely abandoned the third-person present narrator of the Gold, Silver, and Bronze Ages, those comics are what I grew up reading and the immediacy of present tense mixed with the removed and omniscient third-person narrator is deeply embedded in my brain. (In his Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer writes about how he loved comics and hated books because books were always written in the past tense, which was boring.)

    I agree with you about first-person present. I think it’s done really well in The Hunger Games, where it becomes clearer and clearer that the way Katniss is describing what’s happening and how people are behaving towards her is not the way things actually are and she’s a very unreliable narrator. But it can be limiting to stick with one person’s POV through an entire novel (or series of novels).

  39. I enjoy reading third person present. My own attempts to write third person present have so far been literary car wrecks that have gone over the abandoned story rainbow bridge. It’s something I need to practice more.
    Also, now I’m hungry and we don’t have any otterburgers. Thanks.

  40. I guess I’m a weirdo; I enjoy reading third past and third present equally, it’s first person past I find jarring. (Not that I won’t read it, it’s just harder for me to connect with the POV character.) I loathe first person present.

    What I’m doing in my current cluster of projects is writing the bulk of the narrative in third past, writing dream sequences and certain types of flashbacks in third present. I was just re-reading some Guy Gavriel Kay and realized he does the same thing, to extremely good effect.

  41. THANK YOU! My background is computers. I didn’t start writing until I was in my mid-thirties and everything I’ve ever written has been third person present tense. Now, I’ve been a major reader since I was a child. But I didn’t even realize that most books are past tense until some helpful English Major soul decided to point it out to me, for my sake. 😉

    Like you, I see stories as images, the words only describe them. It’s a rolling movie in my head that I’m putting to paper. So when I’m reading a book, it’s the same thing, I’ve never paid attention to the tense of a novel. I’m always flabbergasted by people that rip a work to pieces simply because it isn’t in the tense they prefer.

    I’ll have to grab your Blackbirds book and see if the styles are similar.

  42. I don’t much notice tense when I’m reading to read, unless it’s first person future – which I’ve seen only once in my memory and I can’t remember who wrote the story because it was so disorienting. I would never have been able to tell you that Hunger Games or the Miriam Black books were in past or present tense without looking. Mixing tenses between chapters or even within chapters in a story won’t stop me more than a millisecond if the story is engaging enough. (Mixing third and first within a chapter, even with separators, will stop me for a few seconds.) I *like* when some stories are “taken out of time,” as LeGuin put it.

    When I’m reading to understand structure and plot, I don’t like reading first person books as much, particularly when the main character is not the protagonist (as in Gatsby). My perspective on it is that when I’m reading for structure, I’m not as immersed in the language and sometimes get lost as to where “I” is and how that fits, plotwise. None of the POV/tense combinations are problematic in any other way, but I do notice them when I’m not allowing myself to immerse in the story.

    I have written in third person past tense, third person present tense, first person present tense, and first person past tense. I most frequently write in third person past tense, as some of my stories don’t work without multiple perspective narration and present tense is a lot tougher to write in that context. The nature of the story and the medium changes what tense it is – so yes, of course screenplays and plays have to be third present; that is imposed on the writers by format. However, the narration of movies themselves can be changed by artifice into 1st person – Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void is an example. Another example of how the nature of the story and the medium affects tense and perspective for me: I have a hard time writing first person present tense outside of very short stories.

    So, yeah. I consume it all, no judgments. As long as the writer can keep me engaged with the story otherwise, I’m all aboard.

  43. I feel like this post just validated my existence.

    There’s so much hate for first person present tense, even more for third person present. To prefer both of those to third/past … well … depending on the day I either feel like a loser/fraud, or a fist-in-the-air rebel.

    I happen to love the limitations of first, especially if there are multiple POVs. What one character knows, another doesn’t. I love the tension of that.

  44. I often write in third person present or first person present. it is, I think, my “default” style. That said, I made some effort to get good at third person past.

    Question, Chuck, is it still true that third past is preferred by most agents and such?

  45. It should also be noted that William Gibson has done it successfully, which is all the license anyone should need.

  46. Most of the time if I notice it’s in present tense, either first or third, I won’t be able to get into the rest of the book. When I don’t notice is when the magic happens. I didn’t notice BLACKBIRDS was in present tense until half way through, and ditto for Richard Kadrey’d Sandman Slim series written in first person present.

  47. Long time blog reader, first time commenter. One of ‘those’ that just visits, reads and leaves. Always loved the advice. And Blackbirds is sitting patiently on my bookshelf leering, wondering when the hell am I going to pick her up (Soon, I promise…)

    Okay, right to the matter. I’m comfortable with First Person Present Tense because, like others, I enjoy the intimacy and urgency it brings. It does not suit every person or every story. Different stories require different methods of narration.

    Fresh off a Creative Writing MA, I can honestly say it made me more nervous as a writer. We met some great writers who were quite successful but I found that the longer they were in the game, the more stubborn they were about POV and tenses.

    While I’m big enough to select what advice to take I did find that some of them would turn you off writing completely! ‘Past tense is the only way to tell a story,’ one guy said, a published author in his own right.

    I decontaminated my brain with Chuck’s blog just to knock the BS outta there! I find that there is no room for the creative process in academia.

    Anyone looking for another opinion on writing MA’s, you do them for yourself. It is no place to learn how to write.

    The act of living is enough.

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