On Writing: Peeved at the Present

I have uncovered a new pet peeve. Or rather, re-uncovered an old one that I hadn’t had to dust off in a while, outside of things reluctantly read for English classes. Stories written in the present tense.

Seriously, people. Why.

Blogs, writing in the present tense? Sure, fine. That’s a conversation, albeit one with a time lag. A bit like talking to a Moon colony, which does make things interesting. *G*

Stories? Stories all go back to that old formula, “Once upon a time….”

(Or if you’re a mecha pilot? “No bleep, there I was….”)

Any way you slice it, we’re keyed to listen to stories; as entertainment, as keeping up with the Neanderthals and Denisovians next cave over, as a lesson on what pretty red berries NOT to eat. And those stories are set in the past, as things that have happened. And that’s the format we’re wired to expect. Even if it’s a pure SF story a millennium in the future, we read it as, “This is a thing that has already happened, or there wouldn’t be anyone left to tell us the story.”

So far this week I’ve run into two separate novels that were written in present tense. (One wobbled back and forth between present and past tense, which is in a way worse.) Had I had my hands on the physical books instead of using Amazon’s Look Inside, I’d have walled them both.

Those authors? Getting no bucks from me. No matter how good the rest of their writing is, or how interesting their story ideas. My brain hits the present tense and goes, “This is supposed to be a story, not an overheard cellphone call! Must. Destroy….”

I admit, I grew up on The Hobbit, R.E. Howard, and Andre Norton. So maybe I’m old-fashioned. But still. Grammar mistakes? I can deal. Punctuation problems? Eh, there’s always a typo daemon. Misuse of homonyms? Edit better next time, but if the story’s otherwise chugging along, I’ll ignore. Present tense stories, no.

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15 thoughts on “On Writing: Peeved at the Present

  1. I’ll admit to not thinking about tense and person when designing a story. I figure the important thing is to do an editing pass, and make sure they are consistent. But I’m not good enough yet for first versus third to be a critical question.

    I had a comment about second plural future perfect not making for a good story. Then my bunnies presented me with a lecturer walking a bunch of fairy cadets through a hypothetical mecha emergency. Okay, you’d probably need something beyond that to make a gripping story. If only that was the worst my bunnies have done this week. (In short, they’ve convinced me that Yoshika Miyafuji had some personality changes when she broke through as a spark.)

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  2. For some, few stories, present tense just works. I had a one shot I adored working on (on the hard drive that died. Rage) but it insisted on being present tense. I don’t much care for present tense stories, though I am waiting for the story of either tense that has the plot twist that it’s the protagonist’s ghost who’s telling it, so that was a head scratcher. But it worked. A bit more polish and I would have posted it. (Some middle scenes needed fleshing out, and some transitions were, not great. But it was by far the longest thing I have written that doesn’t make me cringe.)

    But most of the time? I don’t want a steam of conscious story, I can’t keep my head straight, why do I want to try to do it for someone else?

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  3. My preferred format is 3rd person past tense, but I’ve read good 1st person and/or present tense stuff. (And one very unique 2nd person present tense, which was still very good)

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  4. I typically prefer past tense too. The one big exception I’ve found for this is fan-fiction of videogames where the PoV is of the character the player plays. Videogame fan-fics are a bit different as the player is experiencing the game in present tense in the original medium so a lot of times, the fic can flow a lot better. So long as the tense is consistent that is…

    This is particularly true when the player character doesn’t have a per-determined backstory/personality by the game. I write Final Fantasy XIV fan-fics and the majority of the main character’s personality, reactions, backstory, etc. is left up to player to figure out as the story goes. Whenever I write about my specific character it’s all in 3rd-person past tense. But there was one fic where it was less about the character and more about the situation with a lot of theorycraft worked in. That one came out in 2nd person present tense right from the get-go and trying to make it past tense or 3rd person wrecked the flow of it.

    What stories written in present tense do for me that stories written in past tense don’t is introduce an element of the unknown and of motion. Past tense stories feel “finished” by default. Their endings are set in stone and they wouldn’t be being told otherwise. Present tense stories aren’t necessarily finished and there’s a sense that I am watching something as it unfolds. I guess it’s like with a past tense story I’m looking at a picture of an avalanche after it already happened while with a present tense story, I’m watching the avalanche happen.

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    1. Forgot to add something… I am very good at visualizing things in my head. When I read a book, I’m not seeing the words on the page so much as I’m seeing the scene the words are describing almost as if it’s a movie. Given that tense has very little to do with visualizing things, it doesn’t have much of an effect on what I’m seeing.

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  5. I second your “arggh . . . no, just no” on present tense.

    Part of that might be poor experience. The only present tense I have ever read was for English or Literature Classes and that was all of that gosh darn Literature novels that always infest such classes. Something about that tense just encourages my brain to ignore any input coming from the book, and it was already prone to doing that because I have found most stuff from English / Literature class to be among the most dull books I have ever read (only the law textbooks have them beat). Which means I can have read 20 pages and cannot tell a single thing about those pages because they just didn’t register.

    Sorry if that Modern Literature genre is your jam but I have yet to find one that did not bore me to tears. If I had been reading those books voluntarily, I would have never finished them. Heck, a lot of them I would have never picked up because reading the dust jacket inspired no desire to read them.

    (Classic Literature is different. For one thing, almost all of books like Pride and Prejudice were commercial fiction back in their day – they are considered classic lit now because it is old).

    (Or if you’re a mecha pilot? “No bleep, there I was….”)

    There is something to be said for starting the novel in medias res.

    Or the classic “Okay, by now, you might be wondering how I got in mess. Well it all started . . .”

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