Present tense/past tense question

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Zenwalrus
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Present tense/past tense question

Postby Zenwalrus » Fri Jan 12, 2018 10:25 am

Hello everyone,
I'm working on a novel and I have a question about tense. The main plot of the novel takes place in a single day, but there are also numerous flashbacks - probably 40-50% of the text. So far I'm writing in PRESENT tense during the main part of the book and in PAST tense during the flashbacks.
I'm wondering if this is a terrible idea. On one hand I feel like the past tense sections will help the reader subconsciously remember that they're reading a flashback, and a switch to present tense will bring them back to the main action. But on the other hand, I'm worried mixing tenses like this could take readers out of the book completely. I also have concerns with present tense novels in general.
Should I just scrap the present tense altogether, write the whole thing in past tense, and hope the context of the book will show the reader whether or not it's a flashback?
Thanks in advance!

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ostarella
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Re: Present tense/past tense question

Postby ostarella » Fri Jan 12, 2018 11:19 am

Let me first say that I'm not generally a fan of present tense, either as a writer or a reader. There are too many limitations - but that's me. As to flashbacks, those should be "offset" some way so people know, regardless of the tense used, that it is, indeed, a flashback. In my own writing, I use ***** between current and flashback segments. Others use italics or indentations. Regardless, there is generally some physical segmentation. The other thing about flashbacks is that the very nature of them means you are going *back* in time - so the events and characters are actually occurring in the present. They're different from the characters just remembering something while in the present. Thus, the decision on what tense to use should be based on the same reasoning as in the non-flashback segments.
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Zenwalrus
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Re: Present tense/past tense question

Postby Zenwalrus » Fri Jan 12, 2018 11:33 am

ostarella wrote:
> ... there is generally some physical
> segmentation. The other thing about flashbacks is that the very nature of
> them means you are going *back* in time - so the events and characters are
> actually occurring in the present. They're different from the characters
> just remembering something while in the present. Thus, the decision on what
> tense to use should be based on the same reasoning as in the non-flashback
> segments.

This is TERRIFIC advice. Thank you. I didn't think of it quite that way before. Originally I planned to write in first person, so the "flashbacks" would actually be "memories." But now I'm leaning toward third person, so your advice makes a lot of sense. Thanks!

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wdarcy
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Re: Present tense/past tense question

Postby wdarcy » Fri Jan 12, 2018 12:51 pm

As a reader I really hate present tense. Hate it, hate it, hate it. Every verb reminds me I am reading a story, and that takes me out of the story. As a result, I refuse to read present-tense stories or novels. And I am not unique.

My advice would be to scrap present tense so you don't alienate readers like me. It's not difficult to cue a flashback, perhaps through a time stamp, but use them sparingly, because it's the main story line that counts.

--Warren
"Wagner's 'Das Rheingold'" (Oxford 1993). Winner of the Society for Music Theory's Wallace Berry Award, 1995.

"Elements of Sonata Theory" co-authored with James Hepokoski(Oxford 2006). Winner of the Society for Music Theory's Wallace Berry Award, 2008.

Zenwalrus
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Re: Present tense/past tense question

Postby Zenwalrus » Fri Jan 12, 2018 1:01 pm

wdarcy wrote:
> As a reader I really hate present tense. Hate it, hate it, hate it. Every
> verb reminds me I am reading a story, and that takes me out of the story.
> As a result, I refuse to read present-tense stories or novels. And I am
> not unique.
>
> My advice would be to scrap present tense so you don't alienate readers
> like me. It's not difficult to cue a flashback, perhaps through a time
> stamp, but use them sparingly, because it's the main story line that
> counts.
>
> --Warren

Thanks Warren! Yeah, that's what I'm learning. Some of my favorite recent novels have been present tense, but yes, I agree, if it's not done well it can be off-putting. In my situation, I feel like it would be easier to write the book in present tense, so my laziness is motivating me to use it, haha... But I guess nobody said writing a novel was supposed to be easy, right? Thanks again for your great advice.

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Re: Present tense/past tense question

Postby RobTheThird » Fri Jan 12, 2018 1:29 pm

There are numerous viewpoints on present tense, sort of like the (in)famous prologue question. I have one work that refuses to write out in anything but present tense. It seems the story wants the reader to "be there as it happens." I tried to write it past tense, and the characters fought me with every single word that denoted tense. So... present tense.

Here's the way I see it: The reader isn't flashing back. You, the writer, are not flashing back. So who is flashing back? How are they experiencing that flashback? Is it them telling themselves or someone else what happened "back then"? When I tell someone about a past event, I speak in past tense. Would your character do the same? Mine would. Is your character experiencing the flashback as if they are actually there? Just last night, I had a dream (see the past tense?). In the dream, I'm walking through a wood (now I change to past tense, because in my head, I'm there all over again). I come upon a mound taller than I am. I notice that it's a fuzzy mound. Wait, it's not fuzzy. Those are ants, each one as big as my pinkie finger. So thick on the mound that they're like a skin. Suddenly, the skin stops, and I realize that every single ant is staring at me.

LOL, that actually happened, that dream. I want to do something with that. I'll see if I can. Creepiness aside, though, like I said in parentheses, when I told you that it happened, I naturally went to past tense. Then my recollection brought me right to that moment, and my head was in present tense. My language reflected that (I think).

Don't think of it like writing. Think of it as what your characters are experiencing, and how your characters would express that.

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Re: Present tense/past tense question

Postby Zenwalrus » Fri Jan 12, 2018 1:51 pm

RobTheThird wrote:
> There are numerous viewpoints on present tense, sort of like the (in)famous
> prologue question. I have one work that refuses to write out in anything
> but present tense. It seems the story wants the reader to "be there
> as it happens." I tried to write it past tense, and the characters
> fought me with every single word that denoted tense. So... present tense.
>
> Here's the way I see it: The reader isn't flashing back. You, the writer,
> are not flashing back. So who is flashing back? How are they experiencing
> that flashback? Is it them telling themselves or someone else what
> happened "back then"? When I tell someone about a past event, I
> speak in past tense. Would your character do the same? Mine would.
...

> Don't think of it like writing. Think of it as what your characters are
> experiencing, and how your characters would express that.

Man, this is fantastic... this is what I've been trying to put into words. Thank you Rob. You've given me a lot to think about... and a new nightmare to look forward to (haha).

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wdarcy
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Re: Present tense/past tense question

Postby wdarcy » Fri Jan 12, 2018 2:35 pm

A dream is, of course, different from a flashback. A dream sequence by its very nature is an artificial construction, so the artificiality of present tense might work here. I'm not a fan of dream sequences, but I have written a few, always in past tense. But I can see how present tense would also work.

One word of caution: always let your reader know in advance that it's a dream. Don't let him think it's really happening and then "surprise" him at the end. He won't thank you for it. "It was all a dream" is one of the worst mistakes you as a writer can commit. The only thing worse is to then have the awakened sleeper begin to experience in reality the things he was just dreaming about.

--Warren
"Wagner's 'Das Rheingold'" (Oxford 1993). Winner of the Society for Music Theory's Wallace Berry Award, 1995.

"Elements of Sonata Theory" co-authored with James Hepokoski(Oxford 2006). Winner of the Society for Music Theory's Wallace Berry Award, 2008.

RobTheThird
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Re: Present tense/past tense question

Postby RobTheThird » Fri Jan 12, 2018 2:59 pm

wdarcy wrote:
> A dream is, of course, different from a flashback. A dream sequence by its
> very nature is an artificial construction, so the artificiality of present
> tense might work here. I'm not a fan of dream sequences, but I have
> written a few, always in past tense. But I can see how present tense would
> also work.
>
> One word of caution: always let your reader know in advance that it's a
> dream. Don't let him think it's really happening and then
> "surprise" him at the end. He won't thank you for it. "It
> was all a dream" is one of the worst mistakes you as a writer can
> commit. The only thing worse is to then have the awakened sleeper begin to
> experience in reality the things he was just dreaming about.
>
> --Warren
Warren:

The dream, wasn't the point. Me recounting that dream, that was the point.

"Let me tell you about this dream I had last night. In the dream, I'm walking..."

Telling, for me in that description, happened in past tense. Experiencing, that was present tense.

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wdarcy
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Re: Present tense/past tense question

Postby wdarcy » Fri Jan 12, 2018 3:53 pm

I understand, Rob. But you know, if I were telling someone about a dream I had, I believe I would do it in past tense. "Let me tell you about this dream I had last night. I was walking through a wood...." etc.

The situation in which I would use present tense is if I were telling someone about a recurrent dream, one I keep having, night after night. "Let me tell you about this dream I keep having. It's always the same, every night. I'm walking through a wood..."

--Warren
"Wagner's 'Das Rheingold'" (Oxford 1993). Winner of the Society for Music Theory's Wallace Berry Award, 1995.

"Elements of Sonata Theory" co-authored with James Hepokoski(Oxford 2006). Winner of the Society for Music Theory's Wallace Berry Award, 2008.

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