When I first started telling stories almost all third-person fiction (and first-person for that matter) was written in the past tense:
Carlos went into the dealership and looked around. He knew the salespeople would descend on him soon, and it was all he could do to stand his ground.
Past tense means the events happened some time ago, and you’re writing about them as such. The story already happened, and you’re telling it to someone at a later time.
For fifty years prior to my own apprenticeship, everyone who had any interest in telling stories also secretly aspired to writing the Great American Novel. You weren’t a real writer if you didn’t have an unfinished novel in your desk.
At about the same time that I was learning my craft, however, something was happening in Hollywood that would change all that. Directors like Coppola and Spielberg and Lucas were breaking out of the classic Hollywood production pipeline and bringing wildly entertaining and successful movies to the screen. The documents they worked from — the scripts — were also becoming literary properties in themselves. Writers were starting to sell scripts outright, and some of those scripts were selling for what anybody would call a chunk of money.
Almost overnight — by which I mean the five year span between the early and late 1980’s — writers went from having novels in their desks to having screenplays in their desks. When Syd Field published a book called Screenplay the gold rush was on.
Now, what’s interesting about screenplays is that they’re all written in third person, present tense, as if the action is happening right now:
Carlos goes into the dealership. He looks around, spots a salesman. The salesman flashes a white-bright smile and steams over. Carlos looks for a place to hide.
I don’t know if anyone has ever documented the influence of pop-culture screenwriting on the world of fiction, but in the early 90’s I had the distinct impression that third-person, present-tense fiction was becoming more and more popular, while third-person fiction written in the past tense seemed to rapidly fall out of style. And I don’t think that was a coincidence.
One reason I make this point (whether it’s been made elsewhere or not) is because it reveals an ugly and constant truth about the world of fiction. Many (if not most) of the stories you read at any given time are written not in the pure service of craft, but at least partly in the service of trends. Some of these trends help break molds, of course, but others are simply cliquey conventions.
The main reason I make this point, however, is to show how literary trends can work against authorial goals. It may at first blush seems as if third-person, present-tense fiction is no different from third-person, past-tense fiction, but that’s not the case. Choosing one over the other is not simply a preference, it’s a craft choice, and the effects of each on the audience are different.
Third-person, past-tense stories have the advantage of being more natural. From the time we’re children we learn to tell about the events of our lives in the past tense, because that’s quite literally the way in which such events plays out. We go to school, we get beat up, we go home, we tell about it in the past tense because it happened in the past.
In fiction, this imitation of the natural, logical method of telling about events that we all use in our own lives helps facilitate the reader’s suspension of disbelief. It takes little effort for the reader to believe that the past-tense fiction they’re reading is believable precisely because the point-of-view technique being used mimics the way in which they hear stories from all sources. For example: almost all newspaper reporting is in the past tense precisely because the events being reported have already transpired.
Present-tense fiction does not have this advantage. Instead, present-tense fiction mortgages a bit of structural familiarity for a hoped-for increase in tension. The goal is very much like the difference between a story printed in the newspaper the next day, and a live on-the-scene report of something that is happening in real time.
Except…no reader thinks that what’s being told to them in present-tense fiction is actually happening at that moment. This in turn creates a disconnect: the reader is asked to believe that something is happening right now when it clearly isn’t — and the reader knows it isn’t because what they’re reading had to be printed at some earlier point. Yes, suspension of disbelief can solve this problem, but it’s a problem that past-tense stories simply do not have to solve.
To be sure, people are more comfortable reading present-tense fiction now precisely because it has become more common. Just as the jump cut in film used to elicit confusion in the theater, but can now be interpreted by almost anyone of any age, new techniques become part of the storytelling lexicon as mediums evolve.
The takeaway here is not that you shouldn’t use third-person, present-tense point of view. Rather, it’s that you shouldn’t use it simply because it’s what everyone else is doing. That’s not writing, that’s following the herd. (Admittedly this kind of herd instinct may make you more publishable at any given moment, in the same way that having the right buzzwords in your resume will mean you’re more likely to be hired. But it’s a given on this blog that writers shouldn’t be interested in how to suck up to people in power. They should be interested in telling the best stories they can tell.)
When you set out to write your next piece of fiction, whether it’s flash or a thousand-page epic, consider the craft choices available to you, then make the choices that are best for your story. There are plenty of people out there eager to take the next open spot in the literary clique. There are no people out there who will say what you have to say in the way you would say it if you had complete freedom to do so.
You have complete freedom to do so.
— Mark Barrett
Reading present tense is one of those things that pulls me out of the story. I have to think about the sentence and get lost. Therefore I don’t write in present. I didn’t realize that there were a lot of stories being written in present tense.
I (generally) feel the same way about present tense in fiction. The distraction fades as I read, but I’m never quite oblivious of it.
Conversely, present tense in a script seems to make complete sense to me. The script is a blueprint describing what the camera sees. Writing what the camera sees in past tense would make no sense. (Same goes for stage plays, which are also present tense.)
I don’t know what the percentage of present tense stories are these days, but it’s much more common than it used to be, and particularly so in literary works. (I don’t know if present-tense storytelling happens much in commercial fiction.)
I respectfully disagree with some of what you’ve said here, though I appreciate your attitude towards the subject. It’s a lot more open-minded than some other opinion pieces I’ve scene* about present tense writing.
*I just discovered this egregious typo, and it amuses me, so I’m leaving it in so that others may be amused as well. For any non-native speakers reading this comment, I meant “seen.”
“Third-person, past-tense stories have the advantage of being more natural.”
It’s all a matter of perspective. I may have agreed with you at one point in my life, before I really started writing consistently, but now that I have half a million words of fiction under my belt (almost exclusively written in present tense) I find both options equally natural, with one exception: my own work. When I reread or proofread work I wrote in past tense, it feels wrong to me, because I’ve been a present tense writer for many years now. It’s also my opinion that normalcy is relative, and as a young man (I’m 20) I’ve noticed that the manner in which my peers tell stories to their friends has been changing. In an informal situation, occasionally people say things like “so I’m sitting there and he comes up to me like ‘are you Janet?’ so I say ‘yeah I’m Janet'” etc. Using present tense to tell stories has become more common. I would estimate that it happens about a third of the time people my age decide to tell their friends about something that happened earlier that week. Language changes, and present tense is becoming more commonly recognised as a natural way to tell stories. (If you’re interested in video of this phenomenon, there’s a vine that begins “So I’m sitting there,” and you can probably find it if you search “barbecue sauce vine” on YouTube. It does have a bad word in it, though.) I’d also like to snarkily point out that for the rest of this same paragraph, you write in present tense 😛
“Rather, it’s that you shouldn’t use it simply because it’s what everyone else is doing.” I agree with this assertion, and it’s the main reason you’re getting a respectfully worded reply in a formal register instead of just “lol u sound like a high school english teacher, ok boomer” (I would never say that to you because you aren’t telling me present tense is terrible and should never be used, you’re merely responding to a trend you’ve noticed recently. I have no quarrel with you for that.)
One reason I strongly prefer present to past is to reduce my struggle with the perfect tense. When I try to write in past tense, I get confused about when I do and don’t need the perfect tense to put things further into the past, if that makes sense. To demonstrate what I mean, I’m going to write some inconsequential paragraph and then try to write the same thing in past tense.
Eileen has had her eye on George for the past ten minutes, and he hasn’t moved from his desk. At one point, she peeked around the corner of the doorway to see if Jane was on her way back, but that made her too afraid she was missing something on the George front, so now she just waits for Jane without taking her attention off of George.
Eileen had had her eye on George for the past ten minutes, and he hadn’t moved from his desk. At one point, she had peeked around the corner of the doorway to see if Jane–
Here is where I get confused. Do I say “if Jane was on her way back” or “if Jane had been on her way back”?
Continuing on, and skipping over the tricky bit:
…but that had made her too afraid she–
Another spot of confusion. Had been missing? Had missed? I have no idea what to put here. Past tense simply doesn’t mesh well with the style I’ve developed, and I hate writing in it. It’s a constant struggle of changing “says” to “said” and noticing I switched back to present tense for an entire chapter that I now have to fix, and it’s just so much easier for me to stick with present. (Also, “had had” is an inherently ugly sequence of words, and I think we all have a civic duty to avoid it as best we can. I also generally hate reading bits of stories where every verb has “had” in front of it. It’s just exhausting.)
Another reason I like present tense is because I post my stories online, on a platform where, if I want to italicise a large section of text, I have to type html tags around each and every paragraph by hand. When the bulk of my work is in present tense, I can differentiate between flashbacks and the present without any need for italics. The tense change takes care of it for me.
I will be honest, though. I originally began writing in present tense because everyone else in my niche community was doing it. As an author who formerly only wrote fanfiction, the first fandom I wrote a significant amount of transformative work for was Homestuck, which is a comic with substantial bits of narration written in second person, present tense. That alone didn’t change my style; it was the plethora of other stories written in second person present tense that really got me. I ended up immersing myself in these stories for several years, and to this day, I’m about five times more comfortable reading second person present tense than I am reading any kind of third person. I’m well aware that second person is unpopular, and for a while, I switched back to third person because in fandoms other than Homestuck I often got nasty comments from people who hated my style, and I wanted to stop losing half of my potential viewers just based on my narration style. I was insecure, and I wanted people to like my writing, so I changed it. However, I’ve come to realise that I really do like second person present tense better than third person present, and I can’t write past tense well enough to do the “normal” thing anyway, so I may as well just embrace my incredibly unusual writing style and continue on my merry way writing in second person present tense.
With regards to second person, one useful thing about it is that it adds an additional layer of differentiation to the narration, which is nice when you’re writing a fight scene or really any kind of interaction between two characters of the same gender, who would otherwise both be referred to by the same pronoun. Other authors can keep their epithets (“The blue-eyed one wrapped his arm around the brown-haired boy’s shoulders” etc)– I’ll be over here with my magic wand of automatic pronoun differentiation saying “You wrap your arm around his shoulders” like a regular human being who hasn’t been tricked by fanfiction into thinking that “the raven-haired girl” is an acceptable thing to say ten times per chapter.
Anyway, your open-minded attitude is refreshing. I appreciate that even though you feel that past tense is more natural, you aren’t speaking as though your opinion is the only acceptable one. It’s probably largely a generational difference, and that’s okay! We are allowed to want different things from the fiction we read.
Yeah please don’t sweat any typos. I can’t even spell my name right these days….
I agree with you that things are changing. There is a significant decrease in the formality of the forms we use to write fiction — in the same way that film and television eventually embraced techniques like jump cuts — and that is having an effect on what ‘feels’ natural.
There is also a lot more dramatizing of personal experiences, as you also note. You can almost see the camera placement in the way people communicate their personal experiences, and I think that probably derives from the ubiquity of lenses in our daily lives. (Even ten years ago we really didn’t have the kind of universal camera/video capability that we do now, where even a five-year-old child can ‘direct’ a narrative.)
And yes — complexities of tense are a hassle, and I battle them as well. Trying to maintain the correct tense in a flashback in which someone is talking about the future is maddening.
>> Here is where I get confused. Do I say “if Jane was on her way back” or “if Jane had been on her way back”? <> …but that had made her too afraid she– <<
Here I would just tweak the text you had in the first version:
–was missing something on the George front, so she just went back to waiting for Jane without taking her attention off George.
And yes, I don't like "had had", or "that that" for that matter. 🙂
As you said, I'm not pro-third-person, and if you have a style and tense that works for you — that makes sense, instead of presenting you with constant obstacles — then you should use it.
Writing is hard enough….
Great post. Interesting points on the relation between scripts and the third person, present tense style.
Valid point, Mark. And I would take that a step further by saying lots of fiction has been written in direction opposition to trends.
I agree that each perspective and tense creates a different effect but I’m strongly of the opinion that a story will call for a certain point of view or tense. If somebody ignores this instinct and their story still works, good luck to them. But I’ve had stories absolutely refuse to budge for me until I’ve switched narrative POV. Then, suddenly, liberation.
On the subject of the suspension of disbelief and narrative voice, I have heard of writers saying that writing fiction in third person is illogical. I have also heard writers say that first person is easy…
You’re right that people write against trends, too. The point, of course, would be to ignore trends and do what best suits each individual story — as you suggest in your next paragraph.
I don’t think third person is necessarily illogical, because I could write a report about a car wreck that took the third person. I do understand that there’s some fantasy involved in omniscient third person, where the author knows what every character is thinking in intimate detail. It takes a leap of faith to enter a story written like that, but it’s usually so entertaining the reader doesn’t care about any dissonance with reality.
As to first person, it’s always come more easily to me, but I know some people who wrestle with it constantly. I’ve become more interested in third person lately, simply because I have more opportunities to explore individual characters. I’m still on the fence as to whether this is a good thing, or something I really want to pursue.
Levi Montgomery says
You say that you go to school, get beat up, go home, and tell the story in past tense because it happened in past tense, and for most of us, that’s mostly true. We begin to tell stories of our past in past tense. But if you listen closely to people relating the events of their lives to others, you will hear a majority of them slipping into present tense during the crucial parts of their stories. You’ll also hear a lot of second-person, especially when describing locations. “So, I go into the break room, right? And when you go into the break room, the table’s right in front of you, and the microwave’s on your left, right? So anyways, he’s like hiding there, and he’s got this big knife…”
In short fiction, I can mange to stick to this pattern, telling the story mostly in past tense, slipping into present tense for those crucial “here and now” scenes (usually without even noticing it until I read it). In my first novel, though, I found myself repeatedly having to go back pages and pages and convert from present into past. Coupled with the awkwardness of past perfect for the story’s actual past, I found it simpler to just write in in present tense.
The funny thing is that until I started doing it myself, present tense always threw me for the first few pages, but I truly believe it is a better way to replicate the stories we tell each other in real life.
You’re right that tense changes in real life, and often fluidly. I wouldn’t dispute that at all. (Your example is excellent.)
I once kept a diary about gardening and yard work for a solid eight months. I wrote almost all of it in present tense because it felt right. Each day I would work in the garden or yard, then I would come inside and write the highlights down. Later, when I went back to clean up the inevitable carnage, I discovered that I couldn’t stand the present-tense point of view. (And I was surprised by the magnitude of my reaction.)
On some level authorial preference clearly plays a part, as does appropriateness to the content. My larger concern is that I think some (perhaps many) writers don’t address either of these considerations on the way to adopting a point of view. Rather, they simply mimic what they’re reading, or what’s popular/trendy.
It is ludicrous to believe only the past tense, be it 1st, second or third person is the correct way to present a narrative; how often do you walk around and extract people’s thoughts from their heads? The answer is never!! What you do in fact is watch people’s actions and listen to them and to present a story in way that focuses only on immediacy of action and dialogue is actually the most realistic POV because this is precisely how humans interact in real life, not the way in which billions of authors have and continue to demonstrate through employing past tense; a story about who wants what from whom and why now, not about who wanted what from whom and why they wanted it then?? Who gives a sh*t about back then, it is about now not then
It’s always interested me that some aspects of suspension of disbelief in a given medium seem to be more or less acceptable to specific individuals on an intrinsic basis. For example, when watching old-school cartoons involving a lot of gags and character violence/plasticity, I’ve actually witnessed someone saying, “Aw, that could never happen!”
Well, it’s a cartoon, and yes, in real life that could never happen. Yet despite the obviousness of this, somehow a specific action or gag will break suspension of disbelief or plausibility for that viewer. I, on the other hand, tend to view the choice to work in the medium of animation as a desire to do things that could never happen in real life, so I don’t ever have that reaction.
In the medium of writing, by which I mean anything that is delivered via text on a page, I tend to ‘see’ the medium as one which implies the past tense. If I want to write something in the present tense I tend to look at other, more vital mediums, like the stage play or film, because I know those mediums excel at present tense — and at the immediacy you speak so eloquently of.
In no case, however, do I do what you seem to do when you confront past tense, and that’s discount the value of the story because it’s not being presented as immediate. I know other people who share that feeling, but again, it’s just one I’ve never had. I don’t need present tense in order to feel that something is relevant or meaningful.
My point is not to say that anybody is right or wrong. And I certainly allow for generational changes in audience expectation over time. But in the end I think some people are just wired up to care about aspects of tense and point of view in an intrinsic way. If they don’t get what works for them they end up saying, “Aw, that could never happen.”
Himanshu Wilhelm says
For me it’s always been a matter of flow. Having “S” at the end of every verb Just doesn’t read as well.
Carlos goes into the dealership. He looks around, spots a salesman. The salesman flashes a white-bright smile and steams over. Carlos looks for a place to hide.
If your story is in first person, pluralization only need be applied to verbs for other characters/objects.
I go into the dealership. I look around, spot a salesman. The salesman flashes a white-bright smile and steams over. I look for a place to hide.
I find that the first person version a better read.
Here’s my attempt at writing first person in present tense:
“The knight awakens with a start, head pounding as he painfully crawls to his feet, battered body propped against his shattered halberd. Then the smells hit him. Blood, rotting corpses, and the worst, spilled entrails… He barely manages to hold onto his lunch long enough to sunder his dented bascinet…”
My passion for storytelling began when I started running Dungeons & Dragons games when I was 7. This was before I’d read even a single novel. When I finally started to read novels for fun I was put off by the past tense paradigm. It all seemed so distant. The stories had already happened and the peril wasn’t compelling because everything obviously came out all right because someone was telling the story of it later. Roleplaying games take place in present tense. That was the storytelling voice I grew up with. In my later youth I studied filmmaking and wrote screenplays. Again, all in present tense. I struggled in my fiction writing because I would slip back and forth between past and present tense on accident and, of course, my teachers would smack me down and insist I stuck with past tense. But past tense wasn’t my jam. I thought writing wasn’t for me because I was obviously “doing it wrong.” When I finally sat down to write my first novel as a mature writer, I chose present tense because that’s the only voice that feels vibrant and meaningful to me.
Gus Wah says
I’ve just read with awe “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. (Unfortunately I haven’t yet read his other works, but I certainly will now.)
Doerr wrote the entire 500-page novel in omniscient third-person present tense. Although some comments above suggest that readers could find this taxing, I didn’t. Not at all. Not once did I find myself hungry for the story told in the past because of the masterful way the sentences are crafted. Yes, the story unfolds in the present. But it feels like past. I just opened randomly and excerpted this:
“In the afternoon, the recruits run. They crawl under obstacles, do push-ups, scale ropes suspended from the ceiling—one hundred children passing sleek and interchangeable in their white uniforms like livestock before the eyes of the examiners. Werner comes in ninth in the shuttle runs. He comes in second to last on the rope climb. He will never be good enough.
In the evening, the boys spill out of the hall, some met by proud-looking parents with automobiles, others vanishing purposefully in twos and threes into the streets: all seem to know where they’re going. Werner makes his way alone to a spartan hostel six blocks away, where he rents a bed for two marks a night and lies among muttering itinerants and listens to the pigeons and bells and shuddering traffic of Essen.”
Doerr would probably regard this among his least colorful passages. For sure there are hundreds much better. But I think the remarkable thing is that my brain follows the story in the present, and yet sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, the style creates a trail that instantly becomes the past. As it should.
I’m in the midst of my first book, but I’m struggling with the question that brought me here. I think the take-away is that present tense is great if you know what you’re doing. Probably not so good for writers who don’t.
D.J. Paolini says
I know it is an oversimplification, but for me, in I see third-person past tense as bringing the reader *to* the story. Third-person present tense brings the story to the reader. So, it depends on your objective as an author—or—so, it depended on the objective you’d had in mind for the reader.
In first-person, present tense also wraps the story around the reader, while past tense is memoir-like, taking the reader back. So, once again, it depends/it depended/it would depend.
Present tense presents—no pun intended—challenges to me as a reader due to the inherent incongruity in flashbacks, as well as when the story itself is set in an identifiable period in the past, such as a WWII romance. Typically, after a half-dozen pages, I can lose the idea that I am reading someone’s script and begin to lose myself in the story. But that’s just me.
The tense is the author’s choice but making that choice because one is confused by tenses is risky. And just because something has become commonplace does not mean it will last or is preferred. e.g. In film, I’m okay with jump cuts but I find most fast cuts too hyper and unnecessary, appealing to a generation without an attention span. But I’m also not looking for every filmed story to eliminate discourse like 1917.