present tense

Writing Is A Bad Habit: A Tense Agreement a.k.a. The Importance of, duh, Tense Agreement As An Element of Style

Yes, that was a pun in the title, though a very simple and obvious one. Groans are appreciated.

Seriously, though, this week we need to talk about the importance of tenses and tense agreement, specifically through the lens of the style of your writing. Now, obviously, keeping your tenses straight when writing is critical. The tenses you use form what could be likened as time-stamps for the actions that are described in the book. When these time-stamps are misused, confusion reigns supreme!

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Writing Is A Bad Habit: A Clear and Present (Tense) Danger!

I’ll be frank, folks.  I’m not a fan at all of the present tense, at least for the purposes of fiction.  That’s not to say that there can’t be a good piece of literature written in the present tense … it’s certainly possible … but it requires just the right premise to come off correctly and, in my opinion, works best for short stretches or, obviously, appropriately used in dialogue.  So, with my own personal preferences put out there, let me then bring up the actual topic of this article, which is hopefully wiped clean of my own prejudices.

The point is that, if you do decide to extensively use the present tense in your works, be extremely careful to use it correctly.  The clear and present danger I see on a regular basis in the books I review among those who use the present tense is a strange and unflinching need to write every clause, every sentence, every verb in the present tense.  The problem with this should be glaringly obvious: even in a present tense piece, if the narrative speaks of future or past events relative to the time frame of the narrative, you still need to use the appropriate tense to have it make sense.

If you have a sentence that says ‘Bob goes to the store like he goes to the store last Saturday’, that is obviously wrong, right?  Yet, I often see this sort of mistake done repeatedly in present-tense books so it’s a pitfall I feel I should spread the word about to those writers who use present-tense.  Working in the present is a challenge, I won’t deny it, and its nature of each sentence living in the ‘now’ can make for difficulties in tense agreement.  This is the most basic manifestation of that challenge and writers need to stay vigilant for it.

There are a variety of other challenges that present themselves for present-tense writers.  The other one that I would say I have encountered the most is lack of continuity control, especially in a present-tense piece that shifts points of view.  When you have a narrative that is continually set in the now, there is a certain extra edge of precision that comes up.  You need to constantly keep in mind the exact order of operation of events so that you can keep up the proper tense usage moment by moment, as well as ensure that, for each sentence, your narrative doesn’t lose track of what has happened when.

Think of it as each action in the narrative as a tick of the clock.  The next sentence or action is the next tick.  In a past-tense narrative, you have a bit of ambiguity on your side, as all actions take place in the past.  If you do make an error in order, it’s less likely to be noticed as you are less likely to make tense mistakes.  In the present-tense, it’s easy to make a slip up and it’s far easier to be noticed.  It can even cause an unintended chain-reaction of continuity flaws as you make one tense error, miss the mistake, and take it as the new continuity of action.  Again, this can happen with all tense of narrative, but it is easier to make that mistake in present-tense narratives with their added complexity.

So, if you want to write your works in the present tense, be extra careful as you work.  Be ever vigilant for tense agreement and continuity snarls or they will confuse and turn off your readers!  Until next time, good luck and good writing!

A Writing Lab Experiment: The Second Person Set-Up

As I sat down this morning to eat my Cheerios and map out my work for the day, I had a strange notion.  Now, for those who have read some of my previous musings, like this one on perspectives, you know that I’m not a big fan of present tense writing and I didn’t even bother to take a look at the second person perspective before.  My strange notion was that, perhaps, I was being a bit quick to judge both the use of that tense and that perspective.

That’s not to say that I still don’t think they are inherently clunky and difficulty to use, but what I did realize is that the present tense combined with a second person perspective had a certain undeniable draw.  If you set up the story correctly, it could make for a very fascinating piece, combining elements of the first and third person viewpoints in a fairly novel way.  The problem, of course, is that it may wind up just a bit too strange to write well.

The thing is that I am now willing to give it a try.  Nothing novel-length yet … I have already established a writing style for each of my two trilogies and I don’t have the time to go off on a tangent that large.  A short story, though, could make for a fun diversion, especially if it ties in to the other narratives.

So, what do you fine folks think?  Do you think I should experiment with this while I have the time?  Let me know!