April 28, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue
We’ll get to the survey shortly, but first…
Earlier this month, I wrote a post about things authors do that drive me insane. You can read it here. The thing is, even if a book contains one or more of my pet peeves, I will probably still finish it.
I’m a book junkie, I can’t help myself. I justify this behavior by telling myself that reading books I don’t like is actually helpful for me as a writer. By analyzing what I disliked about a book and where I think the author bombed, I’ve learned quite a bit about writing.
“Every book you pick up has its own lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.” – Stephen King, On Writing
Yesterday, I picked up a book and put it down before finishing the second chapter. I believe this is a first. Of the handful of books that I have not finished, I have made it through at least half of each one before throwing in the towel.
So, what was the kiss of death?
At first I thought it was that the book was written in present tense. I considered that for a moment and then remembered that some of my all-time favorite books are written in present tense: the Disillusionists Trilogy by Carolyn Crane and Choke and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.
Aha! I’ve got it! The present tense books I like were written in first person, the abandoned book was written in third.
Apparently third person POV combined with present tense is my kryptonite.
I just can’t do it. It physically pains me. While the present tense should make me feel like I’m right there in the action, the addition of third person narration has the opposite effect. It distances me. It makes me feel like I’m listening to someone read the script from a screenplay. I just can’t shake the notion that I’m listening to someone give direction to actors, so I can’t settle in and immerse myself in the story.
So, having come to this understanding about myself, I went out to the interwebs to see if this is a common reaction to present tense writing.
I was not at all surprised to see the word “screenplay” repeated by so many of the people complaining about present tense novels. What did surprise me was just how vehemently so many readers hate anything in present tense regardless of POV, to the point of refusing to even consider reading a novel written in present tense.
More importantly, I found an article that has a nice summation of why present tense is so hard for many of us to accept.
“Reading a fiction novel requires the reader to suspend disbelief to some degree to get wrapped up in a story we know isn’t true, and a present tense novel can require an extra suspension of disbelief to accept the idea that events are unfolding right now.” – Grammar Girl, Present Tense Books
I guess what I’m saying is: “For the love of triple fudge brownies, do not give me a book in 3rd person present tense.”
You could call this a personal bias, but there’s enough debate over it on the interwebs that I feel fairly justified in warning writers away from present tense in general. Unless you have a very specific reason for choosing present tense, you’re probably only risking alienating a substantial portion of your possible audience.
I could go on, but I’ll leave you with some links on the topic if you really want to explore this further.
Past Tense or Present Tense? by Les Edgerton. Edgerton explains why it’s a fallacy that present tense makes writing seem more immediate.
Present Tense vs. Past Tense in Young Adult Novels at the How to Write Shop
Writing Fiction in the Present Tense at Precise Edit’s Blog. This post explains the pitfalls you can fall into when writing in present tense that will annoy the reader.
Why do people hate the present tense? Forum discussion at NaNoWriMo
Some very quick thoughts on present tense at Editorial Ass
Writing in Present Tense Might be a Bad Idea at The Writeditor