Writing a novel in past or present tense makes some people crazy. It seems when you stray from the standard mainstream way of novel writing, it causes an unsettling raucous among the people.
Is there a wrong tense to write a novel?
I have written everything from newspaper articles, term papers, thesis, and detailed reports to crime fiction. It’s important to grammatically write a report correctly. Nevertheless, what about writing fiction with fantasy, mystery, or even romance elements? Is it important to make sure that ALL your sentences pass the fussy editor’s test?
I read a novel not too long ago and I noticed that all the sentences were beautifully edited and each sentence was about the same length throughout the entire book. The structure was tight and pretty. What struck me was that even though the story was strong and engaging, the perfectly edited sentences actually made the story boring. It took something away from it.
Let me be clear, no matter what you are writing it should be edited with proper punctuation, grammar, tenses and without passive sentences (unless in certain instances it’s a part of the dialogue or in a report). But that doesn’t mean boring and tedious!
What about once word sentences? Isn’t that technically incorrect?
I’m sure there are editing mistakes in this post (passive sentences, split infinitives, etc.), but does it take away from the readability of the subject?
Now let me tell you an interesting story …
A few years ago as I began gathering all of my thoughts, research and outline for my first novel Compulsion, I was going to write a screenplay. What I realized halfway through the outline process was that it should be a novel. It flowed more like a novel and I became very excited because I had always wanted to write a book.
Now, you have to realize that scripts are written in present tense. It takes viewers into the moment of what’s going on right now. Of course, there are some exceptions to movies with flashbacks and narrations, but for the most part the actual script is written in the present tense.
I struggled with writing Compulsion in the present tense or the standard third person narrative for quite some time. I felt that it puts the readers into the here and now, and adds more excitement to the story. I asked friends, writers, avid readers, publishers and editors for their opinion on the subject. Oh my! I opened a big can of worms with that question. It divided everyone about 50/50 on the subject.
Wow, I never realized it was such a hot topic!
I made an executive decision to write Compulsion in the present tense. I know that some of you shudder at the thought. In fact, I’ve had a couple of people tell me that it’s wrong (they were angry) and that they couldn’t possibly read a novel in the present tense because it’s too distracting. On the other hand, I’ve had many avid readers tell me that it put them straight into the action with the serial killer and Emily Stone and they loved it.
However, I chose to write Dead Game and Dark Mind in the third person narrative. It was decision I made based on the flow of the stories and the main character. Another series could be a different story.
I run all my stories through the Big Three: third person narrative, first person narrative, and present tense. I strongly suggest for all writers take about ten pages from their manuscript and rewrite with each of these tenses and study each one. You might be surprised what jumps out at you!
So the big question…
Is there a wrong tense to write a novel?
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When Serial Killers Terrorize a California Beach Community, One Woman Stands in Their Way
“Jennifer Chase chose to write this story in the present tense which is a difficult task. She pulls it off, mostly due to the character of Emily Stone and the intense terror of the story. You can’t put it down as Emily moves closer to resolving the case at great personal risk.” ~ Mike McNeff, crime fiction author
“If you enjoy crime thrillers, Chase’s forensics and criminology background is definitely evident. The main character Emily Stone, acting as a mystery writer, dedicates her life to tracking serial killers of children and then anonymously sends the information to police, assuring and arrest and conviction. There’s plenty of drama, action, intrigue, and even romance.” ~ Mystery Lover
“Jennifer Chase has written a thriller that goes on stimulating the reader long after he or she is through with the book. This is heart pounding suspense as well. The prose throughout is by a bestselling author and in this case, the bestselling Author is without a doubt, Author Jennifer Chase. She delivers monumentally.” ~ Glen Cantrell, author and avid reader
I started writing in the present tense, but then my wife reminded me that “past tense is better”. I know better than to argue with her so I went with what she said.
I think any tense works, if utilized well. I like your experiment idea! Seems useful for anyone in doubt.
Thanks for this post, Jennifer. I enjoyed it so much because I doubled down on “wrong” and not only is my crime novel in the present tense, it’s told in second person. Some people might not give it a chance, but others will decide that it’s been, what? Twenty-seven years since Bright Lights, Big City? Naysayers will have to gird their loins, I guess, but I refuse to dance for naysayers. I wrote it that way for several reasons, and not as a gimmick. It’s revealed at the end of the novel why it’s written as it is (and I’m loud and proud about my book.) We have to get past the idea of rules and drill down deeper into what works, what serves the story, and what, in the writer’s judgment, will be the right POV and tense. I don’t write for a theoretical reader in the future. I write for myself and whoever wants to board my party bus is welcome. Cheers!
I’ve tried both past and present tense and didn’t mind either. They worked well! Though I’m not sure I would like a novel in future tense. Seems a bit weird.
Personally I like past tense. It flows better for me as a reader. I understand the immediacy of present tense. However, I’ve read some present tense that jumps a little, switching to past tense at weird times, even in the middle of a sentence, making me think that it is a litte harder to write. A lot of it depends on the reader, the nature of the story, the voice, and so much more. I don’t think there’s a wrong way or a right way. You’re going to alienate someone no matter how hard you try.
The publishing industry is changing. In a generation or two it’ll be anyone’s guess what will be accetable or not. If you are writing to make money, keeping your readers happy is your first concern. If you are writing for yourself, there are no rules.
Great advice on writing ten pages to choose a tense. I have found that third person narrative is the safest for me. I feel awkward using first person. And, you’re right, present tense drives me crazy, whether I write it or read it.
I love to play with tenses and voice in my work. I choose them based on how the characters or story feels to me and how intimate I want the reader to be with the MC or how much information I want to share about events outside the MC’s knowledge. Sometimes I play around inside a story. Right now, I’m working on an apocalyptic novel with 14 year old twins as the main characters. I want to tell bits of the story from different perspectives and give the reader info that the MCs couldn’t know, so I chose third person. Guess you’d call it third person deep because I focus on one character’s voice at a time. I’m writing it in the past tense which seems standard for me. I have used present tense for flash fiction pieces and dreams within stories. I haven’t done a longer piece in present tense but I have seen it done successfully.
I love to play around with sentences length too. In my flash fic, I use a lot of fragments to squeeze as much as I can into the word count. I also find it tends to turn up the tension, so I also use it in action sequences or whenever I want to speed up the pace of the story. I personally wouldn’t use super short sentences and fragments through an entire long work though…I think it’d just be too much.
Thought provoking post. Thanks for sharing!
Good Morning Jennifer…Since I’ve read all of your books, you “could” say that either works for me…but I prefer third person… But, more importantly, consistency throughout the entire book and each and every sentence is most important for me! I really get upset when in third person, then present tense verbs are thrown in!
And, with my respects to Sonia, I really have problems with changing the POV…Think about it from the reader’s standpoint…We barely get one character’s name in mind, and then another character starts talking…I’m reading one now and I find myself going back pages to see who is talking, right now! I’ve also discovered that some authors repeat material based upon changing POV…which I find redundant.
I don’t mind having a flexible eye. I accepted a screenwriting setup for a novel once and followed it as a novel…because it worked…but that’s unusual. I think if writers want to flex their wings that they should get feedback from readers before they decide. Your experiment with 10 pages is good from a writing standpoint, but remember, writers get to know their characters and material intimately. Not so, with your readers. If you make us work to follow your book, you will lose many…