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23: When should you use present tense?

This week, authors J. Thorn and Crys Cain discuss the benefits of defferent tenses and POVs, as well as what other elements influence your choice for your story.

Transcript

Crys: Hello and welcome to the TASM podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my co-host J Thorn. 

J: Hi, Crys, how are you doing today? 

Crys: Hot! Which I didn’t say 20 minutes ago when we started recording. Because once again, we are batching for the summer craziness, summer of chaos. And it is going to be a wild one.

J: I have something that I don’t know if it’s going to make you happy or sad, but today is the first day I’m running my air conditioner unit in my office. 

Crys: And it’s July 15th? I’m like… the first AC I had was like getting on the plane to go to Salem in like a year and a half. So I was like, I just don’t even have. reference for that. I’m really excited to have AC in the van driving up though. That was lovely. 

J: Yeah, for sure. 

Crys: Yeah, today we’ve got the fans going I have one downstairs. I have one upstairs and we’re just occasionally standing in front of them to cool down. Cause it’s just one of those days.

Because we are a batch recording. We don’t have a lot of updates since our last week’s recording because only five minutes has past, but we do have comments from episode 20, which is how do you cope with perfectionist tendencies?

Kim sets deadlines for herself. They’re arbitrary, she indie publishes, but it gives her the focus of getting good enough out the door. 

Ram says “for me, the perfectionist tendencies are less about not producing and more about the fallout feelings of putting out something. I consider less than perfect. I am not very compassionate with myself once something is out there that I don’t feel it’s up to par. My question is how do you develop that competence muscle?” 

We’re actually going to dig into this in a future episode. 

“And how do you develop. That feeling of this product is good enough for today. And even if it’s not perfect, I am good enough.” And in answer Adam said for me, the drive is not one of being “right or better than, or to win. Rather the drive is to establish value and worth. And, dare I say, a positive self-esteem. I don’t mind feeling. I like it actually, because I can fail and learn and try again. What I mind is one failing at the expense of others. For example, learning to be a father when I was still very much an immature broken human.

“And to receiving the external pressures of rejection and judgment and comparison and critical that resulted in my failure. For example, becoming a career student obtaining degree after three and never being good enough for my colleagues.” 

And thank you, Adam, for sharing such vulnerable example of your experience.

J: We have some really wise people in our community. 

Crys: I agree. 

This week we are going to discuss a craft question, which has been a minute since we’ve done that. And this again came up from our group. Someone noted that they’ve been seeing a lot of books that are in present tense and that’s not something that they’re particularly used to.

So I thought it’d be really good to discuss as writers. When should you choose to set a story in present tense versus past tense. 

J: Oh, this is going to be one of those answers. That’s going to be completely unsatisfying. You know what I’m going to say?

Crys: It depends! 

J: It depends.  Yes. I think it really depends on the genre and here’s the perfect example. If you are going to write a why a urban fantasy, you are probably. Best off writing in first person past tense. It doesn’t mean you can’t write in third person omniscient. It doesn’t mean you can’t write in second person present because we all know that, wherever there’s writing rules, someone’s going to break them.

And there’s going to be an example of that, but generally speaking readers of YA urban fantasy expect a first person protagonist. That’s got a little snark, maybe a little attitude, maybe a little sarcasm or sense of humor. That’s what their expectation is. 

So I think it’s another reminder for us as authors, that we are really here to serve readers and we always have to remember what the reader experience is going to be. So as an author, I might hate writing in first person, or I might hate reading in second person, but I always have to go back to the market and I always have to pay attention to the readers who are going to be purchasing this book. What do they expect from the story?

And that’s where I think you have to find your answer. 

Crys: I think it is definitely a combo. genre and current trends because whether it’s past or present is more than norm changes over time.  

At some point, there will be a big book that steps away from the normal trend and people start moving towards that trend. This happens naturally over time. If you look at, from Austen to now, the way we write popular fiction changes based on expectations of the time.  

That’s why a lot of older books will have a similar feel, language, style and current books will have a similar feel, language, style. I can’t remember who it was that said that they’d seen a lot more present tense. That’s a signal of expectations changing. 

J: Absolutely. Totally agree with that. And I think it reinforces this idea that it’s less about what you prefer and more about what the readers want.  

That’s where you you get into trouble thinking like I really hate second person.

That might be fine. And that’s a very legitimate opinion to have, but if the trend or the reader expectation is second person, and that’s the genre you’re writing in, you’re going to run into problems. 

Crys: Absolutely. Now, I do think that there are certain strengths of the different tenses present tense it’s strength is immediacy.

A lot of thrillers will often be written in present tense so that you have more of things are happening now. The danger is right around the corner. That’s one of the strengths of present tense. 

One of the strengths of past tense is that you have this idea that things have already happened. And so if you are telling information slightly out of order, or have more of an omniscient point of view, the past tense will feel more natural because the subconscious understanding is that we are looking at the past and so we know more, we can jump from character to character and know more about what’s going on and that feels natural.

J: Yes. Agreed. I think too, there’s I dunno if intimacy is the right word, but in second person, there is a sense of intimacy or closeness, because if you think about a lot of storytelling that you do naturally in the presence of other people, a lot of that could be second person. 

Crys: Do you mean first person?

Second person is– 

J: –the you, right? So Like giving people don’t do this anymore. I was going to say directions, you would give directions in second person present tense. You go down to the corner and then you turn right. 

I have no scientific evidence to back this up, maybe JP will come up with a study for us, but I’m guessing most mainstream popular fiction over the past. 30 years has been primarily third-person past tense. And so I think that is that sort of become the default standard for a lot of us but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the predominant way that humans communicate.

Crys: Absolutely. And we can get into like little side conversation on the point of views, because it’s a very similar kind of choice when we are choosing what tense we’re going to write in, we’re also choosing what point of view we’re writing in and that’s that first person, second person or third person. And then third person has limited omniscient, all those good things. 

If you’re not familiar with those, I’m going to give a brief rundown. 

First person is that “I did this” style. So the person is telling you the story immediately. Like when your friend is telling you a story, they’re telling you in first person, “I did it.”

Second person is the “you” form. You did this, you were that, you ran down the street. This isn’t used a ton in fiction it’s used in experimental fiction occasionally. Sometimes it’s used in epistolary fiction. Which is letter fiction, where stories are told through letter writings. ” Do you remember when we…” that’s a mix of  first person and second person. 

And then third person is when there’s a narrator standing outside of the story, narrating it. And J said, this is the one we’re often most familiar with. That’s where you refer to people by their names. Dave walked down the road and saw Angela. They didn’t know it, but the monster was around the corner. So referring to people by other pronouns other than I or you, basically.

J: Yes. 

Crys: And then omniscient versus limited is you are using those third person pronouns, “Dave walked down the street,” but you stay only in his head for that scene. Whereas omniscient, you can head hop from a person to person within a scene. You can hear everybody’s thoughts, perhaps. And this used to be far more popular.

I believe Dune is a good example of omniscient by Frank Herbert, but it’s fallen out of favor in modern fiction currently. 

J: Yes. Yes. So I have a related question for you. What about future tense? 

Crys: Yeah, we haven’t even, that’s the, “you” of tense. That’s the second person that’s tense. The one least use.

Yeah, I haven’t really, I don’t know if I’ve ever read anything in future tense. 

J: I don’t think I have. Not fiction per se. I think future tense comes out a lot in announcements or press releases or things that are describing. Yeah. The are things that are going to happen, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a long form novel in future.

Crys: Yeah. I was going to say I think that “I Have a Dream Speech” is future tense in some way. 

J: Yeah. Yeah. I could see that. 

Crys: I’d have to review it,  the actual words, but no yeah. The you, the second person and future tense least used most experimental when it comes to fiction. 

J: Yes. Interesting. It’s one of those, I find that both POV and tents are one of those things where they seem so simple on the surface, but there’s really a lot there. There’s a lot to dig into. 

Crys: Yeah. The the quick run of benefits on the point of view is in first person, point of view, you have a lot of intimacy.

So you’re right in that person’s head, you see all their thoughts, you see them as they see them. And so one of the challenges for this is that you need to have a very interesting character that you’re following here. You can’t just have a Joe Schmoe does that would get quite old after a while.

This is why a lot of snarky things are written in first person because we tend to like snarky people. At least I do. I don’t know if that’s universal. 

J: I appreciate it. Some good snark. 

Crys: Third person allows you that distance and allows you actually to in some ways, keep information from readers to build tension.

 I say that hesitantly, because too often we writers try to hide things because we’re like, oh, we don’t want the reader to know yet, when revealing them would actually add to the tension. And that’s a whole nother, I don’t know, even know if that’s an episode that might be a whole class, because that is something that I constantly struggle with.

And it was one of those… like if you nail the appropriately appropriate revelation of information, Good tension comes in. Good conflict comes in. 

J: Yes. I had an early editor who kicked my butt on that and she chastised me: don’t withhold information from the reader.  It seems so counterintuitive, but you’re right.

And that’s probably a whole class as opposed to another episode. 

Crys: Yeah, for sure. What questions should be asked for our listeners? 

J: I would say I would like to know given the genre that you write, what do you think is the most current or acceptable tense that’s used in that genre? 

Crys: That’s a great question.

If you would like to leave your answer, we’ll have a link to this episode in the show notes, and you can also check out our group, the author success, mastermind.com, where we discuss these questions live in Slack and just have a lot of really good conversations. 

Thanks so much for joining us this week.

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