Tension Over Tenses

I have several young people around me, (family and friends), who like to write. Sometimes a few collaborate, more often, they write on their own. Either way, they often ask me to proof-read or edit.

I usually chastise them for attempting to write in the Present Tense: “I go to the…”, “I see the…”, etc.

I understand that this is perhaps a matter of taste and possibly prejudice on my part, but I find that form very harsh and difficult to read. It’s generally also done grammatically very badly. (Which is a sentence that also may have been done grammatically badly.) After all, if you were actually describing as you went along, you’d say, “I am going down the stairs”, not “I go down the stairs”, right?

The only time that it would be acceptable is if you were describing a recurring dream: “So, when I go down the stairs, I look out the window and I see a monkey in a tree playing an accordion”. (No, I never dreamt that and have no idea why I thought of it.)

The first time I ever noticed a story written in present tense was during a TV review of the book “It’s Like This, Cat”, back when I was a kid. For that reason, I never wanted to read the book, (and also because I was sure something was going to happen to the cat. I found out decades later that I was right).

My mother also made it clear that that was no way to write. She herself had dabbled in writing and her word was law. In fact, my sister gave me a Peter Rabbit book of her grandson’s for my own grandson, which our mother had decided to edit.
The first time I read it, I laughed so hard I cried, and it is one of my favorite possessions:

Peter Rabbit

Mom could never stand the often used headline: “Firstname Lastname dies”.(“How often are they going to do it?” , she’d ask anyone who was unlucky enough to be nearby.)

When The Young People send stories or chapters for me to proof-read which are written in present tense, I try to change their minds. Often they will see the logic; but one very often does not and at times has insisted on writing in that manner. So when her stories come to me to look over, I have gone along with her style and only sometimes offer alternative wordings. However, a problem arises every time; present tense seems to be impossible to maintain.

Past tense is so much easier to write and to read. “I go down the stairs, I look out the window and saw a monkey”, is the type of sentences that occur in the works I receive. “Go”, “look” do not agree with “saw”. I have to point out that if the writer insists on present tense, they will have to say, “and see a monkey”. So then I usually will get back a revision like this: “I go downstairs, I look out the window and see a monkey. I thought, ‘What is he doing there?” Then I send it back with the notation: thought doesn’t agree with the tense.
Do you see the problem? The kids will usually go back and rework the story into past tense, which is so much easier on all of us.

What do you think? Do you like to read stories written in present tense? Have you written in ‘present tense’? Did you have trouble maintaining the tense?

About Tonette Joyce

Tonette was a once-fledgling lyricists-bookkeeper, turned cook/baker/restaurateur and is now exploring different writing venues,(with a stage play recently completed). She has had poetry and nonfiction articles published in the last few years. Tonette has been married to her only serious boyfriend for more than thirty years and she is, as one person described her, family-oriented almost to a fault. Never mind how others have described her, she is,(shall we say), a sometime traditionalist of eclectic tastes.She has another blog : "Tonette Joyce:Food,Friends,Family" here at WordPress.She and guests share tips and recipes for easy entertaining and helps people to be ready for almost anything.
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16 Responses to Tension Over Tenses

  1. jeff7salter says:

    I’ve had that monkey / accordian dream, by the way. LOL
    I agree, it’s both difficult to read present tense and difficult to keep it consistent. That said, I use it (mostly) in my actual dream accounts. And when I was working with newspapers (as you noted) the headlines were nearly always present tense.
    One thing I noticed 11 yrs ago when I retired, began writing long fiction, and extensively researched things like agents, queries, etc. — they (presumably) require synopses to be written in present tense. Also, it seems blurbs are written in present.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I hope it is just a fad that stops soon, Jeff.I assume the girl is reading current works that are written in present tense, but with what I have read with my grandkids, I have yet to see it .
      I can understand a blurb should read in a way to involve the reader: “Mary works in a zoo and keeps having recurring dreams of the monkeys playing accordions”, as ‘present tense’. Perhaps there is another term that describes what bothers me, for instance: “I’m Mary.I’m working in a zoo.I’m dreaming and I see the monkeys playing accordions.” THAT’S what’s getting to me.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I have attempted to write in first person present tense but I just can’t do it. I have read a few stories written like that but tense jumping made me leave them unfinished.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Joselyn says:

    I think it’s a fad for certain genres, and do have a hard time reading it.

    I am concerned for you that both you and Jeff had the monkey in the tree dream. 😂 that can’t be good.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. J.Q. Rose says:

    It is difficult to write in present tense for me. Good point about the present tense in a synopsis. More urgency that way? I agree mixing tenses is aggravating. I think the easiest way to discover if I have done it is to read the ms out loud. So happy you are editing and educating future writers. Enjoy!
    JQ Rose

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks so much! I did not receive any encouragement when I was young, but have received so much from my fellow writers, (who also encourage young writers).
      I do believe that the publishers feel that the readers want to be along for the story, but gee, like we have not ALWAYS been involved???
      Thank you so much for coming in and staying to comment!

      Like

  5. Helen Pollard says:

    As a reader, the present tense really puts me off, so I would never choose to write in it. That said, I have read the occasional book where it works very well.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Patricia Kiyono says:

    It is jarring to read prose written in present tense, although I’ve seen more and more authors doing it. Personally, I think it’s because we’re not used to reading it. Storytelling is something that stems from people relating events that already happened, so it was done in past tense. But I suppose some people want to picture things as they’re happening. And I suppose if I don’t like it, I don’t have to read it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes,Patty, people want to be involved with the characters, but since all literature through the ages ,( indeed, all oral stories before writing), have been done in past-tense and it seems that everyone everywhere always enjoyed them, why change now? Why wouldn’t everyone like and easy-to-follow , smooth story? [If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.]

      Liked by 1 person

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