Reader Friday: Tense and Person

Reader Friday: Tense and Person

TenseI’m seeing more and more books written in present tense. Do you like it? Why or why not?

Does it matter whether it’s first or third person?





Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

51 thoughts on “Reader Friday: Tense and Person

  1. Those are interesting questions to start the weekend, Terry. Hmmm…1) I like reading a story in the present tense though not to the exclusion of the past tense. It gives an immediacy to the events being told and can also create a bit of suspense in certain circumstances. 2) If the story is being told in the first person, present tense creates the potential situation wherein the narrator the end with of the story just might also result in the end of the narrator. I’ve seen this done to great effect by a few times, particularly by Charles Ardai writing as Richard Aleas.

    Thanks for getting my brain stimulated this morning. Terry. Have a great weekend!

    • For me, it’s more distancing rather than immediate. It sounds like the character is imagining what could happen rather than being “in” the action.

  2. I’ve read probably half a dozen novels in written in first person, present tense POV. Of those, I felt only one benefitted from the immediacy of present tense. The rest, written by various authors, did not appeal to me, at all. In those, I found the use of present tense overbearing, too noticeable, and self-conscious. It got in the way of the story for me.

    However, I’ve read many short stories, especially flash fiction, in which present tense added to the tension and it worked well in first or third person POV. I guess what I find interesting or clever in short pieces does not transfer to the same enjoyment when it occurs in longer works.

    • It bothers me that it takes pages, often chapters for me to ‘forget’ I’m reading a present tense story, and I have to go through the reorientation process every time I pick up the book.

  3. It’s a writing tool, and it can be used badly or done really well.

    I personally think present tense is better in first person, but that said, I read a series I really like in present third. The thing is, when it’s done really well, I hardly notice whether it’s in present tense or not.

    • There are a few authors I’ve read who do it well enough for me to ignore the tense. If I’m browsing for something to read and the author is new to me, and the book is present tense, I move on.
      To me, the way it’s showing up more and more, it feels like a “My publisher made me do it because they said it’ll sell better” imposed trend.
      But what do I know. I’m sticking to my simple past tense.

  4. I agree with your comments above, Terry. One book where I quickly forgot that it was in present tense was THE HUNGER GAMES. Almost every paragraph had some backstory that was in past tense, and the blend worked well, pulling me in, and letting me forget about the tense.

    Great discussion. Have a good day.

    • So, do you think it worked better for you because you had those past-tense pieces throughout? I recently read a book with lots of back story flash backs, which were in past, and I much preferred those scenes.

      • Yes, it worked better. It was less jarring. All story is told in present and past. When we write in past tense, we use past perfect for “the past” and past for “the present.”

        I don’t think I will ever try to write in present tense, but if do, I’ll go back and study what Suzanne Collins did.

  5. I am drinking my morning coffee and reading the questions. I am thinking that present tense always seems like a gimmick to me, a bit too much of Look at my style! Pretty skillful, right?

    I take a sip of coffee. It is warm and good.

  6. Not a fan of present tense. The exception might be in first person, but I’m also not a fan of first person. With that being said, I have written in first person. My editor suggested I switch my most current release to first person to make it more personal to the reader, but I chose not to for a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Karla. I have a set of short stories (Seeing Red) where the character demanded first person. But they’re all past tense. I write in deep 3rd, which is almost the same as 1st.

  7. Good morning, Terry.

    I don’t mind present tense as long as it’s done well, but it must be hard to sustain for a entire novel.

    I’m thinking there would be too many “-ing” words. 🙂

    • Done well should go without saying. From what I’ve read, it’s not easy hit the mark. Why should the criteria of successful writing be “After a while, I didn’t notice.” Noticing the writing is an immediate yank out of the story for me.

  8. Mr Bell’s comment echos my opinion-present tense can be a gimmick. I feel past tense is more grounded story telling.

    Not a fan of present tense. I need something more familiar.

    • You don’t have to sell me, Ben. Linda Castillo’s Amish series is first person present, and she’s one of the few I’ve read who does it well. But I still have to “get into it” when I start reading.

      • Makes me think… maybe some of us in the world are not wired the same way mentally. I can’t get into something like that unless my life depended on it.

        However, since I started reading this blog everyday, (about a year ago), my reading habits have changed in a big way.

  9. Not saying I wouldn’t use it, cuz there’s a time and place for everything, but I’m a traditionalist who prefers past tense third person. As someone above said, no matter which you use, the secret is doing it well.

    • Thanks, BK. I wondered if I was the odd person out, since I have been seeing more and more present tense books, but it appears that I’m not alone.

  10. Present tense exhausts me reading it. Couldn’t even begin to write it. Old habits, I guess. My newest efforts are in first person. I found it awkward at first but I’m used to it now. I still find that it’s limiting and difficult to find a way to get the important parts of my story before the eyes of my MC.

    • I think you’ve hit one of my problems with present tense. It’s “work” for me as a reader.
      As for first person, a shift from deep 3rd to 1st wasn’t hard for me, although I haven’t gone back to first since I wrote those 3 short stories.

  11. I recently read The Last Flight by Julie Clark (on an airplane!). It jumps back and forth between 1st Person Present and 3rd Person Past. It took me a 1/3 of the book to get used to the switching. The premise was OK but the book peters out at the end for me. He says. 😉

  12. Third person present tense alway makes me feel as though I’m reading stage directions. First person present tense is fine if it fits the book.

    • Thanks, Nancy. I agree; present tense sound like someone’s moving pieces around, although I think first person sounds like someone relating a dream sequence. That’s just me.

  13. Good morning, Terry! Late to the party, relatively speaking, on this one 🙂
    I’ve experimented with present tense in short fiction (and 2nd person, too) but much prefer past. All but one of my published novels are in first. My new library mystery set in the 1980s is written in third (and past tense), though I’ve thought about rewriting a chapter or two in first to see how that reads now that I’m back to revising the novel.

    Have a great Friday!

  14. I am not a fan. What I find surprising is that it is usually LESS immediate. Most writers figure they’ve got the here and now covered and don’t bother to make the reader feel and see what is happening. Instead, it’s I do this and I do that, then I do something else. The reading experience is emotionally and sensually flat.

  15. I don’t like the First-person POV, and I don’t like present tense. Combine that together and you have a nightmare. I can read it if I must, but it’s a painful experience that ruins the book for me.
    Alistair McLean was the only ich-form writer I could read and enjoy, but it was a long time ago.

    Funny enough, I’ve never encountered a reader who doesn’t like 3rd POV past tense, but I stumble at 1stPOV present tense haters every day. That’s why, every time a new author asks about POVs and tenses, I always tell them that. Some genres love 1st POV, but if they aren’t writing those, they risk alienating a big chunk of their potential readers.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Mike. Agreed, why risk alienating readers? As I mentioned above, if I’m reading a sample from a new to me author, and it’s present tense, I find something else.

  16. Scripts are always written in present tense. It’s the norm, and works well, possibly because action is limited to 4 or 5 lines at a time. I don’t mind it, there. It’s only a problem when adapting novels to film, or vice versa, and then it’s a major pain in the dumpadeedus.

    If I recall rightly, there was a radio (remember that?) program that opened with second person, present tense narration. Inner Sanctum? There was also, again IIRR, a murder mystery movie that was narrated in second person, present tense. That’s all I remember about it, so {shrug}.

    I loathe present tense in novels, possibly because there was a boy in my fifth grade class who always gave his terrible book reports that way. I associate works in present tense with his basically lazy delivery.

    Separate from tense: I began my third person novel about two 5th graders and got stuck, waltzing repeatedly through chapters 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 . . . Then I stopped and wrote a transcript of the boy’s first therapist visit, and he came alive. First person got me unstuck, so I stayed with it.

  17. Thanks for sharing. Watching a movie, everything happens in the “now” so present tense makes sense. First person never bothers me, assuming the book is well-written to begin with, which should be a given.

  18. I’ve read two recently. Trace of Doubt by DiAnn Mills and one written some years ago by James Scott Bell, Breach of Promise. Both were very will done and that’s the key. It’s a reflection of the authors’ skills to successfully engage the reader the way these two do.

    • You piqued my curiosity, since JSB said present tense is a gimmick, so I took a peek at Breach of Promise, and it’s 1st person, but past tense, not present.

  19. I agree with you, Terry. There have only been a couple of books in present tense that I’ve finished. Once a book gets annoying, I put it down. 🙂 The Hunger Games was one that I finished, and it kept me engaged. I don’t normally like first person, either.

    • I’ve been reading a “Book Club” book for our next book club meeting, and it’s written by an author I know, so I stuck with it. Very well written, and a good story (albeit not my usual genre), so it wasn’t annoying, and I finished it. But you can be sure I’ll bring it up at the meeting, and probably be met with “What are you talking about?” stares.

  20. Present tense pushes me as a reader right out of the story. When I pick up a book and find it’s in present tense, I put it back on the shelf.

    • I’m with you almost all the way, David. But if it’s an author I know, I’ll give it a try, and if I get past the tense-ness, I’ll read more in that author’s series. But it’s a tough sell.

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