Present Tense Tips: Use At Own Risk

I have to say that the above scene from Spaceballs is very close to how some people have reacted to present tense writing.  I know this is a topic I beat to death, but it’s my style and I take several hits because of that.  There are also times I get asked for my opinion on this and advice.  Maybe I said these before, but I guess it needs repeating.  Now, I use present tense third person, so keep that in mind.  More difficult and controversial than present tense first person.

  1. Flashbacks–  These don’t really work in the traditional sense.  In present tense first person, you can have the narrator talk about an old event.  Actually having the event play out is where your timeline and tense can get muddled.  Use this classic tool carefully and sparingly if you use it at all.  There are other ways to get the history of your world and characters out into the world.
  2. Historical Description–  One of the traditional methods of flushing out a fantasy world is to include the history of the setting.  You go beyond the five senses and mention what the land and the people used to be like.  This is nearly impossible with the style that I write.  Talking about the past with a nameless narrator requires switching to past tense, so it becomes jerky and disruptive to the flow.  As with flashbacks, you need to find another method.
  3. Talking–  Character conversations is one thing you can depend on for world history building.  If a character wouldn’t know about an old event or how something works then they’ll have to talk about it.  For example, Luke is a warrior and doesn’t understand magic.  So, he has to talk to Nyx when he’s confused.  You see, this is also how life works in that we learn by asking questions.  Unfortunately, many readers don’t enjoy lengthy dialogues.  This means you need to pepper the conversations with actions and keep the explanations clear.  Using humor can help too, but that apparently can have some people calling your characters immature brats.
  4. Actions–  Present tense is about the now, so the now has to be exciting.  Battles, chases, traps, or whatever fits your genre to physically move the story.  I know fantasy more than other genres, so fight scenes are the most common usage.  Even a friendly sparring match or spat between heroes can help.  You have to understand that your narration can be limited in present tense because you can’t go back too far, so you have to make the present interesting.  Add actions in dialogue scenes as well to give a tighter sense of the scene.  In present tense, ‘he said, she said’ can be thought of as characters standing rigidly together talking with no movement.
  5. Observations–  The five senses are still important and can tell you a lot.  I use a flourishing language to paint my world because I’m attempting to trigger the senses of the reader.  Within dialogue and action, you can say what the characters see, hear, taste, and smell.  It’s another level of description that can really pull the scene together.
  6. Emotions, Voice Tones, & Facial Expressions–  Another trick to helping with atmosphere and action is to use facial expressions to denote emotions.  Voice tone can help as well when in a conversation scene.  Emotions are very important in present tense because they change as scenes change.  As events unfold, the characters need to react in real-time to things, so there is more fluidity and rollercoaster evolution.  It helps to have realistic characters in present tense.  Not so much in what they can do, but in their imperfections and reactions to the story.  You can run into a problem here because many people don’t like emotional heroes.

Now a lot of these can go for Past Tense too, especially the last one.  The point here is that there are some things that Present Tense authors need to depend on more than the Past Tense authors.  It’s a rough path to walk because some people never realize what you’re doing and assume it’s just bad writing.  Others can’t get used to the change in style.  I won’t deny that it limits my audience, but I think it helps me stand out too.  Not that standing out is my goal.   In truth, I’ve been writing in Present Tense for at least 18 years and I never knew it was ‘wrong’ until 2013.  It’s how I write and it’ll probably be how I always write.  That’s more important to me.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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32 Responses to Present Tense Tips: Use At Own Risk

  1. I write in present tense first person. I think this is a primer which I need to keep on the wall. My biggest issue is making sure the scenes are all through the eyes of the protagonist who does the narration. Don’t know why I do this to myself except to bring more torture into my life.

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  2. Never knew it was wrong too, until someone pointed it out to me. *shrugs* I say, continue to write in whatever way suits you best.

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    • Interesting. Always fun to play with word definitions.

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      • Myas says:

        My guess was the author was either a non-native speaker or very young herself. Anyway, it got me thinking…

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      • Good chance of that. A lot of people don’t use these words, so they might see them and make their own versions.

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      • Myas says:

        For the up-and-coming speaker, this is practical application – why don’t we use these words for this – all the American English fine lines – which is where the frustration for our language comes in, yet American English is the coveted language for all things business and social conversation. It’s a prestigious skill.

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      • It’s a confusing language even to those that live here. Most of our grammar rules have exceptions or are merely guidelines depending on what you’re doing. Add in people who use Text Speak in professional writing (I wish I was joking) and it’s a frustrating experience for first timers.

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      • Myas says:

        I’m a failure when it comes to text speak – I’m used to writing and seldom abbreviate. I speak long-hand with SMS. Then there’s all the accents – domestic – and the expressions according to those – and the way our language changes just from immigrant input.

        I had an interesting experience one year filing my taxes. The customer service people, more than one, spoke what sounded like fluent English but there were things lost in comprehension and translation. It took my taxes extra time to get here thanks to being advised I could make a correction through the internet, which wasn’t allowed. I had to mail it in on a different form but they knew what they were talking about – according to them. I don’t think English is ever the same. Kind of like physics it has no present, what was just spoken is now a language of the past and how it will be spoken is to be seen in the future, as soon as tomorrow, ok, but that is a thing of the past once it’s spoken.

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      • I rarely use Text Speak, but I’ve learned to abbreviate to use Twitter better for marketing.

        English changes by region too. So it can get really confusing. The tax thing must have been a headache.

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      • Myas says:

        I was amazed as it hit me it was a comprehension problem working for our government.

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      • I’m usually surprised when there isn’t a comprehension problem when dealing with government. 🙂

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      • Myas says:

        Good one!

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  3. sknicholls says:

    Present tense seems much more action oriented and animated. I like it in fantasy. You do a good job.

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    • Thanks. It really does require a lot of action and dialogue due to it being in the ‘now’. You can’t use descriptions of what used to be, which is why I have to go dialogue heavy and irritate people. Somebody said it’s like a more detailed script, which I can see. Means it could be easy to switch it to other mediums if I ever reach that level.

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      • sknicholls says:

        True! People have said my book reads like a movie and that has good and bad points for me…one it may not be as introspective as it was intended, but two it is very visual, and I am certain it is because it is dialog heavy…but it works for the story.

        I am not real familiar with fantasy beyond Tolkien, CS Lewis, Rowling…but your style is very unique and I like that. It reminds me of anime in the way that it reads, but with MUCH more interesting and deeply involved characters than I have ever seen in that.

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      • I definitely don’t follow the full style of a lot of the fantasy masters. The tense is a major part of that, but I do use many of the tropes that some authors are trying to toss. Always surprised by how many people want classic monsters removed, but they all have that one creature that is a ‘must’.

        Maybe in a society where movies and TV are more prevalent hobbies than books, being told your book reads like a movie is a big compliment. It’s like you crossed the gap between mediums.

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      • sknicholls says:

        I think your characters are very deeply developed, colorful and have their own unique personalities. I see some of the classic monsters as sort of expendables and rightly suited for their purpose in the stories.

        This is a side note that you may think is silly, but my son is a great fan of animee. He doesn’t read much but has read your first book and loved it. I am sending him the other two when he gets his own reader. He is 28 yo. Have you ever thought about getting translated into Japanese and hitting that market. They love American artists. He is isolated out in the country. Most of my son’s friends are Japanese he has met online. He plays games with them and translates. He is learning their language slowly. They often recommend books to him.

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      • I try to pull monsters from various mythologies, so I like having a variety. So, while they are expendable in the way that they can be killed off without much fuss, I do hope I bring in some awe with them.

        It’s been suggested and I was going to work with someone years ago on a Legends of Windemere manga. It didn’t pan out because of time, resources, and schedules. I’d love to get it translated for Japan, but I’m not sure how one would do that.

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      • sknicholls says:

        I wonder how it would translate with the google or wordpress translators? I have translated large documents via google which really turned out fine. Just copied and pasted. That was from German or French into English. I wonder if KDP or createspace can print digitally in other languages?

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      • I’m a little scared to try because it’s fantasy. The computer wouldn’t be able to adapt to the odd words and creatures. I give English spellcheckers aneurysms, so I could only imagine what would happen.

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  4. Dean says:

    I tried present tense for a while, in fact the first draft of Quentin Hide and the Evil Lord Twigton was written in first tense, then I realised I write better in past tense

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  5. Tense gets really fun when you time travel to the future. 🙂

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    • Or the past. I had one of my books involve someone going back to the past to get enough time to set a trap. It really scrambled my brains because events that had happened in earlier books were revisited and I couldn’t keep things straight. I’ll leave time travel to those that know more about it than me.

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  6. Kate Sparkes says:

    Good tips! I tend to write past-tense, but tried first-person present for my urban fantasy and really enjoyed the immediacy. Not sure I could do third-person present myself, but it certainly does help you stand out when you can do it well.

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    • Kate Sparkes says:

      (PS- love the video you chose)

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    • Third person is a real shock to a reader’s system from what I’ve seen. It’s easy to trip up, so I have to write slower than I normally would unless I want to do a tense-focused editing run. I make this sound like such a headache, but it’s become a lot easier since I learned to hone in on it.

      The video is one of my favorite scenes. I’ll probably watch it again when I’m done with comments.

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  7. twixie13 says:

    I tend to write in first person/present, myself. When writing a scene that’s not right from a specific character’s POV, I’ll switch to another. Flashbacks… I’m still figuring those out. Most likely, it’d be put in as the narrator reminiscing about events. The reactions to things happening and observations are fun to write with various characters. Any actual history is covered in a couple of prequels (one in serious need of edits, and the other not even fully written yet). Fight sequences, I’m actually thinking of putting into comic format. I realize that people would more than likely claim the whole thing as wrong for a number of reasons: present tense, comic pages being part of the narrative, the extremely conversational tone with which one of the narrators speaks (I mean, come on; this character flunked out of college. Do people really expect him to think like an English major?)… But they’re not the ones writing this. This is all what I feel works for me. If it means going for a small niche, then so be it.

    That being said, using third person/present does help you stand out and you’re good at it. Always a good thing.

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    • I avoid flashbacks and use dialogue to help with the history, but that’s because I use third person. I don’t have the first person narrative to help, which makes it tougher. Now, do you mean actual comics in the book when action happens? If so that’s a very ingenious idea.

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