Throwback Post- Present Vs. Past Tense: A Curious History

Originally posted on April 10, 2013.  This has been unaltered.  In fact, I didn’t even re-read it, so I’m going to keep myself in the dark.  (I did notice that it ends with me talking about my 4th book. You can ignore that.)

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I’m sure people are sick of me talking about this, but I’ve been discussing this topic with a few friends since my last outburst.  Now, I’ve found that some of my friends who read my book and support me are still against the present tense usage.  It’s uncomfortable, confusing, difficult, blah blah blah blah.  I’m going to say here that this thought post isn’t going to be a bash.  At least I hope not.  It’s just some things I figured out during my musings. This is all observation and thoughts from a person who loves puzzles and mysteries.

I was told that past tense has been the standard since the time of cavemen, which I originally rolled my eyes at.  Then, I realized that this is right, but it isn’t because past tense is better.  It’s because the first things written were history and religion (or what we call mythology today).  The invention of fiction is definitely more recent compared to non-fiction, so it’s no wonder that fiction began as past tense.  Look at Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey.  They are written to inform about ‘actual’ events that included gods getting involved.  At the time, the people who could read only knew historical stories, so original fiction had to fit that mold.  So, past tense was set as the standard.

As time went on, fiction became more outlandish and was no longer being confused for events that actually happened.  It’s the natural evolution of the beast because it’s starting to drop the pretense of being ‘history’.  This began with the inclusion of magic and an open admittance that these things never really happened.  So begins the reader having to suspend disbelief to get through a story.  Maybe we’re at the next stage where present tense begins to get used and forces an even bigger suspension of disbelief or even a mental allowance to be absorbed into the story.  This isn’t to say that present tense will replace past tense, but will find it’s own niche and prove to be just another way to read.

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Yesterday, I heard an interesting story that got me thinking about why so many people are against present tense.  I’ve stated that Hunger Games are written in present tense.  Well, my friend and his wife listened to the audiobook and loved it.  They never read the actual book.  They decided to read my book and she stated that there was something off and then realized the present tense.  She didn’t like it while my friend, who has been reading my work since high school, said ‘That’s just how Charlie writes’.  Interesting.

This makes me think that we are used to hearing in present tense, but reading in past tense.  We are conditioned to read in past tense, but it’s such a fragile conditioning.  If a person spends time enjoying mediums that involve present tense (comics, movies, television) then it might actually create the ability to read present tense without having a problem.  The previous example demonstrates that my friend doesn’t even realize when he’s reading present tense because I’ve been subjecting it to him for years.  Another friend has read so many comics and books of various tenses that he didn’t even stumble when reading Hunger Games or my book.  My wife is another example of someone who has been submerged in my present tense world and no longer notices the difference.  Funny thing here is that getting used to reading present tense doesn’t take away from the ability to read past tense and once your mind gets used to present tense, the comfort doesn’t diminish.

I’m sure at some point, a few people said ‘I’m too smart to be conditioned’.  Well, I have some bad news for you.  You’re human and all humans can be conditioned. From the idiot that licks a power transformer to Pavlov, humans can be trained even when they don’t realize it.  Don’t believe me?  Go for a drive down a main road.  I’ll wait for you to come back.  *leans back and twiddles thumbs*  Back?  So, did you stop on red and go on green?  Didn’t take more than color recognition.  You certainly didn’t have to think about what to do.  Small things that we do in our lives result from conditioning.  Soup is eaten with a spoon and not a fork.  Word recognition.  Parents reacting to their child crying.  Hell, my dad had me trained to react to a bell to come downstairs for dinner.  I still jump or yell ‘What!?’ when that specific bell tone is heard.  We are trained for so many things in our lives and how we read is one of those things that we don’t even realize we’re being Pavlov-ed about.  After all, the classics we read in school and most of the books we grab for casual reading are past tense.

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My point of all this: Past tense and present tense does not make a book.  One is not better than the other and shouldn’t take away from the story.  It may take time to get used to the rising style of present tense, but maybe it’s for the best.  After all, if you can get yourself used to a new writing style then doesn’t that open a bigger world of books to you?

There got all that off my chest.  Now to get back to my editing and pray I can still finish book 4 by the end of the week.

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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19 Responses to Throwback Post- Present Vs. Past Tense: A Curious History

  1. I think I made a comment on this when it came out originally. I know readers are put off by having to be part of the story instead of just reading it and remaining uninvolved. Present puts the reader in the story. Past tense is more comfortable to the reader since whatever is going to happen has theoretically occurred.

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  2. Heather says:

    Very interesting! I’m glad this is still a conversation. I too was caught thinking about this almost a year ago when I first read a book written in past tense.The past tense threw me off – partly because I had been reading the Hunger Games and the Shatter Me series, so my reading was attuned to present tense; and partly because I thought the story would be much more engaging in present tense. However, after reading this and reflecting upon it a bit more, I have to say that I think my biggest issue with present tense is that when I read, I get so caught up in the stories that it plays out like a movie in my head (often preventing those around me from getting my attention). Because of this, I just feel like the story is presently playing out as I read-watch. For instance, Harry Potter is written in past tense, yet I always read it and get dragged in as if it was present tense. It’s rather funny how the mind works that way.

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    • It’s certainly funny. You’re actually the first person I’ve met that has dealt with this in reverse. Most people that get ‘tense shock’ are going from past to present. Very good point on the movie analogy. I’ve heard it mentioned that my books read like movies and it’s probably the tense. Never sure if that’s a compliment or not.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. merrildsmith says:

    Hillary Mantel’s brilliant and wonderful “Wolf Hall” is written in the first person, so you’re in good company! I understand the movie analogy. When I read it, I felt as though I was striding through the palace with Thomas Cromwell. But honestly, I don’t stop to think about if what I’m reading is in present or past tense, as long as I’m enjoying it–and I often have a sort of movie going on in my mind whether the book is written in present or past tense.

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    • It’s rather instinctive though. It’s really odd. Being raised on past tense books causes a feeling that present tense books are off. This is what happened to a friend of mine who tried to read one of my books. It was rather enlightening toward this whole thing. Another interesting part of this is that all of my friends who read a bunch of comics didn’t even realize the difference in tense like those that stuck to novels. So there’s a lot of mental programming at work here.

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  4. Kylie Betzner says:

    Love the Captain Picard meme. lol

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  5. Kylie Betzner says:

    Love the Picard and Fry memes!

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    • Thanks. Was surprised to find memes on this subject.

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      • Kylie Betzner says:

        I am not surprised. There are a lot of English teachers out there who are trying to make grammar go viral. lol

        But joking aside, great article. I enjoyed your perspective. You should do a guest post on my blog about a similar topic. I’d be happy to share your thoughts, any thoughts, honestly.

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      • I can write something up next week after I finish the book I’m working on. Any way you’d like me to tackle the topic? I can try to do it with some humor.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Kylie Betzner says:

        Awesome! I’m still working on your guest post as well. I take too long. Humor is always welcome on my blog:)

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      • I was going to ask about that. I’ll see what I can come up with for the Present Tense post. Maybe search through things and gather ‘criticisms’ to respond to. Those are always fun.

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  6. Kylie Betzner says:

    Love the Captain Picard meme. lol

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