(via literatureismyutopia)Source: ebookporn
So I’ve been writing a piece for submission to a magazine lately. It’s very fun, and I’m feeling confident about it. But while I was nearing the end of the first major section of the piece, I noticed something odd: I was constantly tense switching. Now, in the realm of novels and in English writing in general, tense switching is a big no-no. It’s typically an amateur mistake, and something that is unlearned with skill and time. I certainly thought I had unlearned it, so it struck me as odd that I would be making such an easy error throughout the entire piece.
But then I had a different thought: why am I tense switching? Well, the action of switching was certainly involuntary - I had no idea I was tense switching until I was practically through with the entire story. Involuntary actions are, in and of themselves, instinctual; my instincts, instincts I’ve honed to be very critical of writing, were for whatever reason telling me that switching tenses was a smart action.
Then a larger thought: how are most books written? I don’t often pay attention to tense - I worry more about style and substance, and less about the fundamentals, because I don’t mind sloppy writing as long as it’s a story well told. Furthermore, as another thought, what do people enjoy reading? So I asked on various social networks, and decided to turn this into a little literary/sociological experiment. I posed the question “When reading a novel, especially a fiction novel, do you prefer it written in past or present tense?” in five different locations, and gathered responses. While responses accrued, I went to my bookshelf, and began noting all the tenses of the books I owned.
What did I find? Well, after a day of allowing people to answer the question, I got an array of responses.
Pref for Present Tense - 4
Pref for Past Tense - 10
No Preference - 7
A clear lean to past by a strong majority, although what struck me most curious about these results were that such a strong standing of readers really didn’t care. Those that fell into the No Preference category take a mix of responses, including: “I don’t know / don’t pay attention,” “I don’t care,” or “both.” This was curious, which is why I found it necessary to find corresponding data from my bookshelf. Whereas the original question was posed to readers, and what they like to read, checking my bookcase was asking writers what they tend to write.
Novels in Present - 4
Novels in Past - 41
[books of a series were counted as a whole]
As we can see, a completely obscene majority. I stopped counting at 45 books, but glanced at the remainder of the novels I could find lying around for any written in past tense; there were none. Two things to note here! Firstly, it’s clear that writers tend to write in the past tense. Why this is the obvious standard is unknown. Secondly, it is odd that so many respondents responded with both a preference for present, as well as no preference, when so few novels seem to cater to present-tense preferences.
Since there were so few novels in present tense, I decided to see which were those standing alone.
Novels written in Present Tense:
The Angel Riots by Ibi Kaslik*
The Hunger Games (series) by Suzanne Collins
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
You Don’t Know Me by David Klass
[* features switching tenses]
Novels that weren’t Included in Study, also featuring Present Tense
Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Very interesting! Note those included in the lists. All four that were in my study are extremely modern pieces. High Fidelity was written in 1995, whereas all the others are turn of the millennium. Furthermore, Ibi Kaslik didn’t commit entirely to the present tense in The Angel Riots (she also wrote her previous book, Skinny, in past tense even though it also featured two protagonists and shifting perspective). I thought back to why I didn’t notice tense shifting in the novel, and realized that it features two different characters and shifting perspectives; each perspective switch also features a tense shift, giving a very strong differentiation between the characters; you are offered a very different writing style for each character, accentuating the change of perspective.
The other novels I didn’t own and were included are also highly modern, and I’d like to make a particular point to Mr. Palahniuk. I’m not well read on him; however it strikes me as curious that two of his novels, both which were turned into movies, were written in present tense. It also strikes me odd that he is vastly popular and praised for his style. Are his other novels featured in present as well? Does this understanding of the present tense help him out? Many writers describe present tense as “reading like a screenplay.” How I feel about that statement is a different issue, but it is interesting that of those two lists, five of the books listed have been made into movies.
I did this whole thing for giggles, but it does raise some interesting questions about what we read and how we like it to be read, as well as how writers prefer to create. I can say this: when writing action scenes, past tense - while generally favoured - will always lose out, and I can assure that this is one of the distinct attributes to The Hunger Games success. Which tense is better is something I can’t answer. But it was an interesting little thing to embark on.