Ask Daphne! Tense much?

May 13th, 2008 • Kate

Friend-of-the-blog Jean O. writes,

I have heard a lot of smack talk about using the present tense when writing a novel. Yet, I see it used frequently in chick lit and find that it works quite well for me as a reader. (I also favor using this tense along with the first person point of view in my own writing). Is this tense (and point of view) something that agents are on the lookout for or secretly despise? I assume it is okay (if used well) in something like chick lit, but what about other genres? Are there some no-no rules when it comes to tenses and point of view and if so, are they genre related?

First of all, Jean, thanks again for writing in. I don’t presume to imagine that I can answer ALL of anyone’s questions in one go, so feel free to keep those emails coming!
As for tense and P.O.V., I can only speak for myself when I say I’m not aware of any hard-and-fast rule. Your choice of tense and point of view for your novels and your characters ought to be a reflection of the story’s voice, and not what any one reader thinks you should use. I find present tense does work well in chick lit because it’s a sort of immediate feeling, as if the protagonist is telling the story to the reader as it happens. This may be why first person p.o.v. works so well for it. But you can use that same sense of immediacy in any genre, if that’s the feeling you’re going for.
If you want the reader to have a longer perspective on things, then past tense works well with either first or third person p.o.v.. I’ll admit, I’m not a personal fan of second person p.o.v., mostly because I have yet to see it done very well, and I’ve seen it too many times done poorly.
But now, I’m not sitting here wishing to find a great third person, present tense novel. I’m looking for a great novel, yes, (and lots of them!) but tense and p.o.v. aren’t my first considerations. Hope that helps!

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2 Responses to “Ask Daphne! Tense much?”

  1. Dwight Says:

    I've had a soft spot for Second Tense ever since I read Emily Cheney Neville's It's Like This, Cat in second grade.
    Present (Second) Tense is always interesting and usually exhausting to read. It works so much better in short formats.
    Richard Ford's The Sportswriter was a brilliant example of 3rd per 2nd Tense, but good gravy! After finishing the novel I felt like sleeping for a week.
    There's a immediacy and immersion to Second Tense writing. The Sportswriter takes place over a three-day weekend, at just about the same pace it takes to read the novel. It's like I lived the experience.
    And now I'm trying to remember if the Omega Force novella from Rick Moody's Right Livelihoods was 1st or 3rd person… That was pretty darn good Second Tense, but then again… Novella. Short form.

  2. jeanoram Says:

    Thank you again for answering my question(s). I now feel the tension in my head easing up. Whew!
    I often don't pay much attention when it comes to point of view in writing, so I was a bit worried when 'everyone' was telling me that what I was doing was 'wrong' when using first person, present tense. Thank you for the assurances.
    And again, your answer makes perfect sense (even though I had to prompt my brain a few times before it recalled what second person point of view was).