A Reader’s POV – Past or Present

Reviewer Cathy Speight

I have a question for authors this week…..

Looking at my list of books to review, it’s rather eclectic – there are all sorts of genres, fiction and non-fiction. I try not to turn away review requests (I don’t like to refuse a genre I haven’t tried, I might love it!), but to date, I have had to turn away three. The first was a non-fiction book that ‘teaches computer forensics to any level computer user’. With respect, I think I would prefer to pull my fingernails out. The second was 115 Reasons Why It’s Not Your Fault if You’re Fat. Puuuhlease. There is only one reason you’re fat – you eat too much and exercise too little. The third – and I felt just a teensy weensy bit guilty about turning this one down – aside from the fact it was 300k words long, it was in the present tense (3rd person). I confess I have only read one book in the present tense (Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen). I enjoyed that book (sort of), but I just did not warm to the present tense (1st person in this case). I have shied away from this ever since.

Wondering if I was doing the practice a disservice and if it was just me, I had a quick scout around and read a few articles about it. It appears to be regarded as ‘faddish’, ‘jarring’, ‘gimmicky’ and ‘intrusive’. The general consensus seems to be that it is not overly popular with readers (good, it wasn’t just me). Some say it’s more ‘powerful’, ‘it feels fast and urgent’, and ‘gives a sense of immediacy’. Although it seems to be more acceptable in YA and has to be done extremely well to avoid being contrived or awkward, past tense novels sell better, it appears.

So my question to you is:

What do you think about writing in the present tense (1st or 3rd person)? What are its limitations (apart from the restrictions of the timeframe)? What are its advantages? Do you think it works? Have you ever used it and why instead of the past tense?

Ok, that’s 5 questions.

Does anybody want to convince me that I should give it another go?

I have an idea for the Evil Mastermind….perhaps the writing contest should be one written only in the present tense……

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Cathy Speight is an accomplished book reviewer and Chief Consulting Reviewer at Indies Unlimited. For more information, please see the IU Bio page and her blog.


Author: Cathy Speight

Reviewer Cathy Speight is British and lives in England. The Kindle revived her passion for reading and after stumbling on a Facebook group of independent authors, she now does her best to encourage and assist indies as much as possible. Books by indie author form the majority of her collection. Cathy shares her views on the books she has read on her blog.

20 thoughts on “A Reader’s POV – Past or Present”

  1. Great question(s) Cathy. Here are my thoughts, from the perspective of a new writer.

    Q: What do you think about writing in the present tense (1st or 3rd person)?

    A: I had never used 1st person in fiction until this year. The short story that I'm currently working on uses this POV, though my novel is written in third person past tense.

    It's been an interesting experience going between the two. Perhaps it's just the newbie in me, but first person is much harder to write (well). Tense has been the most difficult part (thank God for beta readers).

    Q: What are its limitations (apart from the restrictions of the timeframe)?

    A: In most cases you're limited to a single point of view. The majority of the story will go through the filter of your main character and this can give it a very narrow focus. Scenes must be described through this filter, and interaction with other characters may come at a price.

    Q: What are its advantages?

    A: It's more personal. It creates an intimate relationship with the reader.

    Q: Do you think it works?

    A: Yes, I believe it does work, provided it's done well. It's an adventure in tedious reading when it isn't.

    Q: Have you ever used it and why instead of the past tense?

    A: The story that I'm working on now was originally written in third person (many years ago). It changes from present day to a time thirty years earlier, and then back again.

    The reason for changing the POV to first person actually had nothing to do with the story. There is a book that I want to write, somewhere down the road, and it will only work in the first person narrative. Simply put, I needed the practice.

  2. I wrote a book in 1st person. Alex Canton read it and said this in his review – "I was impressed by how well Ms Douglas handled writing this novel completely in first person, which is not easy to do. It helped to almost participate in "her" quest."

    It's difficult to do – no question about it – but that book demanded it. And first person almost requires present tense unless the narrator is reminiscing.

    There's more of a sense of immediacy about first person, and if (hopefully) done right, it can help you identify more with the main character. BUT. It means that many of the advantages of third person or past tense like flashbacks or showing another POV are impossible. It also has to be linear in time, unless done in past tense, but past tense can seem distant or clinical.

  3. I like writing in present tense for particular stories. YA, shorts, and NOT for first person. But like nearly everything in fiction, it depends. I've read novels that blatantly disregard "rules," yet the've worked beautifully.

  4. I absolutely HATE reading present tense novels and, unless it realllllllly catches me from the get-go, I will close the book, never to return.

    They feel very awkward to me and, unless done extremely well, are just too annoying for me to read.

    Now that's just my opinion and…well, you know the saying…and I do have one, so I'll give you more. I believe Cathy is way off on the "fat" statement. There are many medical conditions that put on weight and LOTS of it. So, it isn't always a matter of eating or exercising habits that can pack on the pounds.

    1. Oh Linda, yes of course, I do know about the medical conditions. Perhaps I should have made it clearer that the book in question was more about 'excuses' rather than 'reasons'…..eg it's the auto industry's fault (you drive to work), it's your mother's fault (she never taught you to cook), it's the electronic industry's fault (sitting watching TV 'makes me fat'). It is a bit tongue in cheek, but alarmingly, it's based on real excuses by real people!

  5. I have a tendency to bring an anecdote into the present tense as it develops. I didn't realise why until my editor told me it was great for ramping up the drama into the immediate, occasionally, but I was doing it too much. To be fair, that book was in diary form, but I now keep a careful watch on it. I do think that small sections of present tense, when in the first person, can up the drama a little. I'd not be able to read a whole book of it though, too tiring.

    Cathy, feel free to change your mind about reviewing my book. 🙂

  6. I think of present tense as a potent spice. A little bit in the right kind of dish is just the thing. Too much and you've ruined the dish–and "too much" might be a comparatively small amount.

    When it's overdone or done in a heavy-handed manner, it strikes me as over-dramatic, and tends to create in me a "Yeah, whatever…" response.

  7. My second book is written in the first person. I cheat a bit because the character is a seer and so has at least a bit of access to things she could not otherwise know. It was a challenge but I liked the result. It made the book more immediate and fleshed out the character more. But I don't think I could ever write in the present tense. I can't even wrap my head around that.

  8. With few exceptions, present tense drives me utterly nuts. The Hunger Games trilogy is written in present tense, and I didn't feel it added anything to the story (no sense of immediacy or 'ramping up the drama'). What I did notice was that when I put the book down and picked it up again, the present tense verbs were like a slap in the face. After reading for a while, they'd fade into the background again, which I believe is down to good writing.

    That said, I believe there is a place for present tense POV. That place tends to be in poetry and some short fiction. There exists in the universe a short piece of fiction in which a man is agonizing over the decision to help a terminally-ill colleague to die. I feel that if it were told in past tense, "I helped him to die," it would lose everything that makes it powerful. I have yet to find a novel-length work where present tense has this sort of impact, but I suppose it could happen.

    1. I rushed out a bought the Hunger Games trilogy because a few of my friends considered it un-put-down-able! Only, then, I didn't know it was in the present tense…..what on earth shall I do now!!

  9. Like anything, it works if it is done well. Even the much maligned 2nd person can be done with beauty and grace if it is short, honest, and immediate.

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