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grammerFilter: present/past tense
November 20, 2006 9:52 AM   Subscribe

I am writing a children's book (first time). I can't decide whether to use present or past tense. Here's a sample in present tense: Bobby walks slowly into the water. The waves rush up over his feet, but he is not afraid because the same thing happened last time. He goes a little farther. And a little farther. The water is up to his knees. and past tense: Bobby walked slowly into the water. The waves rushed up over his feet, but he was not afraid because the same thing happened last time. He went a little farther. And a little farther. The water was up to his knees. The present tense seems a little more "active", but past tense has certain story telling quality. Any comments on why I should use one or the other?
posted by allelopath to Media & Arts (17 answers total)
 
I think present tense for children because it would be easier to avoid difficult pluperfect constructions such as "because the same thing *had* happened last time" which is what the past tense version of your example should say.
posted by rmless at 9:57 AM on November 20, 2006


From the sample, it sounds like your book deals with overcoming fears. Were I to read this book as a child, I think I would prefer the present tense, because it brings the action to here and now, rather than something that happened to someone a long time ago. The present tense almost feels like someone is in the water with me, demonstrating that no, it's not as bad as I think it is; whereas the past tense does sound more like a story, something I'll hear about but never experience. To me it's like the difference between seeing a film of a roller coaster ride and actually riding the ride.
posted by Shecky at 9:57 AM on November 20, 2006


Most books are in the past tense. If it's your first book, I'd recommend writing it in the past tense too.
posted by kindall at 10:00 AM on November 20, 2006


I'd vote past tense—your example sounds better, more storylike, in the past tense.
posted by limeonaire at 10:12 AM on November 20, 2006


grammarfilter

The present tense does feel more active. It always does. But it's also a little more difficult to write. Past tense is more common, and is always an acceptable choice, especially if you feel a little out of your element. Stick with past tense.

(Also note: this is also the sort of thing that one can change upon editing. Don't get stuck on the choice. Simply write the book in past tense, and if you decide to change it to present tense later, then do so.)
posted by jdroth at 10:16 AM on November 20, 2006


grammar : spelling filter ;)

>>Don't get stuck on the choice. Simply write the book in past tense ...
that's what I'm doing
posted by allelopath at 10:19 AM on November 20, 2006


short answer:
whichever you like best

longer answer:
1. Narrating in the past tense is more traditional. So if you're trying to tell a traditional, comfortable story, it may be a good choice. Narrating in the present tense feels more 'modern' and marginally 'stranger'... so if you would like to have a somewhat unsettling (as opposed to reassuring) effect, go for it.

2. Narrating in the past tense suggests that I am telling you about events that are over. So although the audience may be interested about how they turned out there is an underlying feeling of closure -- in the sense that even though you don't know what happened yet, the narrator does

By contrast, present tense narratives suggest (subtly) that the narrator does not know the outcome yet either and give the impression that the narrative is open-ended.

This is important for kids, as the following example shows.

Sentence: Bobby kicked the red ball.
Question: Where do you think it went?

Here the question has a clear right-or-wrong answer... after all, the ball went somewhere. Now this:

Sentence: Bobby kicks the red ball.
Question: Where do you think it will go?

Now we are into a question which does not obviously have any right or wrong answers and may encourage much freer thinking about narrative possibilities.

So anyway I think the question becomes how important to you is it that the audience feels that they are wrapped up in on-going, possibly open-ended, events, as opposed to events which have already taken place and are now being narrated.
posted by unSane at 11:00 AM on November 20, 2006


I would prefer the present tense, because it brings the action to here and now, rather than something that happened to someone a long time ago.

This seems logical, but past-tense doesn't necessarily conjure up "a long time ago." In fact, you have to do extra work to make your story seem to take place a long time ago.

Take a look at the most heart-pounding, immediate-feeling, edge-of-your-seat thriller. I bet it's written in past tense. Past tense is simply the storytelling default tense. When a story is written in past tense, the writing supports the plot. In other words, you don't tend to think about the writing when you read past-tense stories. You just get caught up in the story: you laugh, you cry, you get scared, etc. (Naturally, there are stylistic tricks that can override this. If the prose is really "flowery", it will attract attention regardless of the tense.)

Present tense is a bit more unnatural (in speech and in prose). It's a bit more artificial. So it tends to make the reader more aware of the writing -- of the fact that the story is an artifice.
posted by grumblebee at 11:01 AM on November 20, 2006


In this passage, both sound fine to me. There's no right or wrong. Do what feels more natural to you...that's what will come out sounding more natural to the reader, no matter what age group you're writing for.
posted by lampoil at 11:05 AM on November 20, 2006


I fear that present tense will work only if your book is very short and has very short sentences. Otherwise, it will seem unnatural and tiring to read -- not idiomatic English-language storytelling. Do you have in mind any present-tense children's books that you love?
posted by Dave 9 at 12:51 PM on November 20, 2006


I almost always use past tense, regardless of audience age. Present always feels crowded to me, like the narrator is right behind the protagonist's back. But also, past does have that "storytelling" quality to it that works especially well in children's books.

I think present tense for children because it would be easier to avoid difficult pluperfect constructions such as "because the same thing *had* happened last time" which is what the past tense version of your example should say.

Whenever I read old children's books to my kids (Peter Rabbit, Thumbelina, etc.), the nature of the language always jars me, especially when they use words like "presently." But at the same time, they treat the reader (the kids) as little adults and I like that aspect too. Past perfect or pluperfect syntax is much easier for a kid to grok than high-level spelling bee words, and I wouldn't necessarily avoid it.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 12:58 PM on November 20, 2006


>The waves rush up over his feet, but he is not afraid because the same thing happened last time.

I have issues with omniscient narrators in the present tense, and since non-omniscient 3rd-person seems very strange for a kids book, I'd go with past tense.
posted by Rock Steady at 3:33 PM on November 20, 2006


It seems very strange, to me, to tell a story in the present tense while also narrating from an omniscient vantage point. The present tense seems intrinsically linked to a limited point of view.

Present tense 3rd person limited, the tense and voice used for screenplay, also seems out of place here. I can think of only a few examples of the use of this voice in prose fiction and none in children's books.

On preview: Crap, Rock Steady beat me to it.
posted by Netzapper at 7:02 PM on November 20, 2006


When I was a kid, I hated reading books written in the present tense. I usually skipped them. For some reason, reading a book written in the present tense felt like more work when I was a kid. I still don't like them that much now - I feel like it takes a pretty skillful writer to pull it off.
posted by gt2 at 9:21 PM on November 20, 2006


Don't let that sloppy, saucy present tense seduce you. She's a cheap girl, and keeps all her goods in the shop window.

If you're planning to try to sell this book somewhere, be aware that when the slush is deep, the criteria people use to cut the pile down are often capricious. The only place with slushpiles deeper than children's fiction is one that publishes stories about dragons.

Icky typeface? Four million exclamation points? Bad spelling? Present tense? They don't even need to invest in a complete reading.
posted by Sallyfur at 12:13 AM on November 21, 2006


Icky typeface? Four million exclamation points? Bad spelling? Present tense? They don't even need to invest in a complete reading.

It's bizarre to include a perfectly normal tense in with such egregious mistakes. I read children's slush for a living--it's simply not true that I'd stop reading because of present tense. In general, I think I can honestly say tense has no bearing on how I judge slush.

I can also almost guarantee you that most children's editors do not think about all this "present tense third person limited" gobbledy guck. I assume we're talking about a novel, here? Then just write. We ONLY notice tense and perspective when it's done badly or inconsistently. Just looked at the last book I read--Stoner & Spaz--it's in present tense, and I hadn't noticed. Two of my favorites--A Great and Terrible Beauty and its sequel Rebel Angels are in present tense and they're Victorian fantasies. Never noticed. You can use either one--we just don't want to notice. If you think about it too much, we'll notice. Write an awesome story.

I will say, though, about perspective--be very careful about head-hopping. One way to draw attention to your tense and perspective (which you don't want) is to have jarring transitions between which character's thoughts and feelings we know. But think about this once the first draft's done. Now, just use the one that feels more natural TO YOU, keep it consistent, and write well.
posted by lampoil at 5:11 AM on November 21, 2006


thanks for all the comments
posted by allelopath at 7:35 AM on November 21, 2006


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