YA Novels and Present Tense

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AnneMarble

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The latest Writing Novels thread on the present tense made me think -- uh-oh, you're in trouble now. ;)

I usually don't like the present tense in fiction, particularly genre fiction. There are cases where it seems suited -- for example, a lot of people cite Presumed Innocent as a book where the present tense was the best choice. But there are some cases there it just... gets in the way of my brain.

Except in YA fiction. And I was wondering... Why?! Why on earth do I put a thriller back on the shelf if it's in the present tense, but have no problem with a YA novel in the present tense? Is it because the sort of YA novels set in the present tense (usually problem novels and general fiction) are so suited to present tense? And what makes them so suited to it?

Also, does anyone know how teen readers react novels written in the present tense? Does it give them hives, too, or is this a generational thing? I've read that teen readers are more accepting of books that are different, and even accept techniques that most adults would be unable to stand. (How many adult novels do you see written in free verse? ;)) Do you think this is why unusual techniques (such as present tense, novels written as IM messages, etc.) are more likely to be found in YA novels? Heck, I've even found a YA paperback written in the present tense and first person.
:scared:

P.S. If I've asked this question before, uhm, ahem ahem whoops. :D
 

Honey Nut Loop

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*Raises hand* I'm HNL and I'm a teen reader. To be honest, until i started coming on this site i never gave a damn whether a book was present or past. I often didn't notice. Now, i can't say. I'll have a go with anything. A pet hate of mine is not being able to finish a book. I don't know why but it makes me feel guilty.
 

Christine N.

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Well, the thing about past tense is that it's like someone is telling you a story. Duh, I know, but think about the difference - in present it's more like you're seeing events as they occur, rather than being told about them later.

Maybe you get more introspection with past tense; the MC or narrator has had a chance to think about it and tell you more about how they felt about the events. With present, unless it's a slow scene, it can move more quickly, without too much messy emotion. LOL Or perhaps writers use it as an excuse NOT to write too much about feeling.

I think a perfect balance was struck in The Time Traveler's Wife; while all in present tense, you're traveling through time, so it's as much about when as what. It was the only choice for that book, and done brilliantly.
 

katiemac

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Why?! Why on earth do I put a thriller back on the shelf if it's in the present tense, but have no problem with a YA novel in the present tense? Is it because the sort of YA novels set in the present tense (usually problem novels and general fiction) are so suited to present tense? And what makes them so suited to it?

I think sometimes it does have to do with genre, like your thriller example. I've never experienced a thriller that I found was done well in present tense. All that running around, figuring out clues, etc, and the elements of danger don't come through as clearly to me in present as they do in past.

I encountered my first present tense (written in first person) novel as a teenager. Let me tell you, I hated that book. It was a mystery/thriller, too, and that certainly may have something to do with it. The character's voice was annoying, and it being set in "real time" as she figured out the clues--while seems interesting in theory--just didn't work for me.

I haven't read a lot of YA recently, but much of the time it's more of a coming-of-age story, at least at the core, and that's certainly workable in present tense. There's time to be a little more introspective as if you are in "real time."

So, you know, readers come in all shapes and sizes. There're probably YAs who are just as turned off by present tense as some adults are, and those who aren't.

But, general rule still stands. If it works, then it works.
 

Watermonkey

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I've read alot of YA in the present tense and there were only a few that didn't sit well with me. I personally like writing in present tense at least for my first drafts because it seems like I can really place myself there better. :D I know people that hate it too, of course.

I think it really depends on how well you tell your story, with a really good book I don't even notice the tense. When used well I think present tense can put you into the story in a way past can't. :)
 

moondance

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My YA novel is in first person present tense and will be published early next year. It's a 'contemporary' piece, I suppose - subject matter involves self harm, depression and bullying - and the book wrote itself in first/present. It just wouldn't have had the same impact in third/past or even first/past. I think first/present can have greater immediacy for the reader, but it can also be 'unflinching' as one editor described it...!
 

Doctor Shifty

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I've had a story published with a change in tense to highlight what is happening within the character.

The story is past tense until the MC is violently attacked, then the tense changes to present as we follow his internal reaction to the assault and he descends through layers of abuse in his childhood. He backtracks as far as his conscious will allow, although there is reference to a deeper level he can't reach for it being so fearsome. It is at this level of unseeable fear that he finds a resource within himself to deal with the current attack. As he emerges from the memory stuff the story returns to past tense.

My reason for doing this was because the historical present is a very immediate and intimidating mode of writing. It narrows down the story and concentrates the energy. My visual image equivalent of it is those camera shots you find in horror movies where the camera is narrow angle, even fading into black at the edges, and set at knee level as the MC walks up the darkened stairs to the attic.

A whole novel written in this mode would be very tiring to read, I would imagine. However, perhaps I've read them and not even noticed.

Kim
 

Provrb1810meggy

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I usually don't mind if it's in present tense. The YA i wrote was in past, third tense, but as per suggestions of an agent, I'm rewriting it present tense, first person, switching POV.
 

Jimmer

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I think there are at least two clear reasons why present tense novels resonate with younger readers.

Let's face it, current generations are very much use to immediate gratification ... video gaming, instant messaging, text messaging. They like their information current, right now, and right here! History is a bore to many. Let's find out what happens now! So, that's one reason present tense works, I think. Teens are used to immediate and close quarters action.

Second, much of ya literature has to do with adolescent angst issues. These coming of age stories are laden with internal conflict and coming to grips thinking. Again, present tense makes the reader feel like they are right there, inside the protagonist's noggin during all the stress.

Sure, well written third person novels can achieve the same result. But teens want to "be" the main character more than most, I think. They want to know how others like themsevles have solved stressful situations. I think adults are more focused on plot and on interesting and quirky characters, characters less likely to be emulated. Adult readers may tend to see third person main characters as, well, third persons. They don't necessarily want to "be" the protags, just relate to them.

Seems to me anyway. Ya lit is loaded with first person and present tense books.
 

emsuniverse

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POVs

I'm doing remarkably well with my WIP, a YA mystery. My MC is a 16-18 year old girl (it spans three years), who goes on a hunt for her mother's murderer. It's in in 3rd person, past tense.

I can't help but think that a few scenes would be much better told from a different POV than hers. I would like a few scenes from her boyfriend and a few from her grandmother's perspective.

What I'm wondering is can I write from an adult's POV in a YA novel? It's aimed for more adult-young adults...

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
 

Jimmer

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The old rule for children's literature was pick one POV and stick with it throughout. In YA, however, almost anything goes, provided it's done well.

So, if your question is: Are multiple POVs acceptable from a literary standpoint for YA, I think the answer is sure, even though it's not all that common and downright rare in books for younger readers.

If your question is: Do you think YA readers will be put off by an adult POV? I think the answer might be yes, if the entire book was from an adult POV, but not if the adult POV is an isolated scene or two.

Of course, you could always resort to one of many writerly devices to solve your problem of including viewpoints other than your main POV character...your POV character could read letters or emails from other characters, newspaper clippings, diary entries...stuff like that. That way you can enter outsiders' thoughts and observations as seen through the POV character's eyes. These devices are often clunky but can be effective and a lot less confusing than multiple POVs.
 

badlandz

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Sorry to revive this from the dead, but I was thinking about this today and looking for other perspectives I found this old thread.

Ok, I'm by far not an expert on this, but I'll just say this anyway. But I'm not finding anyone saying what I sort of felt about it. To me, there are no really good reasons for saying one category of novel should be in past, and another should be in present.

It depends on how you want to convey the story, and how you think it is most interesting.

There are some cases where "Let me tell you this story about what happened" works to set the stage better.

There are other times when you really want the reader in the head of the character, like the character is saying "can you see this? can you believe this? it's wild, huh? look at that!" type of view.

And I honestly feel, most stories are better when told (past tense), and fewer stories are better told "living through it" (present tense).

So, IMHO, I think most authors might -think- everyone want's to be on the roller-coaster with the MC, when in fact the what the reader really wants is to sit back and watch the MC's reaction while they ride the roller-coaster.

It's very few times you need to bring the reader on the roller-coaster with the MC.

But, I'd be happy to hear other opinions if anyone wants to talk about this thread (which is about 6 years old now?)
 

Morwen Edhelwen

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Sorry to revive this from the dead, but I was thinking about this today and looking for other perspectives I found this old thread.

Ok, I'm by far not an expert on this, but I'll just say this anyway. But I'm not finding anyone saying what I sort of felt about it. To me, there are no really good reasons for saying one category of novel should be in past, and another should be in present.

It depends on how you want to convey the story, and how you think it is most interesting.

There are some cases where "Let me tell you this story about what happened" works to set the stage better.

There are other times when you really want the reader in the head of the character, like the character is saying "can you see this? can you believe this? it's wild, huh? look at that!" type of view.

And I honestly feel, most stories are better when told (past tense), and fewer stories are better told "living through it" (present tense).

So, IMHO, I think most authors might -think- everyone want's to be on the roller-coaster with the MC, when in fact the what the reader really wants is to sit back and watch the MC's reaction while they ride the roller-coaster.

It's very few times you need to bring the reader on the roller-coaster with the MC.

But, I'd be happy to hear other opinions if anyone wants to talk about this thread (which is about 6 years old now?)

I'd have to agree with that.
 

Danalynn

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Badlandz, I'm curious, what genre do you write and/or prefer to read?

I totally get what you're saying, but I disagree with what you said here:

And I honestly feel, most stories are better when told (past tense), and fewer stories are better told "living through it" (present tense).

So, IMHO, I think most authors might -think- everyone want's to be on the roller-coaster with the MC, when in fact the what the reader really wants is to sit back and watch the MC's reaction while they ride the roller-coaster.

It's very few times you need to bring the reader on the roller-coaster with the MC.

As a couple of people stated above in this thread, whether past tense or present tense is "what the readers really want" depends greatly on genre.

For example, while it's true that SOME stories may be better when told from the past tense, there are many, MANY excellent YA novels that are "better told 'living through it'".

The majority of teen readers do want to be "on the roller coaster with the MC." This may not be true for other genres and/or age groups, but it is true for YA.

:Thumbs:

I personally greatly prefer novels told from first person, present tense -- especially YA (which is what I write and mainly what I read), but adult also -- so much so that when I read something in past tense, my brain automatically converts it to present, and I have to conciously think about reading the words as they are written in past....

I imagine it's probably that way for people who prefer past tense, that when they read present tense their brains automatically turn the words into past.

But anyway, like I said, whether it's "better" to write in past or present really depends greatly on what the specific story calls for, and also depends even more so on the genre and age group that you are writing for.

:D
 

missesdash

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One thing I've noticed is that people insist they use past tense when they tell a story. I don't know if it's a generational thing or just a language quirk but me and a lot of my friends tell stories in present tense. We switch back and forth, but a lot of the time it's

"Okay, so I'm in line at the story, minding my business. So-and-so walks up to me, and he's all...so I grab the pack of chicken breast in my cart and slap the shit out of him...."

You get the point. But I've never considered past "the way we tell stories." first person especially varies because it can get pretty informal, and the present tense retelling is definitely informal. Comedians do it all the time. It's more about engaging.

Not to say past isn't used more, but I definitely still consider it "telling a story" because I tell stories in present tense all the time.
 
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badlandz

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Badlandz, I'm curious, what genre do you write and/or prefer to read?
Read mostly dark drama contemporary YA fiction.

Write mostly dark drama fiction, with occasional young character
I totally get what you're saying, but I disagree with what you said here:

As a couple of people stated above in this thread, whether past tense or present tense is "what the readers really want" depends greatly on genre.

For example, while it's true that SOME stories may be better when told from the past tense, there are many, MANY excellent YA novels that are "better told 'living through it'".

The majority of teen readers do want to be "on the roller coaster with the MC." This may not be true for other genres and/or age groups, but it is true for YA.

:Thumbs:
Yea, I get that.

I guess (to me) it's believability that matters? Like, really good action stuff works best in past tense. Because it's harder for the reader to believe they are the one blowing up cars and running down the street. That kind of thing. When it's written present tense, it's hard to read.

Drama is easier to be present tense, to evoke feelings and reactions.

And age (to me) isn't the divider in my mind, more what is happening
I personally greatly prefer novels told from first person, present tense -- especially YA (which is what I write and mainly what I read), but adult also -- so much so that when I read something in past tense, my brain automatically converts it to present, and I have to conciously think about reading the words as they are written in past....
There is a weird thing, to me, about first person present tense. For a short story, it is great, and puts you right there.

For something like a novel, it just is exhausting for me to read, or write, trying to stay in someones head that much. It can fall apart so easy, it just is rare that I can actually continue to like it.
 

Becca C.

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I think is really just a personal thing. I vastly prefer first person present tense to any other storytelling strategy, both to read and write. I just find I connect to it a lot better. You get to know the main character in a much more intimate way. Sometimes I feel to disconnected from a third-person-past-tense character that I'll put the book down.

Of course, it also depends on the author. I've read some amazing third person past, just like I've read some amazing first person present. As long as it makes the characters come alive in my head, it's all good.
 

Danalynn

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Yea, I get that.

I guess (to me) it's believability that matters? Like, really good action stuff works best in past tense. Because it's harder for the reader to believe they are the one blowing up cars and running down the street. That kind of thing. When it's written present tense, it's hard to read.

Drama is easier to be present tense, to evoke feelings and reactions.

And age (to me) isn't the divider in my mind, more what is happening.

Yes, for YOU (and others) present tense might be hard and exhausting to read, but for many people it's not -- and for many people (like me) it's past tense that's hard to read. ;) You know what I mean?

And to say that "good action stuff works best in past tense": It's not as black and white as that. That MAY be true for some novels, but there are many, many novels where good action stuff works just as excellently in present tense as it does in past. Conversely, stating that "Drama is easier to be present tense, to evoke feelings and reactions." isn't true, either. Many past tense novels evoke feelings and reactions just as excellently as the present tense ones do.

To state that one method is better than the other is just not right. Just because you personally prefer one over the other doesn't make the other less than. Does that make sense?


There is a weird thing, to me, about first person present tense. For a short story, it is great, and puts you right there.

For something like a novel, it just is exhausting for me to read, or write, trying to stay in someones head that much. It can fall apart so easy, it just is rare that I can actually continue to like it.

See, that's what I mean, it's all a matter of PERSONAL opinion, you know? Everyone is different.

I am the exact opposite of you. For me, reading and writing present tense comes SO NATURALLY to me that it's like breathing -- I don't even have to think about it. Whereas I struggle with past tense and I have to think about what I'm reading or writing.

I wrote my first YA novel in past tense, and it took me FOREVER to weed out all of the present tense from that novel, because I kept accidentally slipping from past to present without meaning to. I wrote my second YA novel in present tense and <insert angels singing here> it was soooo much easier for me! I didn't have hardly any problem with slipping from present into past. And, for the record, I have a good deal of "good action stuff" in my present tense novel, and according to my readers it works very well, thank you. LOL!
 
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Danalynn

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I think is really just a personal thing. I vastly prefer first person present tense to any other storytelling strategy, both to read and write. I just find I connect to it a lot better. You get to know the main character in a much more intimate way. Sometimes I feel to disconnected from a third-person-past-tense character that I'll put the book down.

Of course, it also depends on the author. I've read some amazing third person past, just like I've read some amazing first person present. As long as it makes the characters come alive in my head, it's all good.

My sentiments exactly. :)

:e2coffee:
 

badlandz

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See, that's what I mean, it's all a matter of PERSONAL opinion, you know? Everyone is different.
Exactly, see, that's what I'm asking. By no means do I think my view is right, just one that makes sense to me.

So, to rephrase my question:

Is it the type of story and how to tell it that should drive if it's present or past tense, or is it just reader preference?

I personally feel, it's the story. Some work better some ways. But what I'm starting to hear now from the replies, it's the reader preference, and YA reader preference is present tense.

I accept that is what people are saying. I'm not totally sold yet. I guess I don't need to be, I'm probably going to write each thing in the way I think it works best for that story, regardless. But I did want to hear other views.
 

Becca C.

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Is it the type of story and how to tell it that should drive if it's present or past tense, or is it just reader preference?

I think, at the writing level, it's author preference. The author is the one engineering the story. It's all up to their discretion. This is what makes some authors great: the ability, the sense of style, to make choices that make the story unique and engaging.
 

Danalynn

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Exactly, see, that's what I'm asking. By no means do I think my view is right, just one that makes sense to me.

So, to rephrase my question:

Is it the type of story and how to tell it that should drive if it's present or past tense, or is it just reader preference?

I personally feel, it's the story. Some work better some ways. But what I'm starting to hear now from the replies, it's the reader preference, and YA reader preference is present tense.

I accept that is what people are saying. I'm not totally sold yet. I guess I don't need to be, I'm probably going to write each thing in the way I think it works best for that story, regardless. But I did want to hear other views.

It IS the type of story and how you tell it that is the determining factor, but it is ALSO gauged by reader preference. You absolutely should write in the way you think works best for the story. That's what I meant when I said whether it's "better" to write in past or present really depends greatly on what the specific story calls for. And you should also write it with your readers in mind.


By that I mean that I'd recommend reading all the published "dark drama fiction" novels you can get your hands on. THAT alone is THE BEST way to find out what method "works" for the genre you want to write in. This is true for ANYTHING you want to write, no matter the genre or whether it's novels or short stories or fanfiction or anything. By seeing how other authors did it, and were successful at it, you'll be much better able to judge what method(s) readers of that genre prefer reading. :D

:Lecture:
 

badlandz

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k, get POV gets empty sometimes in YA if you try to do third person past tense. Being on the roller-coaster is something they need. (just wrote a scene that I see might need that, so, maybe).

What about this idea? Would it be crazy to intentionally shift between past third person into first present tense, from scene to scene, if you rely on one (past tense) mostly, and then "flush forward" the emotional content in some scenes by shifting to present tense (stylistically in just 1 or 2 scenes dramatically and intentionally)... or would reviewers and readers just not get what you are doing?
 

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Personally, I think that it's a matter of how well the author pulls it off. Sometimes you can just tell that the author was uncomfortable with writing in the present tense, and that makes it difficult to read.
 

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It's an acquired taste. xd I used to dislike it, but suddenly something clicked into place and I started enjoying it.

It changed my writing, too. I used to write in first person, past tense. Now I either write in third person, past tense (wide span & cinematic kind of style) or first person, present tense (when I want feverish, tense & emotional).
 

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