Random Observations in Reading

While getting back into the groove of getting things done (albeit a bit more clumsily) I’ve been taking the time to read a book loaned me by a friend (Hi, Jes!):  Saving CeeCee Honeycutt.  This isn’t a review of the book, although I imagine there will be one forthcoming in the next week or so, but rather a question about literature in general.  The whole thing, well, the whole four chapters I’ve read, is in the past tense.  The same thing happened with Little Bee – most of it was written in past tense recollections.

I’m trying to rack my brain to think on what other literary titles have done this recently, but I can’t come up with any.  Instead I can say I’ve read a bunch of sample pages of people’s works across the internet and found that many people are doing this as well.  Why the past tense/first person phenomena?

As a reader I find myself ever so much more moved by a piece when it’s told presently.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that there can be no recognition of the past or that the characters can not have moments of recollection, but why not phrase it so we know it’s the past but use present terms?  Make it so the reader can’t help but FEEL what the character is going through without adding the distance brought about by “I did”, “back then” or “I felt”.  What are your preferences in such things?  Do you notice?  Do you care?  Can this be done effectively?  If so – what titles would you recommend?

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16 responses to “Random Observations in Reading

  • Merrilee

    For me, it depends on the type of story. If it’s something with tension, I prefer present. If it’s a character story, past can work well – Fried Green Tomatoes comes to mind.

    • Teresa

      Me? I think past tense for character driven stories and present tense for plot driven makes more sense. I am currently polishing a short story and am having trouble writing it in first person which I don’t normally do.

      Lesson learned: I need to broaden my horizon and get out of my cozy rut.

      • kimberlyloomis

        Teresa- Those ruts can do us in can’t they? Perhaps if this had not been first person which has been getting done overmuch in my reading experience of late I would have less of an issue with it. I don’t know. Am still persevering so we shall see how it unfolds. 🙂

    • kimberlyloomis

      I think I’ll have to check that one out, Merrilee! Thanks! I can see that. I’m ultimately thinking it’s just being a bit over done style wise and, while some do it very well, this one doesn’t seem as though it is.

  • Jes Mauldin

    Hi Kim!

    I personally enjoyed the past tense backstory. It made the storyline. I think the author should have gone into some more details in some areas..but I’ll wait to discuss those with you when you finish. I’d be interested in getting your overall opinion. Remember, this is the first work from an interior design professional.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Jes- Fair enough! I’ll be sure to post a review when I finish reading it. I’m about halfway through already – quick read!

  • Carol Kilgore

    It all depends, but if this is all backstory I’d be skimming ahead to find out what’s happening now.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Carol – You’re a woman after my own heart on that one. I think this is further complicated by the tendency of telling “too much” which, honestly, seems to be a disease afflicting many current published works.

  • Stephen Tremp

    “Chase walked up to Nicky and punched him in the nose.” Its past tense, but to the reader senses its in the present. I do not care much for flashbacks. Some writers can get away with it though.

    Stephen Tremp

    • kimberlyloomis

      Stephen – That’s exactly it, I think. It takes great skill to be able to do this well, make the reader feel grounded in the present while using past tense, and this author doesn’t seem to have gotten the hang of it. Read a bit today that was past tense and then solidly was in the present and it left me feeling disjointed.

  • Jemi Fraser

    I think it mostly depends on the story and the character.

    Myself, I prefer 3rd person past tense. I find it so much easier to read and write. It just seems to flow better. Present tense writing often feels awkward – although I’ve read a few 1st person/present tense books lately I’ve really enjoyed. So I’m probably just getting more used to it. 🙂

    • kimberlyloomis

      Jemi- Very good sum up I agree with. It’s the first person that is grating me. “I woke up this morning and proceeded to…” kind of drives me a bit batty. 😉

  • Jan

    My favorite stories move the plot along with dialogue, not thinking, but doing. They might describe an action but it is almost always in the context of being done.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Jan- Some stories do well with dialogue, but some are forever burdening the speech down with unnecessary tags. Personally, I like action and thought, so long as it all flows well together.

  • Corra McFeydon

    I think it all depends on the writer’s approach and how captivating the story is in the first place. I’ve read some really boring work that snags throughout the narrative because it’s so ‘I had this feeling two years agi and now I’m reflecting on the feeling.’

    Then again, I’ve read some exceptional work that is very ‘memoiresque’ in style (meaning it pushes forward, yes, but reflects back to memories, and is first person, past tense.)

    I don’t know that it’s ever a good idea to rule out a certain writing style or tense as ‘always bad.’ What really matters, IMHO, is how well the writer handles the POV and tense they choose, to deliever a captivating story.

    – Corra

    the victorian heroine

    • kimberlyloomis

      Corra – Lol! That first paragraph summed up my frustration with “Little Bee”. And I totally agree with the memoiresque (good word!) statement. Perhaps this really just goes to the quality of the author and not the style. I’ll have to think on that. I might have just gotten some not so good examples of this style that has left me a touch annoyed and unwilling to give it a fair shot. Thanks!

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