Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ask the Editors: Third Person/Present Tense

This post was first published here on Nov 3, 2009.

Theresa M. Moore, author of ten books, including her latest, Principles of Self-Publishing: How to Publish and Market a Book On a Shoestring Budget, Rev. Ed., and another 4 in progress wrote to ask The Blood-Red Pencil editors this question:
Recently I have received two books for review which were written in third person present tense (action as it happens) instead of the standard third person past tense. I found both books hard to read as I am used to the latter style. Is this an acceptable way to write a book for new authors?

Where did this style originate, and should it be accepted by editors?
Here’s my take on this, Theresa.

Writers are constantly being told they need to write something new, but not too new: something unique, but that the reader can identify with … a plot device that grabs the reader, but doesn’t lock them in a stranglehold … a new twist on an old story … characters who will lead the next rage-wave … and on and on.

What editors want is a story that will grab their attention, carry them late into the night reading, and make them close the book and want to call the writer the next morning to grab them before someone else does. Yeah, they want that unidentifiable “something,” be it a unique plot twist; a new vampire, but not a vampire; a thread that runs through the story that will establish a platform for the writer and create mega sales; a story that moves them; something different, yet not too different; fully developed characters who arc over the course of the book and who live and breathe in a setting that will pull the reader into the story.

They’re rarely looking for a way of telling the story that baffles the reader.
He sees a manuscript on his desk, neatly typed, with a compelling title, and he picks it up, ruffles through the pages. He reclines in his desk chair and begins to read. He is only a few pages into the story when his assistant comes in, sets a cup of mocha on the manuscript. “Hey, I’m reading that.”

“Sorry,” she mumbles. “Where can I put it? Your desk is covered.”

“Set it on top of the Dan Brown tome. I’m gonna pass on that, anyway.” He smiles, watches her leave the room, and picks up the manuscript. He knows it’s not a new ideal; it is, in fact, a remake of a hundred other books: A vampire who craves the blood of young teens, but holds himself in check because he’s in love with a human cheerleader. But it’s written in third person/present tense. He nods his head. Yeah, that’s a twist. He checks the cover page to see if the writer included her phone number.
Yes, there have been books written in third person/present tense. It has the feel of the old gumshoe TV shows. It lets the reader in on everything that happens as it happens. Third person/present tense is not easy to maintain for 300 or 500 pages, nor is it easy to keep the attention of the reader who’s sitting smack in the protagonist’s lap seeing and feeling his every move as it happens.

Before you write this kind of book, get several published books under your credit belt. Establish yourself with your agent and editor, so they know when they receive this third person/present tense manuscript that you can handle it and they can work with you. Or , better yet, you’re close enough to your agent or editor you can talk to them ahead of time and see what they think of the idea before you start. An unpublished writer sending this to an agent or editor probably won’t get far.

She may get the first few pages read, but not much more, unless the agent and the editor think it’s brilliant.

Thanks, Theresa, for the question.

Helen Ginger is an authorblogger, Coordinator of Story Circle Network's Editorial Services and Chair of the Texas Book Festival Author Escorts. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of three books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, and the novel Angel Sometimes. Two of her short stories can be found in the anthology, The Corner Cafe. Her next book, Dismembering the Past, is due out soon.


  1. Good tip, Ginger. Can you show us an example? A line written past and one written present to show the difference in feel?

  2. Bingo on the old hardboiled gumshoe feeling of person & tense.

    I personally do not like the "she walks into the room, she picks up the gun and she fires it..."

    It doesn't grab me in a way, it feels like I am mre outside of the story than immersed in it.

    A few years ago when I was judging a book contest (along with 2 other judges) the list of finalists had been decideed but we had to pick The Winner still. It was down to two books - one of which was done in third person present. This book ultimately won (better plot, better setting and all that) but we all said we did NOT care for the person & tense.


    Cheers, Jill

  3. I think 3rd person/ present works well for short stories and SOME novels but it can be tiresome AND tiring.

  4. The only novel I've read that does this is Intensity by Dean Koontz (1995). Half the novel was third person/past from the protagonist's POV, the other half was third person/present from the antagonist's POV.

    It was weird for me at first, but after about a paragraph I forgot it was even there as I got sucked into the killer's head.

    I think it worked because the whole point of the killer was his intensity (hence the title) and his desire to live fully in the moment. It also worked because he spoke about himself in the third person.

    But mostly I think it worked because it was a darn good story. Honestly, if the characters are real and the story is gripping, I don't think anyone's going to care what POV or tense you used past the first page. On the other hand, why give them another reason to put the book down?

  5. Golly bum, I enough have trouble with plain old, third person past tense, much less wandering into uncharted territory. No danger of me trying this.

    Best Regards, Galen.

  6. If you're writing this way without realizing you're doing it, there's a good chance you're messing up - not being consistent or interjecting the author into the story. It is so far from the norm that it takes talent to pull it off. It has to be a compelling story with characters who can handle it. If at any point, you slip up, the agent or editor or reader will catch it.

  7. I am writing my WIP in third person, present tense. I was writing in conventional past tense, but this seems to work better. I'm finding it far more immediate and personal. Remember though, I've got far more than one POV; so either I'm doing something really good, or really bad. I'm hoping for the former!


  8. I think the example Adam posted about Koonz is a good one, and reinforces your point, Helen, that a writer should not try this just to try something different to catch an editor's eye. A writing instructor hammered the point that the style, the characters, the dialogue -- everything -- has to be organic to the story. Some stories call for past tense third person. Others call for preseent/first, and only occasionally does a story call for something really unique.

  9. Great post...I enjoyed it, and I despise mixing tenses, which I why I can't write first person and usually don't like reading novels written as such.

  10. I really enjoyed your take on this, Ginger, and all the chatter it inspired. I think the two main things to remember are that you have to have a reason for using present tense, and you have to handle it well. I've seen riveting stories written in present tense from many wonderful literary writers. An interesting approach for a story written in past tense, which is triggered by a past traumatic incident, is to put those flashback sequences in the present tense--I know it seems counterintuitive, but when handled deftly it can be powerful. It sends the message that the character is reliving events all over again.

    "Sandra walked into the room and as soon as she smelled the wood burning in the fireplace it transported her back to that night that changed her life. She is now ten years old and her mother has just called her for supper. There is a fire in the fireplace that night, too, and..."

    That sort of thing.

  11. What it seems to come down to and what everyone is saying is that you need to be conscious of what you're doing and do what you do with purpose.

  12. I feel like I've read that established writers aren't allowed to change their tune, and new writers have to march to the regular beat. Kind of sad really, and only the highest flyers get to fly. Still, wise advice. Flying before walking too easily turns into falling without grace.

  13. Ditto on the other comments! I've seen it work well in short spurts as a POV change for a chapter to a killer's thoughts...which doesn't last long or wear you out.

    Also in short stories. You know it's a snapshot in this character's life so you don't mind it. I'd never make a whole book.

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  15. Wow, Helen ... you sure seem to have gotten Mr. Anonymous upset back in 2011. Gee, I thought your post was a thoughtful analysis ... guess you can't please everyone.

  16. I was inspired to use present tense (third-person, my usual POV) for my first Russian historical back in '93, after reading Ida Vos's autobiographical middle grade novel Hide and Seek. (She wrote all her books in third-person present tense.) It was like a revelation to me to discover books could be written in present tense. It made the action seem so much more gripping, intense, dramatic, right in the moment, never knowing what would happen next or if the characters would have a happy ending. This was years before every other writer decided to use present tense, so I wasn't mindlessly following some trend. For almost everything else, I use past tense as my default, but I do have two sets of characters whose stories are in present tense. It feels weird to even imagine them in past tense, since they just feel right in present. It's the same way certain moviestars exist in black and white or silence for all time, and it would feel jarring to see color photographs or hear their voices.

  17. I am a very new, newbie. I've had one published short story so far, and I'm working on my first novel. I kept changing tense in the story, and the editor told me to choose one and stick to it--either third person past or present. I had never attempted present before, and since I kept trying to change it to that tense anyway, I tried it. After about 5 or 6 rewrites, I finally got it. I didn't realize how difficult it would be to write that way. Granted, I haven't written, (or at least submitted) much and I am very green, but this was a very short story, under 1,500 words. I can't imagine maintaining that for an entire novel. Thanks to all here, I learn a great deal by not only the articles, but the comments as well! :)


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