Present Tense in Web Serials

5 months ago | A.C. Luke (Member)

So, I've recently started my own web serial and it's written in present tense—in part because that's what I'm used to, and also because I prefer it stylistically.

I didn't really think about it, however, until I got a comment saying that they enjoyed my serial but wouldn't be reading any further because it was written in present tense. That caused me to glance through the current Top Web Fiction list, and I couldn't find a single one that wasn't written in past tense.

Is present tense something I should be worried about turning a significant enough amount of readers off that it's worth changing? It'd be a pain to rewrite the 20k+ words I've written so far, but I'd be willing to do it if push comes to shove.

Either way, I'd love to hear people's thoughts on the matter—especially if any of you out there are writing in present tense yourself.

Marchlands » An Urban Fantasy Web Serial:
The story of those fated to guard the border between our world and the fantastical.

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Responses

  1. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 5 months ago

    The choice of tense provokes very specific opinions in a significant, though not necessarily a majority, of people.

    Pay Me, Bug! was written in past tense. Curveball is written in present tense. I've had two readers of one tell me they couldn't read the other because they find reading present tense strange and uncomfortable.

    Shrug.

    Curveball (Updating)
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  2. Sharkerbob (Member)

    Posted 5 months ago

    Past Tense seems like the "industry standard", which may be why it throws people when they see other tenses used. However, I've seen stories in Present Tense, and in my experience, once you get used to it, it works out fine. I think if it works for you, you should stick with it; it's more than likely a minority of people who are just sticklers for a certain style. If your story is good, most people will give it a shot, and get used to the tense as they read along. (On a much broader scale, compare it to comic books; there's books that might have a really great story, but some people just cannot get past the art.)

    Where it gets jarring is when you switch from present to past and back (for me, character dialogue is still in past tense, so I gotta make sure I don't keep doing past tense outside of it). As long as you aren't mixing the tenses, I think it's fine.

  3. ElliottThomasStaude (Member)

    Posted 5 months ago

    The way I’ve heard it, there are also issues of genre to be considered. As bob-of-the-Sharker has put it, past tense is the default in most of modern Western society (can’t speak for other cultures on or off of the Earth), and so it’s what the average person will find comfortable. However, at least in the U.S., present tense has connotations of immediacy and dynamic action - it’s fairly often used in the news industry, for example. It might in fact be more appropriately in-your-face to use as a subliminal lever in an action-heavy or otherwise rigorous sort of story. It gets across a certain sense of being dragged along by the author, which might not be good in War and Peace but might do excellently in James Bond. Ultimately? Unless you’re planning to be one of the three people in the world crazy enough to try future tense, I certainly won’t complain.

    If you've a head for holistic science fantasy, the Library may oblige: https://www.thomas-generalized-recountings-library.com
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  4. Thedude3445 (Member)

    Posted 5 months ago

    I write in first-person present tense for my serial ATL. Not exactly at the top of the charts or anything, but the story is sometimes complimented for its strong narrator voice, and that wouldn't be the case if it were in past tense, I think.

    Don't rewrite it. Anyone turned off by present tense was just looking for a reason to stop reading your work. (For others reading this post: if your story happens to be on RoyalRoad, this is a very common tactic where people make inflammatory dismissive comments for not much of a reason. 100% ignore that.) The difference in past and present tense is that, obviously, past tense is more reflective and present tense is in-the-moment, and that can actually matter a lot for conveying certain moments in the story. Your story is in third person, so the tense doesn't matter QUITE as much as something in first-person, but stick with what you chose, because it's a waste of time to go back and edit it all, and it might hurt the story in some unexpected ways.

    Sorry boss, but there's only two men I trust. One of them's me. The other's not you.
  5. LadyAnder (Member)

    Posted 5 months ago

    Present tense is that tense.

    It goes two ways with a lot of readers: You like it or you don't. There isn't a way to please the ones who don't like it. So don't switch tenses because of them. You choose the tense that will tell a better story. Switching tense might not be best for the story you are trying to tell.

    I mean it's kind of popular to hate on present tense. If something interests me and is written so I don't find it to jarring, I'll get used to the tense. Granted, I have to be careful so I don't switch tense in my own work by accident because of what I'm reading. XD

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  6. Snuggle Squiggle (Member)

    Posted 5 months ago

    Inheritors is a quite popular web serial written in present tense.

    I'm not going to tell you not to go back and rewrite it, though. I did the exact same thing for my serial (started in present, rewrote in past), and the rewriting was very good for it.

    If you yourself are happy with the text, leave it as it is.

    I write Endless Stars! It's a serial about dragons and friendship.
  7. Marn (Member)

    Posted 5 months ago

    I wrote Antlers, CO in present tense, and only got one real comment from someone who minded? I've found that most of my readers like the urgency of the present tense, and it helps for constructing cliffhangers that actually make readers want to click through to the next update.

  8. A.C. Luke (Member)

    Posted 5 months ago

    Thanks for your thoughts everyone. I think I panicked a bit; I hadn't thought about 'present tense discourse' in so long it took me a bit by surprise.

    For the time being I'm going to stick with present tense and just hope that it means people appreciate that my writing is stronger for it.

    Marchlands » An Urban Fantasy Web Serial:
    The story of those fated to guard the border between our world and the fantastical.
  9. Madiha N. Santana (Member)

    Posted 5 months ago

    I write mostly in the past tense, but I've dabbled with present tense fiction in the past. I think you should stick with what you're doing. Diverging from the pack is, in my opinion, a good thing, and I think there's plenty of people out there who will appreciate something new and different, and having a style you're comfortable with and that you can stick to is important.

  10. mooderino (Member)

    Posted 5 months ago

    Many of my favourite books are written in present tense and it can work as well as past if the content of the story is interesting enough. That said, it can have an airy, floaty vibe that can make it feel disconnected. It can also easily feel melodramatic and over the top. The weaker the narrative and the more observational it is about minor details, the more inconsequential it can come across.

    I think partly that’s because a past tense story implies you're telling what happened from a perspective of knowing this goes somewhere interesting (since it’s already happened) while present tense doesn’t know what’s coming but is still telling you because it assumes whatever it is it will be worth reading about. Psychologically, I think that can be off-putting.

    I think first person present tense works better than third-person, and a strong MC with a clear personality can help get a reader over the initial discomfort of an unfamiliar narrative style. If the activity within the scene is gripping enough, that will also help. If you take your time ramping up and getting to know characters, and they happen to be normal unremarkable people (which is often the case for newer writers wanting to reflect a less stereotypical hero) then it can seem very pretentious in present.

    Past tense can make it easier to keep them reading until something dramatic happens, but generally a good story will override any misgivings about style. If people say they liked your story but… then that really means they didn’t like it enough to give it more of their time. That will be true of some people no matter what you do, they will just have different excuses for the same thing.

  11. Alexander.Hollins (Member)

    Posted 3 months ago

    one of the main issues I've seen lately is a lot of people saying that present tense (and first person, and especially first person present) are inherently kid / ya books, which is weird to me. It is true that a lot of kids books the last decade or two have been present tense.

    As I like pointing out, Moby Dick was largely in present tense.

  12. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 3 months ago

    People associate it with YA because it is so common in YA that people who read a lot of it don't even blink when they see it, and in some cases look at past tense as the weird choice. It's pretty much the only genre I can think of where it's that deeply embedded.

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    A Rake by Starlight (Updating)

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