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I was wondering if third-person present tense was common and popular in adult novels. I know when I'm reading Young Adult novels that this tense is like the norm. I mostly write YA novels so I can attest to this and it really works for the voice. But for my adult novels, I'm starting to doubt my use of third-person present after receiving feedback from a random person on the Internet. My other beta-readers didn't have a problem with this. But anyway, this random beta-reader I found said that people don't like third person present novels. Is this true or is he delusional?

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  • For what genre or style? Third Person Present is very common for Scripts (plays / films / tv shows), but much less common for Historical accounts. Plus, with a past tense, it's usually pretty obvious that your protagonist will survive the danger unharmed... For this reason, Clive Barker and Stephen King have both used Present for horror novels. – Chronocidal Apr 17 '20 at 9:07
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As I mentioned on the "passion project" question single data points don't mean much by themselves - if one of your multiple beta readers says something, then in the absence of any particular reason to give their opinion more weight it's probably of little consequence.

While there probably as many people bemoaning use of present tense in "adult" novels as there are people writing in it (and that's a good many of both), like many technique choices it's a tool and the difference between getting the choice "right" is more matter of choosing the right tool for the job. The different tenses all have their pros and cons and the story and what you're trying to achieve by the use of the particular tense should drive it.

A bad novel written in the present tense is going to be bad if you write it in the past tense as well. Writing in the same story in a different tense can certainly ruin it - but it can't save a bad one.

Present tense has certainly enjoyed a relative wave of popularity in recent years, perhaps driven by the wide reaching successes of The Hunger Games, Fight Club and The Time Traveller's Wife to name but three - but it's not a new innovation - Dickens' Bleak House is an example dating back over 150 years ago. And perhaps much of the backlash is built upon the large numbers of people who have used it unwisely - attempting to imitate what Hunger Games etc did without understanding why it worked for the books they are trying to ape.

Present can bring a certain sense of immediacy to the action, it can intensify the emotions of the moment and couples well with a Deep-POV. But this comes with a cost - the flipside is that you narrow the scope, it can feel like you're watching the world through a camera viewfinder with the zoom turned up. It's easy to get lost in mundane details and you either greatly restrict or outright lose a lot of narrative tools, time shifts are awkward and it's difficult to convey stories that play out over longer time frames.

What also cannot be ignored is good old human bias - there are readers out there who hate present tense, to the degree that they will abandon a novel as soon as they discover it's written in it. In this sense past tense is very much the "safer" choice.

So ask yourself - what does the use of present tense bring to my story? if you don't have a compelling answer to that you may want to re-evaluate.

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  • I've read through my novels thoroughly and objectively and have given it to beta-readers for their review. My use of it is good and it certainly adds to the story being told. Thank you for your thoughtful response. – JRosebrookMaye Apr 17 '20 at 10:06
  • @JRosebrookMaye Out of interest, what is your actual reason for doing so (i.e. the answer to motosubatsu's question)? – DM_with_secrets Apr 21 '20 at 19:44
  • @DM_with_secrets It's the most natural tense that I can actually write in. I come from a film background. – JRosebrookMaye Apr 21 '20 at 22:10
  • @JRosebrookMaye Ah, okay - so it's more about you and your personal style rather than this story in particular? – DM_with_secrets Apr 22 '20 at 11:17
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    @DM_with_secrets Yes, it's the most natural style for me to write in but as a novelist, I had to seek additional feedback to know whether or not something was working. This helped me smooth out the edges to insure my book reads like a novel and not a script. – JRosebrookMaye Apr 22 '20 at 23:09

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