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Generally it is preferred that one use present tense with POV, or at least it sounds organic. Are there any ground rules I can make use of to exploit third person present tense to the fullest without making it sound a bit off for readers of the typical third person past tense novel?

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I'm currently writing a sci-fi fantasy in third person limited using present tense. If you use an action beat (which in present tense is the default) you can write it plainly. This approach will sound like a play-by-play; my advice for this, use it sparingly and when you want the flow to be quick. You can cover a battle like this. Now for the rest of the story you will have to, I repeat, HAVE TO use (in the moment) techniques. While using narrative, put the reader in the moment. When using dialogue, put the reader in the moment.

I.E.:

Hector aims the crosshairs at the enemy freighter.
The forward cannons light up.
He pulls back the trigger.
Bright white spheres shoot out and head to their target.
The enemy ship blows up.

V.S.:

Hector grabs the main cannon controls. The leather is cracked, it's frayed edges stab into his clammy hands.
Sweat blurs the iron sights.
If the showers still work after this, I'm definitely letting that ugly chick from engineering scrub my back.
He lines the iron sights with the enemy freighter. Its massive hull begins to shrink.
You can't just fuck us and leave without a kiss goodbye you dirty son of a-.
He squeezes the trigger.
The cannons moan.
The floor vibrates.
White light floods Hectors view, he winches and shields his face with both arms.
The light fades into a dull orange glow.
Hector slowly drops his trembling arms.
Orange flames climb out of a hole in the enemy freighter hull. The red exhaust from its engines flicker then die with a plume of billowing dark smoke.
Hector falls to his numb knees.
The halls echo with his laugh.

Of course, you can always drop the (in the moment) technique when the action is supposed to happen quickly. Doing that throughout the entire story is not recommended. The writing style of present tense is more geared to using the present moment not the present action. Getting the reader to live the moments as they are happening, not simply see the actions as they are happening which is what many beginners do when writing present tense.

Remember. Present tense = present moment (what is going to put your reader into that moment)

If you're writing a screenplay then Present tense = present action.

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The biggest pitfall I find with third person present tense is that it can start to sound like a movie script. Like stage directions.

He goes to the fridge and opens it. It's empty. So he closes the fridge and walks to the cupboard.

Feels kind of stale, doesn't it? It's just action beat after action beat.

My advice, therefore, would be to bear this in mind when writing. Include beautiful descriptions, plenty of dialogue, and plenty of inner thoughts. This will help to prevent this 'stage directions syndrome'.

He walks to the fridge, his stomach wrenching from the two days of starvation. The fridge is empty. A heavy disappointment shudders through him, making him gag on nothing. The cupboards. Please, he whispers, please let there be something in the cupboards.

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  • That's interesting - do you think this is more common with third person present tense than with any other combination of person / tense? – DM_with_secrets Sep 16 at 7:52
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    I think there's more danger for it, because that's how stage directions are usually written. But any combination of viewpoint and tense can be used to great effect! Use whichever feels most comfortable to you. – 21st Century Writer Sep 16 at 8:14
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    I have to say, I absolutely love the term "stage direction syndrome." I may steal that :) – Sciborg Sep 16 at 8:37
  • Glad you found it useful! – 21st Century Writer Sep 16 at 8:40

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