The past or the present?


I just stumbled across this article, that puts light on something that bothers me about me current project. It discusses how, in time, some authors in printed literature began to drift away from using third person past tense, to use third person present tense, most likely because they were inspired by the style of writing screenplays. The article then goes on to touch on how those two different ways of writing have a different impact on the way your story is perceived, and that you should choose one depending on what you wish to achieve. This is all when discussing traditional novel writing.

How does this come out when writing for the visual novel format? They are usually a mix between choose-your-own-adventure stories and comics, making them very different when approached from a writer’s angle, sometimes more than you’d think.

The script of most visual novels are written with a first person POV, putting the reader in the shoes of the protagonist. He’s seeing things happen, he makes the choice as they come up. Present tense lends itself well to this type of story, as you’re supposed to be there, experiencing all this, in a story where no one knows the ending yet. It is part of what sets visual novels apart from reading book or a comic.

In comics themselves, this issue most often does not exist, as there is no descriptive text – only dialogue. The rest is something you see happen, it’s not told.

The voices in my head, duking it out.
The voices in my head, duking it out.

Now what if you want to write a third-person visual novel?

This is what I’m currently doing, and it’s proving surprisingly challenging. You’re no longer “in the shoes” of one person who sees all this unravel – you’re not making choices of what one person in particular would think or do. Adding to this, I’m trying to lean more heavily on the visual side of things, mimicking the original comic roots of the story I’m writing. But that’s for another day.

I soon realised, that when returning to third person, I naturally wanted to revert back to past tense as well, as I used to do. It’s what I’m used to reading, and writing. And it’s something people might be more used to reading as well, as the article puts it. This is something I’m struggling with quite a bit at the moment – as a reader you’re still put directly into the action, you’re still making choices for these people on the screen and impacting their lives as you go – should it still not be present tense?

“Omg, the writing is so bad! What was she even thinking!?”

I think the evidence still points towards the latter, though I still have to be careful with not falling into pitfalls of old writing habits. But the subject interests me.

What are your thoughts on the subject, as readers and writers?

2 thoughts on “The past or the present?

  1. I remember running in the same problem while translating a visual novel’s demo: my problem was partly that I was given what I considered to be a fairly wonky English translation from Japanese and had to translate it to my own language, so I wasn’t sure whether their choice to use the present tense was the English translator’s or the original’s (inquiring with the japanese author was often a bit hard).

    In the end, I went with what seemed more natural in my own language: the past tense (I think! Maybe I’ll discover that I’m remembering this all wrong…).

    The way I see it, the choice of the tense is a bit like the choice for the art style – find what suits you the most.
    I read loads of books in the past with the past tense where I felt I was in the action and other books where they used the present tense and I didn’t feel involved at all. I guess that with visual novels you have the additional element of choices which might complicate matters, but not necessarily. My choice there would be to keep a consistent approach, to avoid confusing your readers (I’m a reader, so take this as a reader’s opinion) and keep the tenses the same both for choices and narration.

    As for writing in third person (though with past tense)… <- this seemed to work very well to me. So well, that I only remembered it was in third person because I was checking whether anyone had started a translation patch for it so it was just under my nose. I didn't remember it, I was surprised to find out it was like that and I thought it worked really well and almost gave me the impression I was eavesdropping on the characters' conversations and everything seemed a bit more mysterious.

    1. Hmm you have some very good points. And thank you for the example – the only one I could think of myself at the moment was Animamundi, but I was never very fond of the theatrical style in that one to starts with.

      And going on a tangent, but I’m really looking forward to a translation of Mahoutsukai as well 🙂

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