Tenses and Writing and You

11 Jun

A few years ago, I read a whole slew of books that were told in first person, present tense.*

The first time, it was refreshing.  Novel, even, if you’ll excuse the pun.

The second, it was slightly less so.  Been there, done that.

By the time I opened the third book and saw something like I stare at the sun setting over the beach and raise my wineglass to my lips as the waves lap gently at my toes I was no longer refreshed.  Instead, my reaction was more like Agrajag’s from the Hitchhiker’s books:  “Oh no, not again.”

Let me say this:  it’s a valid storytelling style.  I mean, hell, The Hunger Games trilogy is told in first person, present tense, and obviously Suzanne Collins is doing something right.  Right?

Hell, I’ve written in it.  Chances are, if I’m tinkering with an RP  story for my little deader mage, it’s usually in present tense, although the perspective’s in third person.  I can’t explain why that is, just that it’s how Davien tells her stories in my head.  Some of my flash pieces — two that I’m particularly proud of, in fact — are in present tense.  (And hey, both got published, so a few editors out there were okay with them, too.)

So, while I’m not arguing against writing in the present tense, I am urging you to carefully consider a few things before you do it:

Watch your tenses

It should seem obvious, shouldn’t it?  But when I’ve read early drafts written in the present, I quite often notice the writer slipping into the past.  Maybe it’s something that was missed during a rewrite.  Maybe the narrator had to switch tenses to explain a bit of backstory and the writer forgot to return to the present when that was done.    Either way, the inconsistency is jarring.

Past tense feels more natural

There’s a reason that so many books stay in the past tense, and it’s the same reason that, despite snaps and zippers and hundreds of years of fashion innovations, buttons are still around:  because they work.  Like the word “said,” past tense isn’t something the reader has to think about.  It doesn’t draw attention to itself.  It doesn’t make me go “what’s going on here?’ when I read the first line.

Present tense does.  I have no idea when it started, or whether it’s a relatively recent literary development, but a lot of writers will switch to the present tense if their characters are dreaming.  Which means, if a book starts that way, I’m going to spend the first few paragraphs wondering if it’s what’s going on is real or not, when I should probably be paying more attention to the characters and plot.

Does that mean you should never, ever experiment?  No!  But let me ask you… why are you experimenting?  Because…

It’s not really all that daring these days.

I know.  “To hell with natural, let’s break some rules!  Let’s shake up the reader’s expectations!  Do something different!  Something daring!”


This holds true for pretty much anything writing-wise, but I’ll say it here:  if you’re only doing it as a gimmick, stop.  Gimmicks get old quick.  It’s very, very hard to sustain them, especially throughout a whole novel.  When I’m reading page after page of an author trying to be quirky, I get bored, then annoyed.  Here, let’s let Ben Folds make the point in a musical interlude — “Steven’s Last Night in Town:”

But we thought he was gone
But he’s come back again
Last week it was funny
And now the joke’s wearin’ thin
‘Cause everyone knows now
That every night now
Will be Steven’s last night in town

Years ago I read a book with a minor character (a swan-maiden) who only spoke in alliteration.  Any time the protagonist asked a question, the swan-maiden responded in riddles that were less poetry and more “oh shit, I need a word for ‘run’ that starts with ‘s,’ where’s my thesaurus?”  One line, two, okay, whatever, I’ll go with it.  By the third time she opened her mouth, I was skimming ahead to find her exit from the chapter.

Does it set the mood you want?

Present tense adds a bit of uncertainty to the narrative.  You’re right there in the moment with the characters, so their safety feels less guaranteed.  I’ve heard a complaint that, with stories told in first person, past tense, the reader already knows that the narrator lives to the end, since, y’know, they’re the ones telling the story.  (I’ll insert an evil laugh here and say not always, but a lot of the time, this is true.)  The present tense removes that guarantee — if the villain’s waiting around the next corner with a crowbar, we’ll find out when the heroine does.

Beware that you’re not letting the tense do all the ramping up for you.  Just as an experiment, try rewriting your big reveal scene in the past tense.  Does it still get you on the edge of your seat?  Are you still worried that your hero might not make it out alive?  If your verb forms are carrying all your suspense, you need to take another look.

Don’t be afraid to try

Yeah, I know.  I’ve just spent several hundred words asking if you really need to write in the present.  If it feels like the right voice for your character, if it’s how you’re hearing the tale unfold in your head, go ahead and give it a shot!  It might take tinkering.  You might nail it on the first go.

In the end, as always, it’s all about what works best for the story.

Do you have good examples of stories told in the present tense?  Have you read any that just didn’t do it for you?  What other pitfalls should writers watch out for?  Let us know!


*Coincidentally, they all happened to be about women whose husband/lover/best friend/sister had died of cancer, and the women were doing crazydrastic life-upheaving things to overcome their grief, but that’s a post for another day.


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