Past tense or present tense, that is… or was… the question.
I’ve recently been researching the professional and non-professional views on tense in novel writing.
Why, you might ask? I am almost to the finish line of a YA novel I have been working on for…let’s say six years. I first wrote it in past tense, which is my usual way of writing. Then about half way through, for some unknown reason, I thought it would sound better in present tense. So I rewrote it. Now that I’m almost done, I’ve begun to see articles about the pitfalls of writing in present tense, which I—at one point or another—have encountered all. Have I overcome the warning obstacles? We’ll see.
According to David Jauss, of On Writing Fiction, these are three of the drawbacks of writing in present tense.
- Present tense restricts our ability to manipulate time, in that it is hard to switch to past tense during the story.
I didn’t seem to have a problem with that, as this information can be brought out in dialog or in the protagonist’s thoughts.
- It is more difficult to develop complex characters. He goes on to say it is harder to build depth in our characters in present tense. He states without the use of flashbacks, we can’t know enough about our character’s past and he ends up being generic.
I accomplished this feat by using dreams or nightmares in the beginning and on occasion to let the reader know what makes our hero do what he does.
- The present tense can diminish tension by eliminating the knowledge of upcoming events.
I didn’t find this to be problematic, but I suppose my readers will have to decide that. To quote Carolyn Chute, author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine, “What we gain in immediacy, we lose in tension. Present tense fiction can create another kind of suspense of course—the kind we feel when no one knows the outcome…”
Other articles I’ve read talk about how annoying some people find reading stories in present tense. I have to admit, I have read some that I couldn’t get past the first chapter. It seemed too jerky. But more recently, reading This Night Sucks, by Elizabeth Walker, I actually didn’t even notice it was present tense until well into it, then realized how refreshing it was to read it that way.
So, my humble conclusion on whether to write your story in present as opposed to past tense, is that it totally depends on the story, the way it is told, and perhaps why it is told that way.
I will include here the first scene here for anyone that wishes to contribute their opinion.
Excerpt from The Zone of Fear
By Rita Monette
It’s late August 1990, almost a year ago. My dad and I are sitting in the seat of his Ford Pickup traveling a couple miles west to pick up my friend, Darwin, then on to the park so we could shoot some hoops. He decides to pull into a convenient store to pick up some cigarettes.
“I’ll be right back,” he says.
Dad’s favorite CD, Unplugged by Eric Clapton, is playing Tears in Heaven. What a sad song, I think, and push the eject button. I twist the knob on the radio, looking for something I can get into, when I see a vehicle drive up and park at the end of the lot. Two men get out and head toward the entrance. I notice them because they are acting a little odd. They stand at the door and appear to be arguing, pushing at each other in the chest. One of the men turns and stares at our truck for a moment. He says something to the other man, then they enter the store. I can see Dad at the register handing the attendant some money. I am hoping he remembers to get me the Snickers bar I asked for. Dad picks up his bag and walks toward the door. He smiles as he looks at me through the glass.
Suddenly, I hear three loud bangs. Dad first turns to look behind him, then ducks and dives out the door. He runs toward the truck, staggers, then gains his footing. Then every…thing…turns …into…slow…motion. The front of his white T-shirt looks like a large red rose opening wider and wider. He drops the brown bag he is holding. Then things return to normal speed.
I crawl into the driver’s seat and shift into reverse. I back out of the spot, then swerve around to where my Dad is stumbling and holding his chest. I open the passenger door, and he crawls in. I push my foot hard on the gas pedal and burn rubber, leaving the scene behind us. But we never reach the hospital.
I always wake up at this point…sweating…alone in my room…back to the real world where my dad no longer exists, and the truth. That I had sat frozen in fear…watching as my dad fell to the dirty pavement. It’s the last thing I can remember of that day or for days afterward. I tell myself that I was only thirteen at the time, and no one could possibly
expect me to drive Dad’s truck. It doesn’t help. I could have.
Rita Monette is our featured author this month and her newest book, The Secret in Mossy Swamp, launches September 17th!! You can pre-order this installment in the Nikki Landry Series, written and illustrated by Rita, for only $0.99 with the promo code: LEGEND.
If you want to know more about Rita, please check out her website: www.ritamonette.com