When novels written in present tense first began to appear, I thought sure it was a fad. A trend that would disappear as quickly as it had sprung into being, when sane readers and writers everywhere would agree on how annoying it was.
Wrong. It hasn’t disappeared; in fact, it’s caught on and stuck. People have strong opinions about it, with those who dislike it usually speaking the loudest. Philip Hensher weighed in on verb tense use after the 2010 Booker Prize short list was announced last fall. Three of the shortlisted books were written in present tense. Mr. Hensher took—or should I say takes—strong exception to the practice, calling it “modish,” and in historical fiction, becoming “cliche.”
Philip Pullman also entered the fray. His piece in the Guardian is thoughtful and measured. If your current WIP is in present tense, you might want to see what he has to say.
None of the writing craft books in my collection even mentions verb tense, at least, not as a subject in the index. However, the internet, as you might expect, didn’t disappoint.
Use of the present tense is widespread in YA fiction. Revolution (Jennifer Donnelly), The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Carrie Ryan), By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead (Julie Anne Peters), The Indigo Notebook (Laura Resau), and The Hunger Games Trilogy (Suzanne Collins) are just a few of the titles I found on my bookshelves which are written this way.
And two of the most exciting and creative adult books of the last two years, Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell) are both in present tense.
After reading dozens of books in the present tense, I began to understand the rationale for using it, and I no longer found it so distracting. It brings immediacy to the writing. It makes the story more compelling, as if it’s happening right now, and I can see why teens like it. I decided to experiment with it in my own writing, with mixed results. It’s not as easy as it looks.
I’ve come to believe that (1) if you’re going to use it, have a darn good reason why it works for the story you’re telling; (2) read it out loud to make sure it doesn’t sound like stage directions; and (3) check and double check it to assure all the verb usage is correct. Using past tense is so much more natural, it’s easy to slip back into it and not even notice.
One other caution. It’s really confusing, once you’ve written in present tense, to change to past. For some reason, none of the verb tenses seem right, or maybe I should say, sound right. This effect wears off eventually, but I don’t think it’s just me. I’ve heard other writers say the same thing.
How do you feel about present tense vs. past tense? Do you notice it as a reader? Do you use it as a writer?