Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Writing in PRESENT Tense

How do you feel, as a reader, about stories in present tense?

My last two drafted novels for Middle Grades are in first person present tense. A year and a half ago I read an excellent YA, Bound by Vijaya Bodach, written that way. When I next sat to write my story, my writing inner voice would have it no other way.

In present tense, I see, taste, and feel what the narrator does in real time. Every detail is vivid, and what is obscure to the narrator is also obscure to me, the writer. There is an immediacy and urgency as I follow, just as in this paragraph.

Of course, present tense has its limitations. An excellent reflection on this (as well as a plea to not use it) can be found in this article. Like the passive voice, (which I also use thrice in this paragraph) there is a reason for the choice of tense. Past tense allows greater flexibility narrating back and forth in time. But blimey if some things aren’t lost or become diffused by past tense narration, just as in this paragraph.

Sharp, immediate, intimate. This is present tense narration in a nutshell.

In picture books, it also seems the most natural. Very young persons begin speaking in present tense. Compare these two sentences and see how natural present tense is for the little ones, as opposed to moving back and forth in time:
1.   I tell Mom I need this cookie
2.   I told Mom I will need this cookie

Imagine what Snoopy can do if he changes it to –

It is a dark and stormy night

Just sayin’. It’s easy enough to edit the whole text to simple past later, and if an editor insisted, I would do it. But for holding my own interest in telling and writing it down, present tense narration does it.


Kelly Hashway said...

I used to hate present tense, but now I love it. I feel a more immediate connection with the characters and story. I also think it allows the reader to feel like they are the MC when they're reading.

Vijaya said...

Mirka, thanks for mentioning Bound. I'm not a fan of present tense because I generally like more introspection, not less, in my stories, yet Bound came out in the present. I tried past tense, third person, multiple viewpoints, but always returned to first person, present tense because the story flowed better. Like you say, you get to feel the shifting winds as they happen.

So many choices, but they must serve the story, no?

Mirka Breen said...

"So many choices..."

Indeed. And the choice of tense is not a trivial one.

Evelyn said...

I don't have strong feelings one way or the other. I think either tense can make a wonderful story. With pbs for little kids, I've heard that first person can sometimes confuse kids, because they may think the reader is talking about themselves instead of the MC. I would think that first person present tense might make that even more likely.

Jenni said...

Hmm. I've never really tried present tense, but I'm also a bit of a rule-follower. Or maybe I just heard that you have to be really good to pull it off, and I figure I'm not there yet. Or maybe it hasn't been the right tense for what I've written so far. I agree that it really works for some stories, especially contemporary stories. I was also adamantly against trying first person (for various reasons) and really loved it once I tried it.

janlcoates said...

Always love your writerly posts, Mirka. I rarely chat about writing with anyone in my "real" life, so it's nice to have this virtual conversation:) And I've done both present and past in novels; my gut tells me which to go with, I suppose.

Katie L. Carroll said...

I've definitely used present tense, and it does give the writing a sense of immediacy and intimacy. I've used past tense, too. I think like any literary tool, it's good to play around with tense to find the one that best fits the story you want to tell.

Barbara Etlin said...

I used past tense multiple third person for my first novel and am using first person present tense for my WIP. I do like the immediacy of first-present especially because it's an historical novel.

Sue said...

I wrote a novel in verse in present tense and didn't really realize it until I was almost done! I was just writing in the character's voice.

Janie Junebug said...

Present tense disturbs Favorite Young Man for some reason. I know not what it is. It's fine with me. I think it can pull the reader into the story in a hurry.


Mark Murata said...

I'm not sure about middle grade, but my understanding is that for YA and adult, present tense is best used when the protagonist does not know what is going on. That is not a knock on the protagonist; the story may have thrust this person into a completely puzzling situation, or the person may have to deal with a world of deception. For instance, hard-boiled detective stories are often told this way.