Over the last year, I have worked predominately with young writers. I began to notice a trend: 90% of the manuscripts that I received were written in the first person, present tense.
So, I combed through my old notebooks.
I found that I too had written my first novel in first person, present tense. And upon rereading said novel, I can admit that I did the work a massive disservice.
This is not because I’d been brainwashed by creative writing teachers and college professors to believe that the present tense is a clumsy, vacuous and insipid style of writing. I wrote in the tense that I felt comfortable using and did not consider how that tense would serve the greater story.
So below, I have compiled a short list of Pros and Cons that every writer should consider before settling on the tense of a story.
The pros of using the present tense:
Writing in the present tense will instantly and directly involve your readers in your story. You will be able to show your character’s changes as they happen and this can make the climax more immediate and intense for your audience.
The present tense allows for close narration. This gives you room to create a unique character perspective for your readers to experience.
This gives you a wonderful opportunity to show your readers what your character is truly like and can make it easier for you to create a compelling and relate-able character.
The way your character thinks and behaves in this tense can be quite telling. In this style you can provide your reader with an opportunity to experience what your character is thinking or feeling before he/she has the time to consider and adjust his/her emotions.
The present tense is perhaps the simplest tense in the English language.
There is less room for errors and misunderstandings in this tense.
The cons of using the present tense:
Not only does the simplicity of the present tense limit what you can convey to your reader, it also restricts your ability to manipulate time.
Playing with the chronological order of a story can heighten the narrative. For example, in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov creates suspense and mystery by presenting the events of the story slightly out of order.
This is a technique that is difficult to employ in the present tense because it can come across as unnatural.
2.) Stymied Characterization
Although the present tense allows you to create interesting characters, it can be difficult to create complex characters without the ability of time manipulation.
Your character can refer to a past event, but these moments tend to feel more like clunky, contrived exposition when written in the present tense instead of natural psychological depth and realism.
3.) Lack of Suspense
Because present tense narrators only know what is immediately happening, it can be difficult to manufacture genuine suspense.
Of course, only knowing what is happening in the moment comes with its own type of suspense (the unknown), but this will not suffice if your piece is founded on tension.
When stories are written in the present tense, trivial elements are often included that have no bearing on the plot. These events are included in an attempt to maintain naturalism.
It can be tempting to have your narrator include everything that he/she is doing, but you must consider what is necessary for the reader to know.
Over-focusing on the internal life of your character can detract from the story and pull your readers out of the narrative.
The present tense can be jarring to readers.
Errors and/or odd phrases will be more discernible and awkward.
Reading pretense novels before starting your story can help you get into the “present tense atmosphere.”
Try The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Divergent by Veronica Roth, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
So, how do you choose?
Which tense you decide to use is heavily predicated on the story you wish to tell.
If you want your story to be immediate or if you want your reader to focus on the viewpoint of one character, the present tense might be a good choice for you.
The present tense is less useful if you want to create a story that relies on time or the events that make your character who he/she is.
It can be helpful to write a section of your story in the past tense and then the present tense, to see which style works the best for you.