All writers struggle with certain creative decisions. First, whose story are they telling? That leads to questions regarding point of view. Next, when is the story happening? In other words is it happening now or in the past or in the future? If we’re writing in the present time, do we write in the present tense? Some people say No! Absolutely not. You must write in the past tense. But more and more writers are selecting present tense. Why?
Please note, I said unconventional. That’s because readers are accustomed to reading in the past tense. Even the most modern spy thrillers are written in the past tense. To make the decision to write in the present, the writer must have just cause.
Let me present some reasons writers might chose to write in the present and some examples of good writing, using the present tense.
- The writer wants to put the action right in front of us–in our face, so to speak. We want our readers there, not on the outside peering in.
- The readership is young. Young adult and middle grade books are often written in the present tense. Those readers like crisp writing that grabs them and won’t let them go. The present tense enables writers to accomplish that sense of urgency.
- The author wants to put us inside a character’s head. All authors do that with their point-of-view characters, but if we choose the third person, we give some detachment. Perhaps the goal is to write in the third person so the reader isn’t the character but looking at the character from afar. If the author then chooses the present tense, the reflection of that third-person character becomes clearer, sharper, like honing the end of a pencil.
- There is a time change. In other words the writer sets part of the book in the present day time and part of the book in the past. Writing in the present for those present day times is a way to clue readers about timeframe without telling them. It’s subtle but effective.
It’s to bring what is happening in the story to the front and center. I am grateful for the detachment in some books. For example, if your book describes disturbing times in history (the Holocaust, lynching in the South, wars, torture) or violent scenes, such as rape, the reader needs some space. Writing about those kinds of frightening events in the present tense creates too much discomfort.
Here are some examples of writers who chose the present tense for their stories:
I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. The author chose to differentiate times in this book. The story begins in the present tense, and the chapters devoted to the protagonist are in the present tense. In alternating chapters, the story moves in time to the investigation into the death, which is in the past tense. As a reader, I was glad to be in that place for a short while because the chapters in the present seemed desperate. My heartbeat rose with each page turn until I got to the next chapter in the past where I could take a breath.
Here’s a clip from I Let You Go. “She crouches beside him, searching frantically for a pulse. Watches her breath form a solitary white cloud in the air. Sees the dark shadow form beneath his head and hears her own wail as though it comes from someone else.” Notice the intensity of the scene.
Fredrik Backman chose present tense for his hugely popular book, A Man Called Ove. You might wonder about the choice of present tense. But, in my view, the author wanted the reader to experience Ove first-hand. He was such a different sort of person. Perhaps giving us the detachment of the past tense wouldn’t have enabled us to know Ove. Written in the third person but in the present tense is a unique choice for a writer. It gives detachment but with urgency. The readers isn’t completely in the mind of Ove. Instead, the reader is meeting Ove and learning about him but with a clear sense of who he is, not who he was.
Here’s a clip from A Man Called Ove: “It’s four o’clock on Tuesday afternoon in November. He’s turned off the radiators, the coffee percolator and all the lights. Oiled the wooden countertop in the kitchen, in spite of those mules at IKEA saying the wood does not need oiling. In this house all wooden worktops get an oiling every six months whether it’s necessary or not.”
Backman uses the same technique in Britt-Marie Was Here. I’ve venture to say for the same reasons.
In Just What Kind of Mother are You? Paula Daly chose present tense and first person. The choice put the reader right in the center of the action. If you disliked what the character did, that’s too bad. You are in it with her. She also chose to write from the present tense in the parts dedicated to the villain. Here the reader is in third person, but still right in the center of the action. In my view Daly was quite effective with the use of present tense.
Here’s a bit from Just What Kind of Mother are You? “I open up the back door and the dogs rush out, just as the cats rush in. Winter’s here early. Snow had been predicted and there’s been a heavy fall overnight. The chill seeps into my bones in an instant. I hear the cry of an animal carry across the valley on the thin air and shut the door quickly.”
Some readers do not like the present tense. Why? Perhaps they are unused to it. Or, perhaps they prefer the bit of detachment. As writers, however, we must determine what will give our books the most impact. This is an important decision and one not taken lightly. I wouldn’t write in the present, just to do it. You need a good reason.
Do you enjoy books written in the present or the past? Share your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you.
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