An opinion piece? Yes, I decided to introduce it this way, because this is not a lesson on writing rules. It is a personal preference, though I will defend that preference.
So don’t skewer me. I already have enough holes in my head. 🙂
The use of present-tense verbs in young adult novels has become quite popular. The Hunger Games and Divergent are prime examples. When it comes to storytelling, I prefer past tense, because present tense has inherent limitations and contradictions, which I will explain in a moment.
I suspect that the main reason for the popularity of present tense is that it is a current fad, and many fads frequently have no rationality that can be explained. People get accustomed to fads and often assume them to be the norm without analysis of the fad’s inherent flaws.
Some people have tried to provide reasons for using present tense. They say that present tense gives a sense of immediacy and fast pace, but they don’t realize or will not admit that this immediacy and pace are counterfeit.
Bear in mind, I am not talking about using present tense in dialogue, such as, “Hey, Joe, I’m going to Fred’s house. Want to come?” People often speak in present tense with regard to what they are currently doing. This is natural. I am also not talking about present-tense essays or opinion pieces, such as this one. I am talking about storytelling narrative, the words that explain what is occurring in a story.
When people tell stories, they tell what has happened in the past. It is impossible for a storyteller to relate tales as they happen. They don’t have time to do so. In fact, in most cases it is impossible, and it is certainly unnatural.
“I step into the room.”
No, actually, at the present time you are telling me about stepping into the room, so how can you be stepping into the room at the exact moment you are telling me about it? No one tells their story while it is happening, unless the storyteller is carrying out a lifelong monologue.
“I draw my blade and slice through the monster.”
Really? You’re doing that right now, at this very moment? Then how can you tell me about it? I think you might be too busy to do so. So the immediacy is fake. It doesn’t ring true.
The same is true with third-person point of view.
“She runs to the door and pounds on it with a fist.”
Who is watching this happen to give readers a play-by-play account? Is the character never alone, always accompanied by this person with a microphone who provides moment-by-moment activity? With past tense, on the other hand, a storyteller can tell the reader what happened in the past, perhaps as he or she was told by the person to whom it happened.
Present tense also frequently causes writers to create unbelievable interior monologue. Here is an excerpt from Divergent:
“My older brother, Caleb, stands in the aisle, holding a railing above his head to keep himself steady. We don’t look alike. He has my father’s dark hair and hooked nose and my mother’s green eyes and dimpled cheeks.”
Is that what she is really thinking at the moment she looks at her brother? She sees him every day. Why at this moment is she thinking this? The answer is simple–for the convenience of the reader. In present tense, such a thought process at this particular time is highly improbable. This is a contrivance, a gimmick, and it is unrealistic. In past tense, however, the storyteller can add thoughts to establish the story, as in retrospect, which is far more natural.
Also, when it comes to intense action, the character can’t report anything beyond reflexive images. For example, here is a typical expression of first-person, present-tense action:
“I dash across the field and jump over a fallen log. A snarling beast leaps at me from a tree. I draw my sword, thrust the blade, and slice into his ribs. As blood pours from its wound, nausea boils in my stomach and makes me vomit.”
Truly realistic present-tense images and feelings would look more like this:
Run! Log! Jump! Whew! Made it. What’s that? A beast! Draw sword! Thrust! Yuck! Blood! It’s dead. I feel sick. Vomits.
Actually, some authors might be tempted to write something like this, but a great deal of communication is lost. In true present tense, the writer is unable to provide visuals beyond frenetic images, and he or she certainly has no time to report the actions. In reality, even this clipped monologue is impossible to express during intense action.
Storytelling is inherently past tense. Something happens, and we tell about it later, so we do so in past tense. This allows us to provide all of the senses, details, and ponderings after we have had a chance to reflect on the meaning of it all. Present tense cannot possibly do this, and a story told in present tense is a faulty representation of a tale.
Update because of confusion some readers have expressed:
I don’t think there is anything wrong with writing in 1st person. My post is not about a choice between 1st person or 3rd person. It’s about the tense, whether present or past. I enjoy writing 1st person past tense. In fact, my three favorite novels were written in 1st person past tense. It is present tense (either 1st or 3rd) that I don’t like.
Categories: Writing Tips