|Photo credit: FL4Y on Flickr|
Quick note: for the sake of this post I’m going to focus on first-person POV, but the same principles apply to third-person as well.
Stylistically, the differences between past and present tense are pretty subtle—and both function well in their respective novels. Books like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Across the Universe by Beth Revis and The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson were all successful with their use of present tense while books like The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Immanuel’s Veins by Ted Dekker and The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin worked well with past tense. (Note: I haven’t fully read all of the books I mentioned, but I’ve at least read samples if not the whole thing, and found the voices to be particularly interesting).
So what’s the difference between the two? Why use one over the other?
Having read (and written in) plenty of both, the biggest difference that stands out to me is the sense of immediacy and closeness. Now I’m aware that closeness isn’t really a technical term to describe writing and I should probably use another more professional-sounding word, but closeness is the word I currently have in my head. So.
By “closeness” I mean the proverbial distance between the reader and the narrator. I’m sure you’ve all read a novel and found that the narrator felt distant, which made it difficult for you to connect or empathize with the protagonist (and you probably put the book down unless you were forced or felt particularly compelled to read it for whatever reason). That’s the distance I’m talking about—the closeness.
In my experience at least, I’ve found that this closeness correlates directly to the tense the work is written in, and the relationship is something like this:
|So...this is a little hard to read, but hopefully you get the idea.|
Now, that’s not to say that books written in third-person past or even omniscient past can’t create a close relationship to the reader—it just in many cases takes a little more effort on both the writer and reader’s part.
You see, when a novel is written in present tense, the reader is in essence experiencing the events of the book at the same time as the narrator, and it’s this feeling of going through the plot together (immediacy) that tends to create an instantly closer relationship. Books written in past tense of course can create the same sort of relationship—as I said the differences between the two are very subtle—but the effect of the narrator recounting the story (as is the case in novels written in past tense) is a half-step farther than the narrator experiencing the novel with the reader.
The immediacy of present tense works particularly well in fast-paced, action-packed novels—which is why I think it worked so well in The Hunger Games. For these kind of novels, present-tense adds an extra edge—the characters are going through their battles with the reader. The protagonist hasn’t experienced this already—and thus isn’t telling us about a battle three years ago that they very clearly survived from or else they wouldn’t be around to tell the story—so there’s an added sense of vulnerability. Although it’s very rare for protagonists to die, the sense that things are happening now can give the added feel that anything could happen—even, possibly (although unlikely), the death of the protagonist.
But like every tense, there are weaknesses you must be aware of.
Present tense (especially first-person present tense) can be more difficult for some readers to adjust to. Whereas it’s reasonable to think that a narrator may be telling you about something they experienced before (as is the case with novels written in past tense), the idea that the narrator is actually standing right there in front of you narrating exactly what they’re doing right now is a hurdle that readers must get over in order to enjoy the story. Obviously no one (sane) goes around announcing to some invisible audience everything that they’re doing as they do it—which for some readers is a fact that makes it rather difficult to enjoy novels written in first-person present tense.
For this reason, present-tense can be a little more difficult to write convincingly. Your voice and story must be strong enough to make readers overlook the fact that realistically, the protagonist should not be describing everything that’s going on at this present time.
If done well, however, present-tense is a perfectly viable option that can function really well for certain types of novels.
What do you think? Have you ever written in present tense? What novels have you read that used present tense well (or that didn’t)?