Monday, February 20, 2012

present vs past tense

After my 1st vs 3rd person blog post, I figured I should continue along that trend and discuss tenses.  Present or past, which do you prefer?  I think this choice is even more subjective than 1st vs 3rd person.  Some novels, I think, need to be in present tense for pacing. 

Let's take The Hunger Games again which was in present tense.  This was a good choice because the book revolved around the Hunger Games, which are fought to the death.  If it was in past, it could have come off stilted and the tension wouldn't have been as high.  But present tense lets you have a sense of immediacy and be with Katniss with her every move and thought.  She wasn't looking back and recalling the story, but it was happening to her at the same time as she was telling the story.  It also made it more believable that she could die. whereas, if it had been in past tense, there would have been no way she could have died.  How would she have told the story?  Though I think it's pretty obvious she wouldn't have killed the MC.  I think Suzanna Collins made a good choice having it be in present tense.  Another great novel in present tense is Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver.  Great book!  Check it out!

Those all sound like great reason to write in present tense.  Then why ever write in past?

Well, past tense sounds more natural.  It's what everyone is used to reading, so you, as the reader, don't even notice it.  I have to admit, I notice present tense IMMEDIATELY when I read.  It throws me off a little and takes me out of the story until I can get into the groove of it.  And every time I read "I say" instead of "I said", I get thrown off again.  I love reading and writing in past tense, but again, it's just a preference thing.

There are some novels that do a really good job of switching between tenses.  The first one to come to mind is If I Stay by Gayle Forman.  This book is written in a series of flashbacks and she uses tense as a great literary device.  Everything that takes place in the present, is, in present tense.  Duh, Stessa.  And everything that is a flashback, is written in past.  She switches between the two tenses flawlessly and there is never any question about whether the scene is taking place in the present or past.

I think I definitely want to challenge myself to writing in present tense (and 3rd person, for that matter), I'm just looking for the right book for which to do it.  So far, everything in my mind has been 1st person past, but with a little tweaking, I should be able to change things up.


  1. I LOVED Before I Fall, and Gayle Forman is a great example of someone who takes us to the past while keeping us in the present effortlessly. (Have you read Where She Went, yet???)

    1. ahhhh, I haven't read it yet. is it just as good as the first??