Tenses - Past and Present into the Future?

A lot has been made recently (at least in the circles I roll in) about the different tenses that books can be written in and which ones are "right" for a given genre or story. A lot of the sci-fi and fantasy genre stalwarts are written in past tense, which gives them the stylistic sense of events that have already happened, of stories that have already been told and are being told again. But in recent years, especially with the rise of the "Young Adult" genre through books like The Hunger Games, present tense has been making up ground.

Not all of the readers of said genres are particularly happy about this, of course, because people hate change and because these new things are strictly for kids. I decided to give present tense a shot, both in reading and in writing, and figure out if it's actually that bad, or if it's just different, and see how it affects how a story is structured and told.

Because that's the thing. Changing the tense of a story does affect how the story itself is told and presented. I'll get into that more below. But it isn't as much or as drastic as you might fear. It just forces a slightly different perspective on things, a different way of describing things, a different sort of storytelling.

Make it happen

Present tense makes things happen. It's that simple. Everything that happens in the story is happening in real-time, like a live narrative being told. Think of it like someone telling you a story, or a Game Master outlining the next arc of your RPG adventure. While the events of the story have already happened in the sense that they are written out and fixed by the author, the story itself draws you in a bit more, making the action more visceral as events unfold right in front of you.

Choose your own adventure books use present tense, and a more linear story in that tense should have the same effect. Action needs to pop off the page, even if it's something as simple as a slap to the face. I'll be going in to how you make action scenes in a book more exciting than boring at a later time (hint: it has to do with investment in the characters). But just from a stylistic standpoint, present tense lends itself to more exciting action.

It isn't just action, either. Events don't have to be violent to still be exciting. Maybe there's a car chase going on, or a foot race, or a simple conversation between two characters who both have something to hide. Present tense makes events more, well, present, as slow or as fast as they might unfold. A dog runs, instead of having run or ran. A cat jumps and yowls, instead of having jumped and yowled. Things happen in real time, unfolding right in front of the reader as it happens.

 Tell it right

Of course, this only works if the author uses present tense to their fullest advantage rather than simply switching the tense of their verbs. Present tense should change the way an entire story is structured, especially in terms of how much information is provided to the reader. The old axiom of "show, don't tell" fits with present tense better than with past tense, allowing the author to only reveal background, setting and other details as the characters within the story find them out.

Just switching the verb tense doesn't change enough to make using the present tense worthwhile as a narrative choice. Present tense shouldn't just be used to be different from an out-of-universe perspective, it should be a way to tell a story in a new way for the author as well. It should be a dynamic, living thing, as alive on the page as it is in your head.

Forcing the narrative to unfold before the reader at the same rate that the characters discover things is a very effective way to draw readers into a universe you've created. It also prevents you from having to create an "audience surrogate" character, as nearly your entire cast serves as the audience surrogate. Yes, it limits what the audience knows at any given time, but that should be a boon to the story, not a limiting factor.

Present tense isn't better or worse than past tense. It's just different, and it should therefor make the author tell their story in a different way. Using it to shake up a static genre, to take the chance at telling a traditionally-styled story in a new and exciting way, is certainly an aspiration worth striving for. But the difference alone shouldn't be the sole motivating factor. It should fit the story, not just get slapped across something in an effort to sell more copies of your book.

Next time: styles and colors of prose!

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