I picked up a friend’s novel the other day, opened it and started reading. It’s well written, and the characters are interesting. They’re the sort of people I can relate to, which made me want to read further.
But that’s not the first thing I noticed about the book. The first thing I noticed was the fact that it was written in present tense.
Apparently, this is a thing – especially for young adult novels. I’m not sure why, but I’ve heard it’s trendy in this genre. Presumably, the idea is to convey a sense of immediacy: This is happening now, and you’re along for the ride, not merely hearing someone tell you about it after the fact.
That’s the upside, but there are enough downsides to more than offset it, in my book – well, not in my book: I’ve never written one in present tense. And here are five reasons I wouldn’t:
- It’s not conversational. Strike up a discussion with someone. Anyone. I’ll bet you he or she doesn’t talk in present tense. When people tell stories, they’re usually telling you about something that happened to them in the past; making it sound as though it’s happening in the present can be confusing and downright irritating. It’s kind of like Kanye West referring to himself in third-person. Most people don’t talk like that. It sounds weird at best, pretentious at worst.
- You’re not a tour guide. Or a golf announcer. There aren’t many people who speak in the present tense when describing something. Sometimes, it can work, but that “sometimes” is rarely in print. You’re reading a novel, not taking a tour of Hearst Castle or watching The Master’s. Even that can be galling. How often do we have to listen to an announcer state the obvious: “He lines it up and approaches the ball …”? I can see that for myself, Einstein. Be quiet and let the action speak for itself. Which brings me to No. 3.
- It makes you more aware of the narrator. You’ve no doubt heard (probably since middle school) that good writers “show and don’t tell.” The present tense does the opposite by emphasizing style over substance. Writers who use it are relying on a technique to bolster the story, rather than getting out of the way and letting the story speak for itself. It’s crutch. The more you’re aware of the narrator, the less you’re able to connect with the story. Unless deftly done, the present tense is a distraction that keeps the reader from becoming immersed in the tale. Think about how often you see actors turn to address the audience directly from the stage. George Burns used to do it on the old Burns and Allen TV show, but there’s a reason it’s the exception, not the rule: It reminds the audience (or the reader) that this is “just” a story. If the story’s good, the reader should forget it’s a story. It should become an alternate reality. An intrusive narrator can keep that from happening.
- It’s tiring. While it may seem like fun at first to feel like you’re in the middle of the action, this can get exhausting. Part of the magic of reading is being able to go at your own pace, and – at least for me – being caught up in a present-tense narrative can be exhausting, especially if it’s heavy on the action. I can wind up wanting a break after a few pages, which is exactly the effect I don’t want to have as a writer: I want my readers to become so engrossed in the story they don’t want to put it down.
- It’s difficult to maintain. Because it’s natural to tell stories in the past tense, you have to pay close attention as a present-tense author to keep from reverting back into what’s more comfortable. You have to continually be on your guard to make sure you’re still writing in the present tense, and you have to have a damn good editor to catch the lapses you miss. Why spend all that energy on maintaining the present tense when you could be devoting it to telling the story? The best answer I can come up with is that you shouldn’t.
I’m not saying writers banish use the present tense to stylistic purgatory, any more than we should avoid first-person narratives altogether. I just think we should be selective about using such devices to be sure they don’t detract from the story. (I wrote my first novel, Identity Break, in the first-person format, and I'm pleased with the way it turned out; but if I had it to do over again, I’d probably opt for the third-person POV, because I could have told the same story more seamlessly.)
I’ll likely keep reading my friend’s present-tense book, because it has a lot going for it. The author is a strong enough writer to pull it off. But to me, that’s like being a golfer who’s good enough to win despite a two-stroke penalty, or a boxer can deck his opponent with one hand tied behind his back. I’d rather forgo the penalty and have both my hands free.