In Defense of the Present Tense
I see him coming.
A knife-slit narrow to his eyes, he’s charging up to my book signing line with The Angry Father Mission. He’s the one in the audience who glared through my reading and asked rhetorical questions about why is YA so dark and terrible.
He’s coming for me–the author of the teen prostitute in space book. Oh God.
I groan inwardly and make sure he’s not packing a pitchfork.
He waits his turn.
And then, I say, “Hi.”
“First person present tense?” He scoffs. “Seriously?”
Huh? Are you serious, dude?
Since I made the decision to write about human trafficking for the YA reader, I’ve prepared myself to answer angry adults. But nothing could prepare me for the backlash of people who hate the present tense. And I mean hate in a bold way. A loathing, blame-it-for-everything-wrong-with-the-book kind of way.
I’m comforted by the fact that I’m not alone in being caught off guard here. Brand-spanking-new author Adi Rule told me, “I didn’t even know present tense was a controversial thing until my book came out and people started marking points off for it in reviews.”
I took this topic for a spin on Facebook and got some expectedly heated responses. Writer Wendie Old said, “Can’t stand present tense, especially first person present tense, which is probably why I dislike most YA books because YA writers seem to think it’s the best way to write.”
Writer Annie Downer said, “I hate it.”
Even my own brother told me, “It seems to me that books written in the present tense demand some sort of flashback or other gimmick to help provide backstory. My question: is this really necessary, or is it a cop-out? ”
On the flipside, avid reader Tina said, “Books written in the present tense are always among my favorite because I feel like I’m living the story through the eyes of that character. Their thoughts and emotions become mine and for a little while I get to escape reality and live out their stories. ”
I feel the same way as Tina–that the present tense provides more of an experience than a story. More on that in a moment.
The present tense controversy troubles me not because people have strong opinions about it, but because they too often want to discount it completely. After all, aren’t there different tenses in writing for the same reason that there are different genres? Different POVs? It’s a stylistic choice, perhaps not one that all writers do their best with, but that can be said of any element in the literary world.
Writer Rachel Lieberman explains her own choices rather well: “I decided to write in first person past tense, because the protagonist is kind of a bully during the story and I wanted her to be able to tell it through the eyes of someone who’s since changed. The project before that was first person present because the protagonist there was very innocent and I wanted the reader to be able to grow with her.”
Grow with a character? Intriguing. Sounds like we’re circling back to the idea of revealing experience.
For Rachel, tense is a choice. And yet, it isn’t for me. When I sat down to write The Color of Rain, I didn’t set out to write first person present. I closed my eyes and started to type.
This came out:
Author Tim Wynne-Jones seems to have a similar style. “For me tense usually comes alone with voice all in that first sploosh onto the page.” (Ten points for the word sploosh, Tim 🙂 )
So maybe tense choice is also about feeling the story’s true Voice. And perhaps writers should feel free to run with that feeling more often. Author Janet Fox does! “I’m working in present tense right now and love it. It’s sci-fi, and feels immediate and sharp, which is the mood I want.”
When RAIN came out and I found myself drilled by readers, I realized that I had to come up with an answer to why present tense. Well, Rain is a teen prostitute and her decisions are the driving force of the novel, so I say, “The book is in present tense because the reader feels Rain’s decisions as they happen. The story unveils through each sentence. There is no safety of past tense’s hindsight. Also, in being a thriller, the rush of being locked in the moment keeps the stakes at nosebleed level.”
Of course, this choice led to one of my closest friends telling me that my book gave her a stomachache.
This probably has to do with what writer Erin Hagar admitted: “I often find first person present tense to be quite exhausting. In high-stakes, action sequences, I’m right there. But I need a break from that as a reader sometimes, to pull back into a more comforting narrative approach that uses distance (either through tense or POV) to let me know that things are going to turn out okay.”
Hmmm, that’s a good point. But the thing is, I never wanted the reader to get a reprieve from Rain’s journey. Rain never did, so why should the reader? After all, I wanted to convey the downhill whirlwind of seriously bad decisions. The experience. So, while I am sorry about the stomachache, dear Anna, if a book about a girl whose circumstances are so bleak that she trades her own body doesn’t twist you up inside, I think I’ve failed.
I’m not sure it could be better worded than by writer LoriGoe Pérez Nowak: “I believe that first person present works well when the character is experiencing/working through a trauma. A character’s ability to interpret and analyze her experience is proportionate to the length of time that she is removed from the experience (time locus of the narrator).
“In first person present, since the time locus of the narrator is the same as the time locus of the events of the story, the character is limited in her ability to draw sophisticated conclusions about her experiences. I feel this deepens the connection between character and reader because there is no room for pretense, and the character is completely vulnerable because she is unable to hide any judgment errors or embarrassing physical/emotional choices & responses. Character and reader work through the events together.”
I won’t say that reading a story in present tense isn’t hard. I’ll simply point out that maybe it’s supposed to be hard. After all, let’s not forget Katniss—the first person present tense window into a world that Suzanne Collins wanted her young reader to see through. To be hurt by. To fear.
I’d like to take a moment to tackle one hard truth about present tense hatred (particularly first person present): that it’s overused in “bad YA.” Yes, this might be true. But keep in mind that if a book doesn’t make you feel for the character or understand the plot, it’s likely that the author failed to use his or her voice in a clear and engaging way. The tense might have something to do with it, but it does not have everything to do with it. Promise.
As writers, it then becomes our job to question why a book isn’t working on a level much deeper than tense. It can only help our own work, yes?
On a final note, there is a strange reality I’d like to share—particularly with readers who run screaming from present tense and writers who dismiss it out of fear of prosecution from literary purists. I’ve had many people question my use of present tense. But only adults.
I have never had a complaint from a teen reader.
Writer Jim Hill has an interesting take on this: “Young readers have achieved media literacy in a First Person world, primarily through video game play. Many video games feature narrative story lines layered on top of the “shoot-punch-click” gameplay. Immediacy and reward are built into their media expectations. First Person POV delivers that experience in text format. ”
(There’s that word experience again.)
I hope what I can impart is that present tense is a lot of things. It’s a stylistic choice. It’s a feeling. Its popularity is on the rise ~ and it’s a victim of literary pretentions. It’s sometimes done well for strong reasons. It’s sometimes done horribly for no perceptible reason. It’s good. It’s bad. It’s everywhere!
Now, let’s try this on for size for a little twist:
I saw him coming.
Knife-slit narrowed eyes, he charged up to my book signing line with The Angry Father Mission. He was the one in the audience who glared through my reading and asked rhetorical questions about why is YA so dark and terrible.
He came for me–the author of the teen prostitute in space book. Oh God.
I groaned inwardly and made sure he wasn’t packing a pitchfork.
He waited his turn.
And then, I said, “Hi.”
“First person present tense?” He scoffed. “Seriously?”
Now, that fits a bit differently, doesn’t it? Whereas the present tense version was a little ominous and leading, this version feels more snarky and inevitable.
And that’s because the difference between present tense and past tense is the difference between experience and story. Is one of those wrong or better? I don’t think so. Do they both have a place in the literary world?
I hope that you will say yes.
As my best writery friend Amy Rose Capetta says, “If a book is well-written, I don’t even remember what tense it was written in.”
Cori McCarthy is the author of The Color of Rain (Running Press Teens, 2013) and Breaking Sky (forthcoming from Sourcebooks, 2015). She writes in whatever tense the mood takes her. Including writing short bios in third person present, which is a tad weird, now isn’t it?
Follow her @CoriMcCarthy
Or check out her website www.CoriMcCarthy.com