Most books, both fiction and nonfiction, tend to be written in the PAST TENSE. It began thousands of year ago with when hunters returned home with their kill slung over their shoulders. Following the feast, villagers sat around the bonfire and listened to stories about the hunt, and so began our oral tradition of retelling a past event.
Eventually, inspiration struck, and someone decided to record these stories. First through pictures, then through words.
If you pick up a book, whether it’s from the bookshelf at home, at the library, at the story, from your neighbor’s coffee table, it’s probably written in the PAST TENSE. It’s a writer’s GO TO POV.
Rainbow Rowell weaves past tense verbs into a believable and top favorite young adult novel.
“Do you have more stuff downstairs?” he asked. “We just finished. I think we’re going to get a burger now; do you want to get a burger? Have you been to Pear’s yet? Burgers the size of your fist.” He picked up her arm. She swallowed. “Make a fist,” he said.
—excerpt from Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
I too spun words into a story in my first version of Starr Fall, my Young Adult Thriller, but when I finished, I knew it was lacking something. It didn’t have the gusto and immediacy it needed, so I wrote one chapter in present tense, then another, then another, and decided to change the entire novel. Starr Fall was meant for PRESENT TENSE just as Fangirl was meant for PAST TENSE.
WRITER TIP: Experiment with different points of view with your story and see what works. What you find might surprise you.
I love PRESENT TENSE. I love the urgency. I love how I jump into the story and become the character. I love that my heart pumps and I don’t know what’s going to happen when I open that locked door.
Laura Halse Anderson in Speak, Veronica Roth in Divergent, Suzanne Collins in Hunger Games, all use PRESENT TENSE. It’s no coincidence that they are three of my favorite authors or that their books have been made into movies.
Laura Halse Anderson handles PRESENT TENSE with such skill that few can rival her. She uses 1st person PRESENT TENSE in Speak, but she often shifts the attention away from the main character and onto and/or into her surroundings.
The cheerleaders cartwheel into the gym and bellow. The crowd stomps the bleachers and roars back. I put my head in my hands and scream to let out the animal noise and some of that night. No one hears. They are all quite spirited.
—excerpt from Speak by Laura Halse Anderson
Suzanne Collins places most of the focus on her main character, Katniss, but balances that focus with time on other characters and happenings in the Hunger Games.
I bite my lip, feeling inferior. While I’ve been ruminating on the availability of trees, Peeta has been struggling with how to maintain his identity. His purity of self. “Do you mean you won’t kill anyone?” I ask.
—excerpt from Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
AVOID THE “I” TRAP: I run towards the soccer field. I feel sweat pool at the base of my back. I think I should stop running.
ACK! ACK! ACK!
Because we as readers are so entrenched in the PAST TENSE, it’s difficult to make the shift to PRESENT TENSE the first few times we try it. Our writing feels choppy and less polished. It’s difficult to slide into backstory or a flashback without jarring the reader. As writers, we must create just the right set of events/scenes/circumstances in our passage for the literary device to work.
WARNING: Be careful not to flood your reader with flashbacks and backstory—they’ll get confused, tired, annoyed, miffed, and put down your book. And that my friend will be the death of your book. (Sorry I slipped into FUTURE TENSE, but I felt it was warranted.)
If you find you’re using a lot of literary devices such as flashbacks and backstory, try writing a scene in PAST TENSE. More than likely, you’re probably not using the correct tense for the story you want to share.
I find that I revise a considerable amount more when I use the PRESENT TENSE vs. PAST TENSE. I try to vary my sentences, mix thinks up, reexamine paragraphs, and rewrite them often so I can move the story forward without too much BLECK. I’m not going to lie. It’s a load of work, but the end result is well worth it.
SIDE NOTE: I’ve used PRESENT TENSE for so many years now that I find myself switching other authors’ tense to the PRESENT TENSE and I often feel that these books would grab the readers’ attention more if the author choice a different tense.
I will mention FUTURE TENSE, but it is not used often in books. In fact, a quick Google search came up with some antiquated novel that’s not worth mentioning. If you should find a book that uses FUTURE TENSE, let me know. I will revise.
WRITER TIP: If you're not sure what tense you want to use, pull your favorite books off the shelf and skim through them. Does the author's tense speak to you? Is it something you think you'd like to try? If yes, GO FOR IT. You gotta use what works for your story. Play around. Try new things.
Most importantly, get writing!