Authors have many, many choices when it comes to writing a book. They can choose characters, point(s) of view, location, time period, etc etc. Authors have control of lots of aspects of their books, and that includes which tense of verbs they use. While past tense seems like the natural, most obvious choice, there are other options. Present tense is also used, just not as frequently. It seems like it's been getting a bad rap lately, too. Recently, I have read a few books that employ the present tense, and I have found that I prefer it whenever possible. So let's get into when it's useful and where I've seen it used.
Like I've said, past tense seems to be the most reliable choice. Most books are written this way. It is easy to tell a story once it's already happened. Sumaya Bouadi says,
"Past tense makes the reader accept events as already having occurred, and therefore inevitable. There is nothing that can be done to change it. For darker novels and satire, this works very well. For tragedies and satires, this sense of hopelessness is priceless. You can bring your reader to tears as they see a character or a world destroy itself, knowing there is nothing that can be done about it. And hey, that "stories around a fireside" feel? That can create amazing openings to books.."That pretty much says it all. Past tense is easy to use. It can provide the reader with a sense of security and credibility. Past tense implies history as well. So why adopt the present tense?
Using present tense allows the author to create a sense of instability and insecurity for the reader. When reading present tense, the reader is more of a witness to the story sorting itself out instead of an audience to something that has already happened. Generally the narrator does not die in a past tense novel, since he or she is the one telling the story. Yet, this could happen in a present tense novel told in third person (narrator points of view will be a later Friday feature) because there is no guarantee for the action of the novel when said action has not happened yet. Present tense creates unpredictability, and I have been enjoying that lately.
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is a good example of present tense used in a novel. Reading this novel in present tense gives the reader a better sense of believability, even though this book is science fiction, since this story is being told over a long period of time from alternating points of view. Take this passage, for example:
"My head is throbbing. I need coffee. Leaving the marbled papers in a state of controlled chaos, I walk through the office and past the page's desk in the Reading Room. I am halted by Isabelle's voice saying, "Perhaps Mr. DeTamble can help you," by which she means "Henry, you weasel, where are you slinking off to?" and this astoundingly beautiful amber-haired tall slim girl turns around and looks at me as through I am her personal Jesus. My stomach lurches. Obviously she knows me, and I don't know her. Lord only knows what I've said, done, or promised to this luminous creature, so I am forced to say in my best librarianese, "Is there something I can help you with?" The girl sort of breathes "Henry!" in this very evocative way that convinces me that at some point in time we have a really amazing thing together. This makes it worse that I don't know anything about her, not even her name. I say "Have we met?" and Isabelle gives me a look that says. "You asshole." But the girl says, "I'm Claire Abshire. I knew you when I was a little girl," and invites me out to dinner. I accept, stunned."
Try reading that in past tense and tell me if it has the same effect. The reader can feel the future unraveling before his or her eyes. Since this novel spans a wide set of years, the reader can also witness growth in the characters better with present tense. When Clare is a child, her dialogue is clearly childish. As she gets older, her voice becomes more clear and precise.
With present tense, past tense can always be used as a tool to mark time. If an author sticks with past tense from the beginning, they are kind of stuck there. However, JA Konrath uses both present and past tenses for different points of view in his Jack Daniels novels, such as the opening novel, Whiskey Sour. His protagonist, Jacqueline Daniels, tells her story in past tense, as if it already happened. His villains, however, are living in the moment and their sections are told in present tense, like it's happening right as the reader is interpreting those parts.
Jodi Picoult's Sing You Home is another fantastic example. Not only is this the best book I've read so far this year, but it's also written in present tense. Picoult uses past tense when referring to the past, but when the actual events in the characters' lives are unfolding, present tense is used effectively. I love feeling like part of the novel, and this one wraps you right up. For me, it's so much easier to get involved with the characters, to really hold an interest in what happens when the story is being told as it happens. Sing You Home does all of that and more. With the events unraveling as we read, we can realistically experience the characters' emotions. I found myself gasping the same exclamations with the characters, really understanding how they felt. Thank you, present tense!
In the end, choice of tense is in the hands of the author. it's also a choice of the reader to take on a book in present tense. It's useful to choose one over the other in specific situations. Past tense is trusty, rusty, and predominately used. Present tense is a fairly newer trend, used to create an unpredictable nature which connects the reader and characters/events. In my personal opinion, I have really been enjoying present tense. I feel much more plugged into the story when I can't tell what is going to happen, when I'm experiencing events as the characters do. It's a great tool to use, and hopefully more books show up with present tense used in the majority. It works for me. Does it work for you? Tell me what you think!!
Full disclosure: future tense is not something I have a whole lot of experience with. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever read anything written that way, which is why I have not written about it here. If you have I would most definitely like to hear about it!