by Annette Lyon
Some time ago, I ranted about many aspiring writers I'd recently come across who insisted on using first person, present tense in their work. More specifically, I ranted about how it's not that great of an idea to do unless:
A) you know how to handle all the other aspects of writing a good story
B) you know why you're using present tense instead of regular past. (Why and how will present tense make the story stronger?)
Since I recently came across a great book that uses first person present, I'm thinking it's time to revisit the topic and show why it worked in that book.
The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams is a young adult novel about thirteen-year-old Kyra, who lives in a polygamist compound and is promised to her 60-year-old uncle as his seventh wife. It's a complex, rich story, and it's told with Kyra's voice in present tense, as if it's happening right now.
One thing that present tense has going for in this book is that it provides a solid way to flash back to intense, important moments from the past.
When the rest of the story is happening NOW, we get a clear cue as to when we're in a flashback by the simple use of past tense. One moment Kyra IS DOING THIS, and the next, we're remembers that SUCH AND SUCH HAPPENED.
There's no need to transition with past perfect (I had gone, he had said) to alert the reader that we're going into or out of a flashback.
In many of the cases I ranted about, the beginning writers were relying on flashbacks in a bad way; it was often a clue that they were either starting in the wrong place or including information the reader didn't really need.
In the case of The Chosen One, we need all that information. And starting earlier and showing those scenes in real time would have weakened the impact of those scenes, because they're shown in an important sequence and as Kyra herself is reflecting on them and how they impact her next moves and decisions.
Big caveat here: Flashbacks are much like present tense: HANDLE WITH CARE.
Sloppy writers rely on lots of flashbacks to explain back story and provide exposition. If you're flashing back too often (or even in the first chapter), stand back to see if you're starting in the wrong place or whether that back story is really necessary to the whole. You might be able to cut it altogether.
As my previous rant (ahem . . post) warned, be careful about maintaining your tenses. Since we're all most familiar with regular past tense, it's all to easy to slide into past tense when you don't mean it to be a flashback. It's equally easy to revert to present tense in what should be a past-tense flashback. You'll need eagle eyes during revision to make sure you're consistent.
First-person present can be done well, and The Chosen One is a great example of that. (Another is Good Grief, by Lolli Winston.) But don't choose it willy-nilly.
Know why it will strengthen your story (or will it?) and how to do it well. If you're still trying to learn the basics of writing (dialogue, characterization, plotting, and so much more), stick with past tense for now.
It was plenty good for just about all the old greats in the literary cannon; it's good enough for you, too.