Friday, August 5, 2016

When Present Tense Works

A popular post from March 2010.

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.


Karlene said...

I totally agree. Present tense can become tiresome but Williams does it very well in her book.

Anonymous said...

I've read and used present tense before, and it is rather wearing on the reader.

Please don't do this to your readers, writers.

Carol said...


Wow, thank you for saying such nice things about my book. :)

For all those cutie faced writers out there . . .

Another thing about the flashback: If you are not careful, it will bring your story to a screeching halt.

I think you make a very good point, Annette, that writers should look at flashbacks, ESPECIALLY, in the first chapter. Let us get to know our character before you stop the story.

As far as first person, I almost always write in past tense. Now I have another book coming out in present tense--and a short, choppy line! And I'm writing another book in present tense.

Excellent advice to think carefully about what tense you use-it can make or break a story. :0)


Tamara Hart Heiner said...

I have to agree with atsiko. Even done well, it's hard on the reader. It doesn't feel natural, and even as a reader I catch myself trying to read in the past tense.

Heather B. Moore said...

I enjoy present tense as long as it's done well. Carol's book is great, as well as authors Lolly Winston and Jodi Picoult, who are excellent present tense writers. It brings an instant sense of immediacy to the story.

Julie Wright said...

Carol Williams did use present tense well. I enjoyed her book a lot. Suzanne Collins uses it in her Hunger Games series as well.

I second your rant . . . er . . . post.

And don't even get me started on flashbacks.

Rebecca said...

Whew! I'm glad to read this!

One of my WIPs are in first person past tense. I started it in third person, but something didn't fit and when I switched to first person, it all clicked. I do have trouble sometimes keeping that tense past rather than present, but I know I can do it.

As far as the whole story goes, I realized that I was telling too much of it in flashbacks. It ended up that there was too much to explore in the back story. Now I'm in the process of moving the beginning to the middle, rewriting that to exclude the flashbacks, and starting with a new beginning.

It's so nice to read that I'm actually doing something correctly!

Thanks, Annette. You're the best!

L.T. Elliot said...

Can I just say, "Amen!"? Because seriously, you said it all. (And I'm apologizing now about that atrocious grammar. It "ain't" my day.)

Melissa J. Cunningham said...

It's funny you would post this now. I just started writing a new book that is first person/present.

I was inspired by "Hunger Games," which is written in this tense. LOVED IT!

So, I thought I'd give it a try. It has been a blast and when I go back through to read what I just wrote, there are times I need to fix the tense. It's such a habit to write past tense, but so far, so good. I really like doing it this way. It makes it fast paces and very in the moment.

Once it's finished, I'll let you read it and you can tell me what you think. =)

Kimberly said...

Funnily enough I tried first person present tense before and found it far too complicated for my limited skill set. Good advice!

CL Beck, author: MormonMishaps said...

Good info. I haven't read Williams' book, but should, to see how it feels. Sometimes present tense can take on a jittery feeling because all the action is so immediate.

Nishant said...

Good advice!
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michelle said...

I'm a scientist not a classical trained writer and wasn't aware of the first person present tense curse when I began writing.
My first book SHAMBLES is written in first person present tense to relate aspects of the main character not possible in past tense. I wanted the reader to be in her head as she detaches from the reality of her decisions with a sense of voyeurism not as a confessee. Perhaps this is why present tense makes some feel uncomfortable. They feel sinful not wanting to submit to their own morbid curiosity.
Being a crime scene investigator for many years I was trained to put myself in the present tense mind of the killer to get a sense of how, with what, when and why he/she committed the crime.
I'll continue to defend my choice of writing style on that book until I find an agent willing to take a chance on the non-traditional or sell out to the establishment someday and attempt a rewrite in past tense.