On Tenses: When to Use Present, When to Use Past
Lately it seems like every other YA novel I pick up is first person present tense. Which, when done right, is awesome. Some of my favorite books are in present tense. But I keep seeing books written in present tense with no actual reason for it. I think THE HUNGER GAMES, among other books, made this particular style of narration jump in popularity lately. I’m seeing a ton of aspiring writers using it in books that I’m not quite sure warrant it.
While it’s not the only reason to use it, I think a big benefit to writing in first person present is that it reintroduces the possibility of the narrator dying in the novel. While it’s certainly still possible to kill off a first person past narrator (I’d name an example but it’d be a huge spoiler for a great book) there’s definitely an implication by the form itself that the narrator survived the story and is now recounting it from some undefined point in the future. With present, there’s no such implication—events are unfolding for the reader at the same time they’re unfolding for the characters. (Note: in THIRD person past, there’s no implication the character survives. It’s only when the character is also the narrator that you get this sometimes unwitting implication.)
In THE HUNGER GAMES this works beautifully. The whole question through the first book is whether Katniss will be able to bring herself to kill someone else—because if she doesn’t, SHE’LL die. If we know she survives from the beginning, then that question is more or less answered the moment we start reading.
In SKYLARK, the story is told through first person past POV. I have no problem with people knowing Lark survives, particularly because there are sequels that continue to follow her, and everybody knows that. In Lark’s world, there are fates (yes, fates plural) worse than death. Simple survival may be her goal at first, but it doesn’t stay that way for long.
In THESE BROKEN STARS, however, my co-author Amie Kaufman and I decided to use first person present because there is every possibility—even probability—that one or both of the characters might die. In the opening chapters, Lilac and Tarver crash-land on an abandoned, mysterious planet with very little hope that anyone even knows where they are, much less how to rescue them. First person present appealed to us because we wanted that danger to be extremely present, and to prepare the reader for the possibility of things going horribly wrong.
Present tense can be totally awesome, but I think it needs to be a deliberate choice. I think the author needs to be prepared to defend his or her decision, because if there aren’t good reasons for it, stylistically it’s kind of the writing equivalent of ‘shopping all your photographs into sepia tone to make them look deep and artsy. (Disclaimer: I totally love Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, but I think we can all agree this picture is a little silly.)
Often when I start writing, I can’t tell you why I choose a particular POV or tense for the story, though it often becomes clear as I go. I think picking the optimal narrative style for you book is equal parts instinct and analysis—which is why it’s helpful to come at it from both sides of the brain!