Friday, November 3, 2017

Pros and Cons of Using Past or Present Tense

A blog reader sent me a great question this week:  "My writing group discussed present versus past tense when writing memoir.  A group member's editor had her switch her present tense chapters to past tense.  She had some of each.  Are there virtues of each or should memoir always be past tense?"
 
I get this question a lot in classes, so it's always good to know the pros and cons of using past or present tense.   
 
Just to recap, we're talking about verb tense here.  Past tense sentence:  John went to the game and arrived late.  Present tense of the same sentence:  John goes to the game and arrives late.
 
Although it's risky to make such a blanket statement, I'd say that novels and memoirs have been written almost exclusively in past tense for as long as literature has been published.   It was the way to write.  Then writers, who love to experiment, began writing a little in present tense, here and there.  It was different, startling at first to readers.  Present tense is TENSE!  It's more in your face, more breathless.  But so is our world now, so modern literature, both memoir and novels, are written in both past and present tense now. 
 
Are there rules?  Not really.  Are there effects on both reader and writer?  Definitely.  It pays to know them, so you can choose consciously.
 
Past tense disappears; it's so usual, we don't even notice it. 
 
And while present tense is immediate, fast, a little more energetic, in your face, breathless, as said above, it calls attention to itself.  Sometimes, it comes across like a "device" the writer is using rather than an integrated part of the story.  It's a style, like using no quote marks for dialogue.  All styles call attention to themselves and have to serve the story to be justified.

If an editor says, Go back to past tense, it might be for this reason.  I'm just guessing because I don't know the manuscript, but that would be one of the concerns I'd have, as an editor.  Is present tense serving the story or is it louder than the story?

Caveats:

1.  Some writers use present tense as a tool to get immediacy in the story.  Like, rewriting a chapter in present tense can give a whole new perspective and more energy if you're stuck.  I love using present tense for this reason, but I usually switch back. 

2.  A friend just got her book accepted--it's very edgy fiction and it's written in present tense.  The tense emphasizes the already edgy plot.  So it works.
 
3.  Some writers who use flashbacks choose one tense for the main story and the other for the flashback.  This is tricky but it's great if you can pull it off.

Mostly, find what works for you.  Read writers who write in either tense and see what effect you feel from the writing.