Friday, April 30, 2021

Pros and Cons of Using Present or Past Tense--What's the Effect on Your Reader?

A client told me about a recent meeting of her writing group. They discussed using present versus past tense when writing memoir. What were to pros and cons of each, what effect did they have on the reader?

Interestingly, one group member had spoken to her editor about this. The editor strongly encouraged her to switch her present tense chapters to past tense. She was confused about the virtues of each.

We're talking verb tense here. Past tense of your verbs or present tense--and what's the difference. Just to review, here's how a sentence looks with the verbs in past tense: John went to the game and arrived late. If you use present tense for the same sentence, here's how it would read: John goes to the game and arrives late.

Reading those two versions, you can probably tell the different effect the choice of verb tense has on you, as a reader. Which is more immediate, intense, in your face? Which is more laid back, flowing along?

Present tense has been trending for a number of years in both novels and memoir. It creates an edgier feel. It works very well for short pieces of writing--short stories, especially. But in longer works, like books, it's a big decision to use present tense.

I'll get risky here and make a very generalized statement, but 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. It helped create a certain kind of dream that the reader entered. Past tense is a soothing flow in novels and memoir. It doesn't call attention to itself, so the narrative, the characters and events and setting, stand out more.

But you know writers! We love to push the envelope and experiment with different devices, or tools to mechanically alter the feel of our prose.

We began testing out present tense, writing a little 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, right?

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, as said above. To me, past tense conveys confidence from the writer that the other elements of the writing are strong enough to hold attention.

And while present tense is immediate, fast, a little more energetic, in your face, breathless, as said above, it shouts! If the other elements are strong, it just ratchets up the tension and it doesn't feel like a device the writer is using. It becomes an integrated part of the story, a chosen style, like using no quote marks for dialogue (British style versus American, now adopted by some American authors, because, you know, Brits are cool!).

So if you are tempted by present tense in your novel or memoir, you need to ask yourself why. Are you needing a boost of energy via the tension and intensity of present tense? Is it because the narrative itself actually needs your attention instead?

Remember: All style choices call attention to themselves and have to serve the story to be justified. And past versus present tense is definitely a style choice in my mind.

Ask: Is present tense serving the story or is it louder than the story?

If an editor says, Go back to past tense, it might be for this reason. She or he is suggesting that the device is overshadowing the narrative. Test out the strength of your story in past tense--if it doesn't spark you enough, look at the characters, the plot, the setting to see what can be ramped up. Then, if you work from that strong foundation, test out a chapter in present tense and see if you still need it.

I read and write both, myself. But I want the choice to be integrated and authentic with what I'm writing. Not just a trend I'm following.

A few more thoughts:

1. Use tense change to get a new perspective on your chapter. Rewrite a chapter in present tense, if it's in past, or vice versa. This simple exercise can give a whole new perspective and more energy if you're stuck.

2. A friend just got her book accepted--it's very edgy speculative fiction and it's written in present tense. The tense emphasizes the 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.

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