There is a fairly new trend happening in YA books today: present tense. Some people have very strong feelings against it, some don’t. Me? I love it. BUT. Yes, there’s a but. :) I only love it if it has been done well, and if it’s necessary to the story. Otherwise, I can't stand it, and this is why.
When we writers sit down to write a first draft, we are discovering the story. Even if it’s been planned out with outlines and whatnot, there is still plenty of discovery happening through the characters, dialog, setting, etc. That adds an element of immediacy, of being in the moment. But the problem is that it’s not coming from the characters; it’s coming from us.
In that first draft, we writers are in a state of complete discovery. We may know some basic facts about the story and the characters, but really we are living from moment to moment, recording the story as we go. In subsequent drafts, though, we are no longer in that moment. We are reflecting back on it, analyzing, perfecting, adding in the details we may have missed the first time around, and trying to show that moment to the reader in the best way possible.
The same is true for our characters. To have a completely effective story told in present tense, the characters must be in the moment, not the author. That means that there should be no reflection or analyzing of what is currently happening. They need to figure things out as they go.
Some good examples of present tense are The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, and The Spectacular Now. In Jenna Fox and Teenage Amnesiac, the main characters have no memory of who they are. They’ve been told some basic facts about themselves, but they are in full discovery mode, trying figure things out. A perfect situation for present tense.
In Jenna Fox, Jenna stays in this self-discovery mode for the entire story because it’s not possible for her to reflect on who she was before her accident. It’s a very powerful story. The reader gets completely sucked into all of her moments and can’t wait for her to discover more, because that means we will discover more. This book is one of the most effective uses of present tense I’ve ever seen.
In Teenage Amnesiac, Naomi is suffering from amnesia due to a nasty bump on the head. So, in the beginning, we are discovering right along with her. It’s just as effective as Jenna Fox, and just as compelling...until Naomi regains her memory, and suddenly knows who she was before she bumped her head. At this moment, Naomi begins to reflect, comparing her old self to her new self. It’s also the moment that the present tense feels awkward. The reader is stuck in discovery mode, i.e. present tense, but Naomi is no longer discovering. She’s reflecting and analyzing.
The Spectacular Now is a different sort of book. Sutter is a party boy alcoholic. He completely lives in the moment, looking for the next fun thing. When that’s over, he’s off looking for the next one, and the next, and so on. His whole life is built upon not reflecting, because that would mean facing the possibility that he has a problem with his drinking. Hence, the title, The Spectacular Now. As Sutter shares his story with us, he presents it as-is, no frills, no I-guess-I-did-that-because rationalizations or reflections. He is completely in the moment, and this book is also one of the most effective uses of present tense I’ve ever seen.
So if you’re writing a story in present tense and you’re not sure if it’s effective, then take a look at both you and your character. Which one is in discovery mode? Which one is completely in the moment? If it’s you, then you might want to rethink using present tense. If it’s your character, then you’re probably on the right track.