Monday, March 29, 2010

In the Past or Present?

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.


Bish Denham said...

Great post Tabitha!

Amy Jo said...

Very helpful information! I've been going back and forth with present and past tense, and this helped me make a decision. Thanks for the post.

Krystalyn Drown said...

Thanks for sharing that. I used to immediately put a book down if it was written in present tense, but now I don't mind so much. I would have missed out on The Hunger Games if I was still shunning it. And that would have been tragic.

But, I have an immediate tell for me if present tense isn't working. My mind will automatically convert the verbs into past while I'm reading it. =)

Danyelle L. said...

Great post! I used to loathe the present tense, but have come around a bit. I agree--like anything else, there needs to be a reason for it. Otherwise it reads like a gimmick.

PJ Hoover said...

I adore reading and writing present tense. I NEVER thought I would. And you're right in that the best present tense novels are those we don't even realize are in present tense.

Tabitha said...

Bish - thanks!! :)

Amy Jo - glad it was helpful!! :)

KrysteyBelle - I've figured out how to get past it, too. And I have the same 'tell' that you do. :) Most stories have some kind of flaw, but I'll read them anyway because it's fun. :)

Tabitha said...

Danyelle - that's exactly how I feel. It's so hard to find the right delivery mechanism for a story, and often we writers have to walk a thin line. If we stray just a little, it's incredibly noticeable. Which is why writing is SO hard!! :)

PJ - I actually like writing in present tense, too, but I don't like what it does to my story. So I compromise and do my first draft (scribbles in a notebook) in present tense, and all subsequent drafts in past (if the story calls for it).

C.R. Evers said...

Great post, and great perspective. I personally like any tense, as long as it fits the story. You made a lot of great points.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Great post - I love the examples! :-)

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis!

Jenn Hubbard

Unknown said...

Hi Tabitha! I'm a new follower and wanted to say hello. Though I don't write YA, I think this discussion is relevant for all genres. It's funny, I outline characters and plot the high-level logic of a new story in present tense, but my actual writing is exclusively in past tense.

As a reader, I'm put off by present tense more often than not. Only certain story lines work really well with the immediacy of present tense (The Hunger Games, for example), while for me, the others more suspenseful and authentic in the past tense.

I look forward to reading more from you!

Marcia said...

I don't even see present tense anymore, to the extent that I read as a reader, because it's become almost as common as past. When I read as a writer, then I notice tense. Because present tense was rare in only the recent past, and we're just getting used to it (by not automatically hating it anymore, say), I wonder if some writers are treating it kind of like new writers treat third/first person. As in, you change "he" to "I" and voila, first person; you take "ed" off your verbs, and voila, present tense. The temptation might be strong with the current prevalence of present and how up-to-date it sounds. Of course, third and first person are far more different than just he/I, and past/present tense can't be oversimplified either. Sometimes present bugs me because it's a tad arrogant or presumptuous. Past tense says "This story has been lived, found to be important, and is going to be worth your while." Present says, "Come along with me for this moment-by-moment ride, though we have no idea if what's coming will be exciting or boring." In these days when we must justify a reader's time investment in our story more than ever, it's a curious trend. I agree that a present-tense story needs to start with something SO compelling that we'll be swept along for the present-tense ride, or that "everything in the moment" needs to be the whole point.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I have certainly been thinking more about Past vs Present after reading this. I must profess that I much, much prefer present tense over past (my favorite is third person present). Present is my default tense as I begin a novel or story. However, you're right. If it doesn't serve a purpose, present can be quite distracting. I'm definitely experimenting in both present and past to see which one suits my story better. :]

Barrie said...

I love present tense. Love it. That said, I'm writing proposals for the next book, and I'm not sure which tense it'll be in. :)

Andrew Smith said...

Interesting post, Tabitha. Some of my favorite books use little blasts of present tense from time to time. I am not a fan of present tense as a default, but I appreciate a well-written story that maintains the tense with transparency. As a result, I occasionally slide the narrative of my books into present tense for a few paragraphs here and there.

Tabitha said...

Christy - I'm with you. If it fits the story, I'm all for it. If it doesn't, well, my analytical brain has a hard time getting around it. :)

Shannon - thanks!! :)

Jenn - thanks!!

Nicole - welcome! :) You are absolutely right that this applies to more than just MG or YA. Good writing is universal. And analyzing it is my bizarre idea of fun... :)

Tabitha said...

Marcia - I agree with you that present can sound arrogant or presumptuous, for the exact reasons you listed. That was my first reaction to present tense, and it bothered me so much that I had to analyze it until my brain was hurting. :)

Sandy - I think present tense feels most natural in the early drafts because we writers are discovering so much. Good luck figuring out which one is right for your story!! :)

Barrie - I am SO looking forward to the next Sherry book. She's so much fun! :)

Andrew - I do that, too. Not much, but a little here and there. It's amazing what it can do for the story - immediacy and a closer connection to the main character. There are times when past tense just doesn't cut it.

Elana Johnson said...

Excellent advice! I just read Crash Into Me in present tense and Need, also in present. In CIM, I liked it a lot. In Need, not so much. Excellent points about why one might use present tense.

Angela Hoffman said...

Tabitha - Carrie Ryan's new novel, The Dead-Tossed Waves, is written in present tense, as is her first (I think). Normally, it would put me off as a reader, but I really enjoyed it in both of these novels.

Thanks for your analysis and interesting post!