I recently heard a person with a considerable amount of authority state that writing a story in first person is a terrible idea, shouldn't be done, and that writing it in present tense is even worse. It's his opinion, and he's entitled to it, but I disagree. I'm
One argument against present tense is that it's unnatural to us in the English language. We don't tend to use it much in our speech.
(Except some people do relate anecdotes that way—it's their style—and what are anecdotes except telling a story? But anyway...)
I have a couple of issues with that argument. First, spoken language and written language are not the same thing. Spoken is a primary form while written is a secondary form. The way we speak has never been fully reflected in the way we write, and vice versa. Even written dialogue should only feel like a realistic depiction of speech, not actually be an accurate, true-to-life representation. So why would my use or non-use of spoken present tense have any bearing on whether writing a story in it is appropriate?
Second, of course we don't use (spoken) present tense the way we do in written stories, because we don't narrate life as it's happening. (At least, most of us don't. And I might be a little concerned about anyone who does.)
"Then why is your protagonist narrating their life as it happens?" you may ask. "Isn't that just as ridiculous?"
In my opinion, no. It isn't. Because when I read, I don't process it as the character telling me the story. To me, the story simply happens, and the narration is a construct to deliver that thing called "story" to my brain. I don't generally feel like the character/narrator is talking at me—they're just living the story.
Of course, I understand this is a particular philosophy and approach to reading—one I know plenty of people don't share in, and one which I discuss a bit more in the first-person post.
All that said, I'll make some concessions. The first time I read a novel written in present tense, it was awkward. I wasn't used to it, and almost every sentence felt strange. But not being used to something doesn't automatically make it wrong. Little kids just learning to read aren't used to sentences that don't follow simple subject-verb-object structure. The first time they encounter a sentence like the one I'm writing right now, they might feel very awkward indeed. You get used to it. In fact, the only time I seem to notice present tense anymore is when it's done badly. Which brings me to ...
... Sometimes it's done badly.
Present tense is tricky. You can't note or reflect on anything until it comes into the sphere of your POV character's perceptions. I once changed some material from past to present and discovered I had to shuffle sentences around in a paragraph to make things work. And sometimes a story (or even a voice or style) doesn't really seem to support the choice for present tense.
So why use it? What do we gain?
Some say immediacy. That can be true, but I've read things in past tense that seemed to have just as much immediacy. The difference with past tense is that it's a bit easier to ease off the immediacy when it's not needed. If present tense truly creates immediacy by its very nature, then that immediacy will be much more constant throughout the story. And I think that's probably what I mean by stories that do or don't support use of present tense—some stories can handle that immediacy better than others.
Don't use present tense just because The Hunger Games did.
There's also a distinction between past and present that hits me more subconsciously as a reader. If I read a story in past tense, I don't actively think about it, but there may be a feeling deep down that the character knows what's going to happen in the next paragraph, next chapter. Not always—skillful writers still manage to keep the suspense level high when they want to—but sometimes. (Then there are the blatant cases, ending a chapter with "That was the last time I saw my father alive.")
With present tense, we make all discoveries at the same time as the character. Their problems are exactly as big as they seem, with no hindsight to put them in perspective. That can be a good thing.
Every tool has a use. We just have to make sure we use them all mindfully and correctly.
Do you have opinions on present tense—for OR against? Love it? Hate it? Why? Please share (respectfully!) in the comments.
R.C. Lewis teaches math to teenagers—sometimes in sign language, sometimes not—so whether she's a science geek or a bookworm depends on when you look. That may explain why her characters don't like to be pigeonholed. Her debut novel Stitching Snow (which is in first person, but past tense) is coming from Disney-Hyperion in 2014. You can find R.C. on Twitter (@RC_Lewis) and at her website.