Tense is one of several elements writers need to consider as they craft their stories. Although it can be an inherent thing that happens naturally, some writers may deliberate over which tense to use.
Having covered past tense in last week's post, this time around it's all about the here and now. Present tense.
With the present tense, the story is told to the reader as it is happening. You'll see it more often in first-person POV than in the third-person POV (though first-person past and third-person present combos also exist). It's gained popularity in recent years, especially in young adult novels, but just because it feels like a new kid on the block doesn't mean it's not worth considering.
Here are some pros and cons of using the present tense in fiction!
PRO - Immersive And Immediate
One of the most common reasons readers love present tense is because of its ability to immerse you in the thick of the action. Since present tense tells the story as it is happening, readers don't feel as removed from the story the way they sometimes can in stories told using the past tense.
Feeling like you're witnessing everything go down in real-time can make you feel like you are playing a part in it. No matter if the story is told by a separate narrator or through the eyes of the protagonist, present tense has a knack for drawing people in and letting them feel more connected to everything going on.
CON - One-Way Highway
Stories typically progress in a linear fashion. Beginning, middle, end.
Some, however, are nonlinear, bouncing around in time. By using flashbacks, POV shifts, and time jumps, telling the story out of the traditional order can have readers guessing and raise the tension.
Writers of nonlinear stories may face challenges in present tense. Since it tells the story in the current moment, present tense doesn't have the same flexibility as past tense.
Say you have a story taking place over the course of one year. In a present tense story, you'd most likely be telling the story from January to December, June to May, November to October—you get the gist.
You would be going in chronological order. April, May, June and so on, telling the story in the order it happens. You don't have the ability to go from September to April to December to August because that's not the order of a calendar year.
If you're planning on telling a nonlinear story, you might encounter difficulties in doing so with the present tense.
PRO - Heightened Emotion
Present tense puts readers in the moment and lets them experience everything as the characters do. The triumphs and victories, the losses and defeats, and everything in between.
Letting readers get swept up in the action also heightens the emotions they experience throughout the journey because they feel involved. They share in the shock, joy, sorrow, fear—all of it—right alongside the characters because the present tense puts them into the action. It can make for a more intense experience.
You're not as removed from it all as you might feel in the past tense, so it can be less of a secondhand experience you're observing from afar.
CON - In The Moment, Every Moment
When it comes time to edit, many writers are met with the task of trimming the story down. This can include little things crutch words and echoes, as well as significant cuts like entire chapters and characters.
In the past tense, it's easy to skip over the inconsequential details. With a few lines, you can tell the reader about things that happened if you need to and move on to the more important details—aka, the next scene that is relevant to the plot. Present tense can place restrictions on the way we can move through time and, thus, how we make these changes.
Skipping to the good part isn't as possible, so you may end up including mundane details that occur between the more exciting stuff simply because that's how time functions IRL.
Present tense, as with past tense, can be great in your story, but it's also worth recognizing that it has its drawbacks, too.
Tense is one of those things in writing where there is not a definitive right or wrong choice—well, aside from staying in one tense for the majority of if not the entire time and not shifting back and forth. Several factors can influence whether you choose past or present tense, including the advantages and disadvantages of each.
At the end of the day, it's better to choose the tense that will best serve your writing.