Though I currently have three well developed novel ideas on marinating in my brain, I’m leaning very hard toward one in particular. It’s somewhat non-traditional, so I’m not quite ready to share the details, but I’m having a major dilemma with it that I think some other authors can sympathize with: Past vs. Present Tense.
In doing some research with my trusty pal, Google, I discovered a terrific article from the Grammar Girl about the uncommon use of present tense in fiction writing. While the article itself is very helpful, what I really enjoyed were the comments that others shared about why past tense is used so often and what the general pros and cons are of using present tense. There were also some examples given of popular (and lesser known) books written in the present tense.
Unfortunately, everyone’s arguments were so good that I still haven’t decided what to do with my idea! I’m worried that as some people say, the present tense can be very distracting (which I think is directly related to sentence structure–you have a tendency to want to use choppy sentences like: “Joe walks into the room. He looks around. He is alone.”) Beyond the clunkiness, it is just simply in our nature to tell stories in the past tense, because you’re describing previous events to someone who wasn’t there.
On the flip side, present tense can be very engaging. One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years is Anita Shreve’s “Body Surfing.” Shreve artfully uses present tense to wrap readers tight in the story before they even know what’s happening. Without being a murder mystery, it’s still a gripping tale that leads you anxiously from page to page. Even better, the present tense takes away many of the readers’ notions of what’s to come. There’s no assumption to be made about the outcome of the story based on the way it’s told (like when 48 Hours Mystery interviews the suspicious neighbor while he’s wearing a neon orange jumpsuit, as though we’re not supposed to pick up on the fact that clearly this person is in jail–it takes away from some of the suspense).
What do you think? Is one better than the other? Would you put down a book in the store the minute you realized it was written in present tense?
It’s an interesting question to ponder and I guess I’ll have to continue to marinate until I come up with my own answer.