Saturday, September 21, 2013
Writing in the Present Tense
Traditionally, most novels are written in the past tense. This is what people expect. However, we are experiencing a trend (especially in young adult dystopian novels) to use the present. Books like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Legend give the reader a first-person, present-tense experience.
When I first read The Hunger Games, I had trouble getting into the present-tense writing style. I am accustomed to stories told in the past. To me, it makes sense for a narrator to tell events that have already happened. It took a few pages for my mind to switch from the familiar past tense. After the first chapter, I became so engrossed in the novel that tense was no longer a barrier. Similarly in my own writing, I find it hard to switch. I am working on an experimental piece in first-person present tense. This is a change from my usual third-person, past, and it takes me a few paragraphs to adjust my style.
I have found that writing "in the now" gives quick-paced action and smooth transitions to flashbacks. It's easier for the reader to believe the point of view character is in life-threating peril. For a book written in past tense, there is always an inkling in the readers mind that this has already happened. The protagonist is telling it, so she can't have died during the climax. Present tense doesn't give this same certainty to the reader, which is probably why it's used often in modern dystopian literature.
Even so, writing in the present tense is nothing new. Shakespeare wrote plays before novels even existed and used present tense for stage directions. They fight...Paris falls. Novels such as Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Updike's Rabbit, Run also employ the present. However, books like these are the exceptions in classic literature. For the most part, stories are told using the past tense. The storyteller is relaying events that have already happened.
Kids today still read those books, but they also read stories told as they happen, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Twitter feeds and Facebook statuses. Today's generation is reading and writing as life unfolds, pushing storytelling into the present tense. It's unclear how the social-network medium of storytelling will impact literature of the future. Modern readers want books that are cinematic. In the future, will they expect books to be concurrent?