Present Tension

As I mentioned previously, I’m writing again. This time it’s a Young Adult novel. It’s quite dark and grim at times with a seventeen year old narrator. Oh, and it’s all written in the present tense.

The more I write it, the more I’ve been thinking about the present tense. It seems to have become very fashionable these days. Half – (if not all) – the YA novels I read are written in this tense as are a huge amount of books that turn up on award shortlists. In fact, a couple of years ago, Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, wrote a piece in The Guardian bemoaning what he saw as overuse of the tense. It’s an interesting read and, as much as I admire him, I don’t fully agree with him here.

I’ve used the present tense throughout all the Arthur Quinn books – but sparingly. In each book, Arthur experiences strange dreams/visions of Asgard, the land of the gods. I wanted these visions to read differently. Switching from the past to present tense acts as a sort of lingual key for the reader; it takes them away from Arthur’s world and brings them to the world of the gods, a time where time itself acts differently. It’s jarring but it’s supposed to be.

I chose to use the present tense in the book I’m currently working on for a variety of reasons. I want there to be a sense of immediacy to the book. I want the reader to be confronted with this sometimes tough world that the narrator lives in. It’s gritty, grim and feels almost like a documentary; it gives the reader a sense of experiencing events that are happening right now. Simply put, the present tense tightens the tension.

(Pun fully intended.)

Pullman writes:

I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.

I say go with what the story calls for. Just because I’m using the present tense doesn’t mean I’m also ignoring the past, future, imperfect and so on. I’m enjoying writing in the present tense. In a strange way, I feel like I’m living with the characters more. But that’s not to say that I won’t switch back to the past in the future…

(Again, pun fully intended.)

So what do you think of the present tense? Do you as a reader enjoy reading novels that have the immediacy of the present or do you prefer the contemplative nature of the past? If you’re a writer, what makes you choose to use one tense over another?

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