I’ve never given much consideration to the tense I use when I write. It’s just an assumption that I’m going to write in the past tense. Most published works are written in past tense, and I’ve always struggled to write present tense anyway. All the articles say writing in present tense is harder, and more disconcerting for the reader (although it’s gaining ground, and more works are coming out in present tense), so why would I even try?
Point-of-view (POV) is easier. I typically try to write in third person, but for this new young adult project I knew I wanted to write in first person. This is Bo’s story, and I wanted it told in her own words and from her own viewpoint. So, the original plan, without giving it much thought, was to write the story in first person past tense.
Which worked all the way up until I actually started writing it. The first 300 words I put down that first day were a mixture of past and present tense. I kept trying to write in past tense, but the sentiments I wanted to express came across so much better in present tense. It was really annoying. I vacillated, trying to make it work in past tense, giving actual consideration to writing the whole story in present tense. Which was crazy. I’ve never written a whole story in present tense. A short story here and there, sure, but never something as long and complicated as a novel.
I tried doing research. I read a lot of articles about choosing a tense for a story, but none of them seemed to help. They mostly focused on how to write in different tenses, not how to decide which tense is right. A couple of days went by, and I made no more progress, because what was the point in moving forward if I didn’t even know if I was writing in past or present tense?
Then I started reading The Hunger Games. Lo and behold, it’s written in first person present tense. I’ve never noticed that before, and this was my third time reading the series (which I finished last night, by the way). It got me thinking. Maybe I can make this present tense thing work.
What finally sealed the deal was an article I found that actually addressed the issue. It wasn’t specifically about tense, but focused on how to effectively write in the first person. A subtopic was about choosing a tense, and I finally had the answer to my question. Basically, if your narrator is telling a story, use the past tense. But, if the narrator is actively experiencing the story, use the present tense.
That actually makes a lot of sense. I felt set free. I tweaked those first 300 words so that it was uniformly present tense, and I really liked the way the story came across. I finished chapter 1 last night, and the whole thing is in present tense, and I’m really enjoying writing it this way. That feeling may not last. I may get halfway in and curse myself for making this decision. But for now, it feels right and good, and I’m excited to get into chapter 2.