By the time I reached French 4, I’d had to memorize nine different tenses, their verb roots/endings, and their irregularities. It was ridiculous. Surely, I thought, English didn’t have as many messy rules.
Actually, it does. However, we’re so used to speaking English that we don’t even notice when we’re jumping between tenses – or when we abuse them. That’s why talking to a foreign exchange student or bilingual person can be quite illuminating. Often people who learned English later use better grammar than native speakers. (We seldom use past perfect or future interior, for example. My grammar is probably better – and more archaic – when I’m fumbling along in French.)
We don’t really pay attention to tenses when we speak, but we do notice them when we read. I remember being halfway through Neal Shusterman’s novel Unwind and wondering exactly what was bothering me about it. Finally, the answer hit me. It was written in present tense.
Most books are written in past tense. He said, she ran, they exploded into a thousand tiny bits, etc. That’s what many have come to see as the ‘traditional’ type of storytelling. These days, though, present tense has begun to appear. Unwind, The Hunger Games, Diva, Before I Fall… all these novels and more are written in the present tense.
This is not technically wrong. Neither is it illegal. However, some people find it… off-putting. I’m among them. I often don’t notice at first. I simply read through with a constant feeling at the back of my mind that tells me that something isn’t quite right. Once I finally realize that the tense is different, it often distracts me. I’m just more used to past tense.
Why do people use past tense so much more often? I think it’s because stories used to be passed down orally. You’re telling something that happened. Action in the past, over and done with = past tense. Present tense refers to something that’s happening now. Books are not happening now. If you put The Hunger Games down, you won’t miss Katniss shooting someone with an arrow. You can not affect the events. The story has happened, and now it’s done.
There are reasons to use present tense. In The Hunger Games, it worked to create a mood of urgency and immediacy. It feels more life and death. However, good writing can make this happen with past tense too. In most cases, present tense just isn’t necessary.
There is at least one case where it is – if the story cuts off. I did this myself in a short story where the whole world is preparing for the apocalypse. After the very last line, you don’t know if the world ended or not. If the story had been set in past tense, you could assume that someone was left to tell the story, which would spoil the ambiguity. In this case – or stories where the narrator dies/is interrupted/etc – present tense can be an addition rather than a distraction.
I’ll admit that I frequently use present tense in short stories just because of the medium. To me, short stories feel like fleeting glimpses into a person’s life, almost like short films. Present tense helps me slip in and out more easily. However, there would have to be extenuating circumstances for me to even think about writing a novel in present tense.
That won’t stop me from reading them, though.