For anyone who reads YA books, you’ve likely encountered this unspeakable evil: present tense. My first experience was Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games. And while I’ve read the entire series, including her most recent prequel (where she thankfully abandoned that annoyance), I loathed the gimmick. Which is all the affectation is for most writers: a trend that makes no sense for the story they’re writing.
So don’t do it!
I’ve read YA for years now (I also write it – so the pairing makes sense), and I have no idea where this sudden surge in present tense came from. But it needs to stop. It’s an obnoxious style choice that lends nothing to any of the stories I’ve read over the years. As a matter of fact, it’s the number one reason I’ll put a book back on the shelf rather than bringing it home. I’ve encountered the fad so many times, I now crack an unknown author (and several known authors) open and skim the first few lines to check for the abomination before I take the risk.
Present tense writing hamstrings the author – and the reader! Both are trapped within the current moment, resorting to countless flashbacks (the bane of the reader’s existence) to recount anything that happened prior to that instant in time. Such books are also limited to first person, denying a reader the chance to explore the thoughts and motivations of others around the protagonist. Sure, you can label chapters with other characters to get around this shortcoming, but it’s still a limitation. It’s why the Hunger Games movies triumphed over the books (something I rarely say). They fleshed out a narrow concept Ms. Collins failed to bring alive with her choice of tense.
Present tense is a worthless evil!
I think authors (or editors – whoever’s making the stupid choice to champion this tense) feel that present tense builds suspense or heightens action. As a reader, I assure you – it doesn’t. Reading present tense is complicated. It bucks the natural rhythm we’re adapted to, especially with those frame shifts as a character has to constantly recall events from the past. It’s the worst roller coaster ride in the history of thrills. You jerk back and forth, falling out of the story constantly. There’s no suspenseful build, no creeping anticipation. Instead, you fight to hold onto the story with everything you have, screaming internally for one concise paragraph.
The affectation falls flat, and so do the stories. I’ve seen magnificent worlds and plotlines sink into the mud of barely readable because of poor tense choice. I’ve dismissed entire series because I barely made it through the first book. I’ve refused to even read some authors because they only work in present tense, and I can’t tolerate one more. The blurb on the jacket is tantalizing, but my brain refuses to swim through the murk.
Your tense choice MATTERS!
Can you use present tense in your writing WELL? Yeah, you can – if it makes SENSE! In Rin Chupeco’s The Girl from the Well, she has a ghost character with a fragmented memory and distant sense of self. (Unhappily, all of her characters use present tense, which is why I never read the second book – much as I adore her as an author) THAT character? It makes sense to use present tense. A ghost adrift in a different age, attempting to regain memory? They would only move in the moment. I can applaud present tense use in that situation because it’s justified.
I’ve used present tense myself – ONCE. My short story, “Pains of Glass” features of character stripped of memory. She awakes with nothing. If you have no past, you only exist in the current moment. So I used present tense to reaffirm the loss of a history. It’s the only time I’ve done so.
Give me a REASON for the character to live and breathe in the moment, to race from breath to breath, and I’ll applaud your choice. Otherwise, all you’re doing is following a limping trend that contributes nothing to the story. Bethany Morrow’s A Song Below Water came the closest to annoying me the least with her present tense choice. Her character’s reside so much in their minds, in their thoughts, that the tense felt almost right. And then the action happened, and everything fell apart again. It was close, but not still not right.
Tense matters to a reader.
When you write, you don’t write for yourself (okay, you do – a little). You don’t write to match a trend. You write for your READERS. So think about them, and what they NEED. They need to sink into your world and characters. They need to feel emotion and share thoughts. They need to look up from the end of a chapter and wonder what time it is, what day it is. They need to believe those people and creatures you’ve imagined could be real.
They don’t need to throw the book across the room because they keep falling out of the plot, stumbling between tense changes. So unless you have a good reason for it, leave present tense alone. Let it die already.