While editing my book, I’ve oft flip flopped with the subject of tense, as I’m sure many other authors do. When I first started it during NaNoWriMo 2011, I landed on past tense, for no particular reason I remember today. But many times - both while furiously scribbling down the story, and my time editing it since - I’ve waffled over the tense of my story.
Even though I started out in past tense, I’d find myself gradually slipping into the present over the course of my writing. Then I’d have to edit it back to match the rest of the story, but that nagging feeling would always stay.
Breaking down the trend
I’ve had this conflict for almost four years now, but was motivated to dive into it further when my copy of Star Wars: Aftermath arrived. The story is written in present tense and an almost fragmented way. It reads like a conversation, as if Chuck Wendig was narrating the actions to you as they happened. And it works, though not everyone would agree.
Now, I’m not saying my novel needs short, choppy sentences. Interspersed, throughout my prose. But, the present tense was.. refreshing, not unlike how enjoyable the first person perspective in the Mercy Thompson and Kingkiller Chronicles series are.
This got me thinking, though: did Chuck Wendig go against the grain here? So I cracked open a handful of novels in my library and took a gander, and the results were only a little surprising. I looked at some of my favorites, from Harry Potter and The Forgotten Realms*, to Dune and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – and not a single one of them was in the present tense. Yes, Frank Herbert and J.K. Rowling and Douglas Adams and R.A. Salvator - even Edgar Allen Poe! - all elected to write in the past tense. But why?
Just because all of these respected and successful authors chose to do so, does not necessarily mean it’s what’s right for my book. In order to answer that, though, I need to look at why they might have chosen the past tense.
* That’s not entirely accurate. In The Legend of Drizzt series, the main character has short monologues acting as interludes between parts, but the bulk of the story is in third person past tense.
Each one of them was telling a story, something each of us does every day in one form or another. When we do, we use the past tense, because it already happened. But what if we tell our story as it happens, treating it and the characters and world within as living, breathing entities instead of notes on a page long gone to time? Would it give our readers the illusion that the characters’ fates weren’t predetermined, versus reading something that was more like written history? Perhaps it would give readers more hope, let them give in and be attached to characters that are still alive, experiencing these things as they happen to them.
I decided to not get hung up on this aspect right now, and instead chose to continue moving forward with my story as it was: third person, past tense. I still feel third person is very much right for this tale; it wouldn’t have the same effect if there wasn’t an outside force providing additional flavor and reflection on Dirk’s actions. But on the subject of tense? My mind keeps drifting toward the present, and it may be I need to address it again soon.
(As an aside, I’m not sure I have ever read a first person past tense story before. Interesting.)