past tense vs present tense
by Mina Bancheva
I have another question about my novel ( which I have nearly finished, first draft anyway, 800 words to go!) Apart from back story, I have written it in the present tense but one of the agents I met said they hated first time writers writing in the present tense and now my ex-tutor and mentor thinks I should turn it all into a past tense narrative.
What are the advantages and disadvantages in your view?
The main difference is that past tense narration implies a narrator who is reflecting on events that have long since concluded. It is a narrator who has a more objective perspective on the story. Even in first person, past tense implies that the main character has had some time to think about what happened. The gap in time creates more objectivity.
Present tense narration feels as though the events have not already concluded but are currently unfolding. Therefore, the narrator has not had a chance to think about them and cannot have an opinion on them that is informed by their outcome.
For most of history, past tense narration was the norm. Historical accounts, written in past tense, were designed to instruct the reader, to offer lessons based on the experience of the past. Fiction writing involved creating an artificial history designed to convey the thematic message of the author through events that at least had the ring of truth.
Present tense has become more popular in recent years for, I think, two reasons.
First, it feels more immediate. In first person, it creates a very intimate relationship between the reader and the main character, so that the reader feels what it is like to experience the events directly as the character.
With a past tense book, the reader is often introduced to the narrator's particular mindset early on. The reader must keep this in mind as the events unfold, weigh up the issues and decide in the end if the narrative voice has drawn the best conclusions from the events.
But in present tense, the narrative voice has no foreknowledge that colours the narration, so the reader can share more intensely the main character's anxiety over what is the right way to react to events.
Second, I think many readers have come to distrust the idea of a narrator who has acquired wisdom worth listening to. If you like, the "authority" of an author has declined, along with that of other authorities. People do not trust political leaders, religious leaders,
business leaders, scriptures, aristocrats, or even science as much as they used to because all these authorities have been tarred with the image of subjectivity and bias.
Present tense narration forces the reader to do more of the work of reflecting on the events as the story unfolds, so whatever mindset presented in the beginning is not based on knowledge of the events to follow. The reader is not so much evaluationg the narrator's conclusions but weighing the issues and events entirely on his/her own and drawing his own conclusions.
(Of course, the author can still "stack the deck," that is, present evidence that will lead the reader to certain conclusions.)
It's really a matter of taste. Some people prefer to know the narrator's view upfront. It seems more honest that way, and they are still free to decide how accurate the narrator's views are. They also just prefer the tradition of past tense.
Other readers feel that past tense can create a narrator who seems to "preach" at them. They prefer to feel they are reaching conclusions entirely on their own. (Of course, this is an illusion. Since the author is creating the story events, the reader can be manipulated just as much as with past tense narration.)
As for your story...
Many new writers tend to imitate the style of their favourite books. Since many popular recent books are in present tense, that has led to more present tense manuscripts.
However, your goal as a writer is to find the most effective style of narration for your story, whatever that may be. Agents are correct to cringe at writers who use present tense for no reason other than the current fad.
If you write in present tense, or past tense, it's important that you do so because it is right for your book, not because you are unconsciously imitating someone else's style.
What I suggest you do is take the first chapter or two and rewrite them in past tense. Or future tense. Or switch from first person to third. Or alter the style in other ways. Rewrite this part several times in different styles.
After this exercise, you should have a clear sense which style is more effective for your story. If you are in doubt, get some people to read different versions and see which one gets them more emotionally engaged.
But don't rewrite the whole story in past tense just because one person says present tense is bad. Do it only because it's the best choice for your story.