Both past and present tense have their places in writing. In my English class, we are taught to write in present tense for a literary analysis. In the narrative we wrote in class, both tenses were used, past tense for the flashback and present tense for the rest of the story. I don’t exactly see where present tense in fiction writing is necessary. Some authors manage to pull it off, but it usually ends up coming across as informal and as though the writing is coming straight from the character’s mind. I would rather read something for a character’s point of view as though they are telling the story as it happened IN THE PAST rather than read something as the character is telling it when each event happens. Take Harry Potter as an example. It is told in third person limited in past tense and yet somehow I still felt as though I was in Harry’s mind. Then take Divergent. That’s told in first person and present tense, which makes the reader feel as though they are reading the character’s thoughts. Present tense doesn’t feel like it takes place in the present though. Present tense feels as though it takes place in the past, but the author used the wrong words. When telling a story, most people say “I did this” instead of “I am doing this”. Sure, sometimes it makes action scenes more suspenseful and action-packed because everything is supposedly happening then, instead of being retold after the fact. Though, when you read a book, it usually is taking place after the book is published. Thus, the book is already in the past, so what’s the need to write it in present tense then?
Read these quotes from the previously mentioned books:
“Harry spent the whole of the next day dreading what Snape was going to say if he found out how much farther into the Department of Mysteries he had penetrated during his last dream. With a surge of guilt he realized that he had not practiced Occlumency once since their last lesson: There had been too much going on since Dumbledore had left. He was sure he would not have been able to empty his mind even if he had tried. He doubted, however, whether Snape would accept that excuse…” –Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling, page 636.
“‘Good,’ I say. My voice sounds tight and fierce. Anger builds inside me, replacing my blood with bitter water and filling me, consuming me. I want to break something, or hit something, but I am afraid to move, so I start crying instead. Four crouches by the side of the bed, and watches me. I see no sympathy in his eyes. I would have been disappointed if I had. He pulls his wrist free and, to my surprise, rests his hand on the side of my face, his thumb skimming my cheekbone. His fingers are careful.” –Divergent by Veronica Roth, page 284.
In the quote from J.K. Rowling, you feel, or at least I do, as though you are Harry. You are guilty. You are regretful. And you are doubtful. In the quote by Veronica Roth you don’t exactly feel like Tris does. You understand her anger and surprise, but you don’t feel it. Plus, the sentence “his fingers are careful” drives me insane every time I read it. There is something about it that feels informal, blunt, and very thought-like. Rowling’s sentences are so much more planned out and thoughtful than the ones attempting to be like thoughts. They just make so much more sense. Though, with that said, I do love the Divergent series a lot, I just feel as though if it was written in past tense, it might be even better than it is already. I just tried reading Snow Like Ashes and I wasn’t fond of the way it was written–present tense. I probably should try to broaden my horizons, but right now I’m definitely for past tense (and I also have a thing for third person). In conclusion, in my opinion the way the tense of the book affects the story.