Since the popularity of The Hunger Game series and the awards won by All the Light We Cannot See, a trend is fiction is the use of present tense. This style is touted as making the character’s actions more intimate to the reader, but it is not a new fad. I recall reading the Babar books to my own children, who were quick to pick up that these 1930’s children’s classics sounded different. They were penned in present tense.
Personally, I have always written in the past tense for fiction as I use the present tense for technical writing and find it dry. However, I decided to experiment, and rewrite scenes previously composed in past tense. First, I discovered the difficulty of dropping the reader directly into the action using present tense. I struggled to rewrite the first paragraph of an opening scene in which a young girl receives a permanent scar on her face due to her sister’s actions. In a tale told with past tense, the current time is beyond the end of the story. But, I could no longer play with time and let the reader know what would occurred by jumping from far past, to near past, to current time.
Finally, I returned to a technique used by writers for centuries–describing the setting and character at the beginning with enough nuanced details to make the action that would shortly occur plausible. This was less awkward than breaking into the flow of present tense events to include tidbits that explained the character’s background.
Forcing myself to write in present tense subtly transformed my writing style. It required much more attention to sequencing the actions that occurred in precise order. It is easy to detail the seconds that tick away as a disaster looms on the horizon in present tense, but more difficult to show the flow of time. Movies frequently telescope less action-oriented portions of a plot using a montage of scenes. Try writing like that in present tense and its limitations become obvious.
My scenes became shorter as I created additional breaks in the story to skip over less interesting events between those that drove the plot forward. When picking up threads of the story in the next scene, I described what occurred in the interim through a flashback in the mind of the character or through conversation. Events flowed better over short periods of time in present tense.
Sentences became shorter just like the scenes became shorter. However, I found I wrote more sentences to fill in breaks in the narrative. Completing parts of the scene with mundane events became necessary. Also, suspense has to be handled differently. There must be an outward indication of the ax that is going to fall and I did not want to resort to over-obvious foreshadowing. So in present tense writing, most characters are aware of the imminent danger, too.
Including interior thoughts became essential to story cohesiveness. When the girl in my opening scene is injured (which will result in the permanent scar) she temporarily cannot see. I found visually-oriented descriptions of that time jarring. I changed those to the sounds, touches and smells that the girl actually experiences. In one of the novels I am currently reading, All the Light We Cannot See, use of present tense immerses the reader into the world of the blind major character.
Strangely, I found the writing sounded more poetic in present tense. I would not use pronouns but repeat people’s names and even actions, because that sounded right. Then I realized, I frequently write poetry in the present tense. My final discovery surprised me, too. Writing in present tense actually made the passages longer in each case in which I transformed them. And, I preferred some of the present tense scenes more. So, I recommend all authors experiment with this and uncover their own unexpected results.