Maybe I’m just odd, but my brain doesn’t pay so much attention to verbs that it can make that kind of distinction. Whether you write “He runs” or “He ran,” it doesn’t matter; either way, I visualize a boy running. Even if you did write “he runs,” it doesn’t trick me into thinking I’m there watching him run. He never runs or ran because he’s not real.
I don’t think present tense is pointless by any means. I just think those are pointless reasons to use it. Here are some reasons I agree with:
It’s easier to write and read
Sometimes conjugating verbs sucks. When do you say he ran, he was running, he has run, or he has been running? Even if you use your verbs correctly, sentences like “he has been running” are hard to digest.
When you write in present tense, it’s much simpler. It either happened now, or in the past. Let me illustrate this:
I sit at the table and think about the last time I ate fried chicken. It was raining.
I sat at the table and though about the last time I had eaten fried chicken. It was raining.
In the second sentence, not only does it sound bad to say “I had eaten,” but when did it rain? While he sat at the table thinking, or when he last ate fried chicken? It would make more sense to say, “It had been raining,” but that’s so wordy.
Sometimes it just makes sense
I’m seriously considering writing Hunger in present tense. I don’t particularly want to, but at certain points, it only makes sense. For instance, let’s say my character gets frustrated and says, Ugh! I didn’t know what to do.
Here’s the problem: when is she saying “ugh”? Did she say it when she didn’t know what to do, or is she saying it to readers as she narrates the story? It sounds like she’s sitting down talking to the readers, and she’s not. “Ugh” expresses her frustration during that moment, not her frustration at the memory of the moment.
Ergo, it would make more sense for her to say, Ugh! I don’t know what to do.
There are things you can do with present tense that are difficult to do with past. Stream of consciousness (writing exactly as the character thinks) lends itself well to present tense, for instance.
Let’s say my character is having an argument with herself. It sounds better like this:
I want to take him back, but I can’t. Well, maybe I can. I don’t know. Should I? I’ve been thinking about it for days. Ugh! I don’t know what to do!
…than if I wrote it like this:
I wanted to take him back, but I couldn’t. Well, maybe I could. Should I? I wondered. I didn’t know. I thought about it for days. Ugh! I thought. I didn’t know what to do!
If I wrote this scene in past tense, I’d have to completely change it in order for it to sound right.
You can use words like “now”
Just yesterday I was reading To Kill a Mockingbird to my husband when I ran into the sentence, “No moon was out tonight.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Andrew said. “Isn’t this supposed to be first person past tense?”
“Then it doesn’t make sense for her to say ‘tonight’ unless she’s using present tense, right?”
For a second, I just stared at him. “I thought you’re supposed to be an engineer,” I said. “How’d you know that?”
This is also a problem with the word “now.” Logically, theirs is no “now” in past tense. Here’s an example: “If he wasn’t mad before, he was now.” How can you used to be mad now?
Why would you use past tense?
As I read over this article, I wonder why I hate present tense as much as I do. I can’t think of any reason that past tense is better than present, but I just know in my gut that it is!
I’ll be frank; I use past tense because it’s what I was raised on. It feels unnatural to switch. Sometimes I’ll be halfway through a book and realize it’s in present tense, and I’ll think, “No, no, no! That’s not right! It’s so weird!”
You can keep your present tense to yourself; I will always be partial to the past.
CHALLENGE: How many books can you list off the top of your head (don’t cheat by looking at them) that were written in present tense? I’m curious to see how memorable it is. I can think of The Help, Water for Elephants, and The Hunger Games.