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Present Tense vs. Past Tense in Young Adult Novels

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Head to the Young Adult section in your local library or bookstore and flip through a dozen or so new releases, and you’ll find that a good percentage of them are written in first-person present tense–a dramatic shift from, say, five years ago when most YA novels were written in first-person or third-person past.

At first, I was seeing present tense almost exclusively in dystopian novels, and maybe the occasional paranormal or fantasy.  But now I’m seeing it in contemporary, realistic fiction, as well.  Why the shift?  I don’t know, but I’m guessing that maybe The Hunger Games (which is written in first-person present) has something to do with it.  It’s not uncommon for one series’ enormous success to spawn new trends.

When done well (as in The Hunger Games), first-person present adds an immediacy to the story without making readers aware of tense.  In other words, readers get so immersed in the POV character’s world that things like tense go unnoticed.  But when done poorly, the prose becomes awkward and clumsy, drawing attention to tense while pulling readers from the story itself.

Before, when starting a new YA manuscript, you mostly had to decide whether or not to write in first-person past POV, or third-person past POV.  Now, with the popularity of present tense, it’s an even more complicated choice.  I’m facing the dilemma myself as I begin the manuscript for Magnolia, my first YA realistic fic (coming summer 2014 from Simon Pulse).  I wrote the first several pages without thinking about it, and they came out in present tense.  Only, as I got further into the  chapter and begin writing the second, I became overly aware of tense–and suddenly it felt clunky and awkward to me (even though I’ve written in present tense before).  Now I’m having to make a decision–continue on in present tense, or switch to past.  The problem is, the voice is definitely more suited to present.

This dilemma led me to wonder, what do readers prefer?

So I (informally) polled readers and writers.  What I learned is that most people seem to either love or hate the use of present tense–there was very little middle ground, and opinions were strong on both sides.  I thought I’d share (anonymously) some of the comments, both pro and con.

PRO 

“I like present tense because it gives the story a sense of immediacy & from the first sentence you know that whatever is happening is important and it creates tension throughout a story. It makes you dig deeper into the moment of each scene and, especially in first person, the character. It’s one of those things that when you nail it and use it more, the harder it is to use anything else! It’s also one of those things that if you do it wrong or use it when a story doesn’t call for it, it could destroy your book. No other tense has that kind of power!”

“I love novels that use the present tense. It makes me see everything through the characters eyes and I can relate to them more. I just read a fantastic YA novel called What She Left Behind by Tracy Bilen. The main character talks about her dark and twisted family and how she’s trying to get away from her abusive father. You could really feel her fear since it was told from the present tense!”

“I personally love books written in present tense because it makes you feel more connected with the characters and the story.”

“I would love to see more books in the present tense. It makes you feel like you’re right there with them when it’s all happening.”

CON 

“When it comes to first person present tense, I tend to find it annoying. It stands out when I’m reading and can be really distracting. Because of that, the book’s concept/story has to have a real ‘wow’ factor for me to read it in first person present tense. Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth and Beth Revis’s Across the Universe trilogy both use first person present tense. They worked for me only because the concept was amazing enough for me to look past it.”

“I hate it. It’s completely awkward. It sounds like a script or a synopsis.  I don’t buy the “puts reader in the moment”argument at all.  Instead, it distances the story from a natural narrative voice.”

“I hate present tense, as I feel like I’m reading a voiceover of the situation– like a documentary.”

“Hate it. Like 2nd person POV, the writing gets between me and the story. I’m always aware of it because it’s awkward.”

“I hate it when it’s not consistent. I find the tense wanders between several forms.”

“I don’t HATE it.  I just think it doesn’t work for most stories.”  Present tense works best for “futuristic stories or epic fantasies, mailny because it makes the setting feel more realistic. In urban setting it feels tacky.”

In my informal poll, more readers seemed to dislike it than those who enjoy it.  So….if you decide to write in first-person present, I think you should be aware that some readers won’t be pleased–unless you do it really, really well.  The best way to learn to do it well is to read other first-person present books that *are* done exceptionally well (in addition to the books listed above, someone also mentioned Christopher Pike’s Thirst No. 1 and 2).  Read these–study what works and why.  Your goal is to make the tense invisible, unnoticed by readers.  It can be done.  I once got into a conversation with someone on Twitter who was saying how much they hated books written in first-person present.  But…I noticed that their avatar was a Hunger Games cover.  I pointed this out, and they responded that, “The Hunger Games isn’t written in present tense!”  I told them to go get their copy of the book and take a peek.  Yeah…Oops.  They hadn’t even noticed.  Why?  Because it was done well.

As to my own manuscript, I think I’m going to press on in present tense.  I hope I do it well, and I know that some readers will pass on reading it because of the tense.  But I do think it’s the right tense for this story, and for this POV character’s voice.  And ultimately, only you, the author, can make that decision.

How about you?  What do you think about the current trend of present tense in YA novels?  Any tips to share on doing it well, or books to recommend that have used the tense effectively?

Kristi’s YA debut, HAVEN, was released by Simon Pulse in Feb. 2011. She also writes adult fiction (historical romance) as Kristina Cook and Kristi Astor. Visit her online at www.kristi-cook.com.
  1. Wonderful post Kristi. I know exactly what you mean. I did a similar research before working on my young adult historical romance “Fame in the Adriatic” which is serialized on Wattpad. During the planning stage, I complained a lot because a historical *should* be in the past. But before I read The Hunger Games, I read Philippa Gregory’s The Boleyn Inheritance. It comforted me. I guess the first person present tense is a trend that will be accompanied by George R. R. Martins’ multiple view points. We might be seeing more of that in young adult books. Either way I’m definitely checking out your books.

  2. I don’t write YA but had a similar experience writing a nonfiction narrative. After polling FB readers, I decided to change to the 1st person. As with you, Kristi, it was almost a 50-50 split between the likes and the like-nots.

    The reason I changed was that the first person present made the adventure more personal and seemed to draw the reader more into the moment. Once I changed, the book seemed to flow naturally.

    I guess that if you are comfortable writing in first person present to continue writing in it; if you are uncomfortable doing so, the discomfort may show in the writing and become a turnoff for the reader.

  3. I personally like both, if they are both done well. Present does feel “in the now” sometimes, but at parts it feels awkward- even in The Hunger Games. The past tense feels more natural at sometimes, yet it also is lacking at times. So, I’m on the fence in this case.

    Thanks for the great post, Ms. Kristi!

  4. I think its a 50/50 split, you either love present tense or you hate it. I love writing in present tense but the person I use as an editor goes nuts. He also says The Hunger Games might be consider well-written but it switch tenses with in a paragraph isn’t allow in good writing. You’re either present or past. See example below:

    The Hunger Games – Page 1 – I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down.

    Kristi is this something new for YA and it is moving toward all genres and 3rd person. Is the publisher saying it the tense is less important, if the sentence reads better in past before switching back?

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