Present vs. Past Tense in Fiction

(Welcome SheWriters!)

Today, I'm writing about first-person present tense vs. past tense in short stories and fiction. I have a client who has written a beautiful literary mystery in first-person present. I remember telling him initially that I thought he should consider past tense. Present tense can seem unnatural - even jarring in some cases. He didn't want to make the change at the time, but now an agent is interested in the novel, and she is suggesting he change it.

Michael Nye, editor of the Missouri Review, posted an interesting blog about it last fall. You can read it here. Essentially, he says first-person present tense is overused in fiction today, and that in some ways it can prevent the writing from exploring the past with the character.

"Present-tense seems to be a default mode for someone who isn’t carefully considering the style choices being made.  It flattens the story.  It flattens emotional and narrative distance and lacks the sense of shadowing, the illumination and darkening of a character’s world that strong narratives can create.  The narrative choice suggests that there is nothing to remember about the past (and the past, to badly paraphrase Faulkner, isn’t ever really in the past) and nothing to expect of the future," Nye says.

I've thought about this quite a bit while writing my memoir. The past has everything to do with the present, and much to do with the future. Without considering the past, one cannot choose between following the same path or embarking upon another. We (or in the case of fiction, a character) cannot grow without having the knowledge of what has gone before and the ability to act on it. If we are forever in the moment, critical aspects of the story - ideas and experiences that inform the narrative - are left out. To understand what is at stake, for the character or oneself, requires a deeper exploration.

You can experiment with this yourself. Write a short story in first-person present tense and then rewrite it in past tense. See if there are elements of the story that emerge - even surprise you - in the past tense version.

Have you done this before? What was your experience?