Writers, here’s another reason why present tense lets you down. I’ve been thinking about how best to describe the problem, and here it is. Let’s say, like in the case of the present-tense book I just read (which I won’t link to here, since this isn’t much of a recommendation), your story has a great and surprising ending. In fact, if the book is a memoir, it’s entirely likely that, like this one, your book gets off to a bit of a slow start describing an interesting childhood, develops into something more fascinating as the character becomes a young adult and tries to find his or her way in the world, then becomes really astonishing as the character’s chosen career takes him/her to new and interesting places and leads to unusual revelations–be they political, philosophical, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise. The thing is, to get the reader to keep going, you want to promise some surprises. You want to let the reader know some reversals and rethinking-of-everything-you-thought-you-knew are on the way. The only way to do that is to use the reflective, past tense as you tell the story.
Write from a Place of Wisdom
You might begin with a tale about some childhood adventure, but how is the reader to know this is going to lead anywhere interesting? With luck, the story is just so fascinating the reader will be swept away, but in reality, much of the time that level of fascination is achieved by inserting the occasional, “My life’s trajectory seemed safe and pleasant, but I had no idea how the earthquake would change everything,” or “I rebelled against my parents’ expectations for years, but struggling to make ends meet forced me to reconsider my philosophy.” Those might be corny examples, but it is just this sort of hint about the future that keeps a reader interested. A big part of reading is predicting and developing expectations, but when you tell the story in the present tense, you can’t talk about the future of the story or hint at what’s coming. Your narrator has to remain as innocent as the reader as to what’s going to happen next, and that’s seldom useful.
The narrator should be wise, not innocent
It is for reader to be innocent, to be surprised, and for the narrator to be wise and knowing, and to reveal just the right amount of information needed to keep the reader interested. Whether you’re listening to an oral story or reading one, your enjoyment is based upon trust in the author. You trust the author will reveal what you need to know when you need to know it. If the author withholds information, you trust that he or she is doing so for a reason that benefits the story overall. But when the point of view is in the present tense, the reader actually doesn’t have that trust in the author. How can you trust an author who has no idea what’s going to come next? In this case, the author is as ignorant as the reader, and we don’t want that. We want the author to come from a place of knowledge and wisdom, and that means writing in the past tense.