There are plenty of things to think about when penning a biography. Remembering all those key moments is crucial. The names of important people in your life is another. And dates. And who said what and when.
The one thing you probably won't consider is what tense to write it in. A biography deals with events of the past, right? Ergo, you write it in the past tense.
While this is perfectly fine and indeed the norm for the majority of biographies, it doesn’t necessarily follow. Believe it or not, you do have a choice. Writing a book in the present tense is a riskier choice stylistically, particularly when penning a life story, but it can be very effective when trying to convey a sense of excitement and immediacy.
Before I go through the options in more detail, let me just say, tense choice doesn’t always ‘automatically’ happen. I’ve reviewed many manuscripts from new authors who flip flop between tenses at an alarming rate and it can be very off-putting and definitely distracts from the main narrative. My tip for any writer would be to think about tenses beforethey type their first word and to be consistent. If you get to the end of your book and discover the tenses are all over the place, it is extremely time-consuming to correct.
The only time it is OK to switch tense is when using a mix of narrative and direct quotations.
After he'd seen the mess I’d made, my teacher had launched into the then, well-worn, lecture about me being a waste of space who would never, ever amount to anything.
‘You have no prospects, son,’ he roared. ‘Get out of my class.’
If you are new to book-writing, sticking to the past tense in your main narrative is the easier option. It's the way we’ve been told stories since our school days and it was the same for many generations before us. You know the sort of thing. ‘Once upon a time, somewhere before today, there was this fantastic character, who had a great adventure, survived to tell the tale and is now eager to tell you all about it.’ It’s not just easy to write, it is easy to read too. We barely notice the style because we are so accustomed to it. If the tense is ‘invisible’ to a reader, they can enjoy the bits that count, like the story and the characters you describe.
Another plus for the past tense, is it is flexible. It allows you to play with the timeline and skip forward when you need to. So, for example;
‘After a quick breakfast I'd ran for the bus. The traffic had been achingly slow that morning, but I made it to the big showdown with a minute to spare.’
The breakfast and the traffic are not the interesting bits of the story. If you told it in ‘real time’ (as you are pretty much committed to in the present tense, if you want it to sound convincing) it is inevitable you’d be committed to boring the reader with a lot of unnecessary details. Instead, by telling it in this way you’ve got your character (you) out of the house and over to the important event in a couple of sentences by tellingthe story. You can then slow down the action when you reach the showdown and use dialogue (in present tense if appropriate) to explain everything that happened next. When your story looks back in time, you can fast forward the dull bits and take your time over the interesting stuff.
Are there any arguments in favour of using the present tense? Well, yes. In fact, there have been a number of extraordinarily successful books written in this way, so I wouldn’t completely write it off (ahem).The Hunger Games,is a good example, as is The Bleak House, Wolf Hall and All quiet on the Western Front. In each case the device is used to convey a specific intense emotion. In the latter book, for example, Erich Maria Remarque uses the present tense to raise the tension and give a more realistic, penetrating vision of the horrors of war.
It has also been said that writing in the present tense gives a book more of a cinematic feel. A movie is, after all, a series of scenes, played out in real time. Back stories can be told in flashback, but it’s not advisable to overdo it. It’s not easy to fast forward action when you are writing scene by scene.
Present tense is still mostly seen as the ‘more experimental’ side of book writing. It takes a great deal of attention to detail and creativity to get it right. Plus, in the same way that reading the past tense is normal for everyone, reading books in the present tense can be annoying and jarring for many readers. In fact, some people have such strong feelings about it, they abandon books that use the present tense.
If this is your first attempt at writing a book, my advice would be to play it safe and stick to the past tense. Most importantly, make up your mind to do it and stick to it. It’ll feel entirely natural after a while, leaving you to get on with remembering all the most important moments of your life to make your memoir a gripping read.