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Writing in the present tense: The good and the bad

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writing novel in present tense

What are the pros and cons of writing a story or novel in present tense?

Before you start writing your novel or short story, you need to decide what tense to write it in. There is no right or wrong but the choice you make will determine your approach. Will your story recount events that have already taken place ( Lucy waited by the door ) or will it be set in an ongoing present ( Lucy waits by the door )? You can see just from those two brief examples that each option will offer different possibilities in terms of writing style and narrative approach.

You have two tense choices when it comes to writing fiction: past and present. Using the past tense in fiction is time-honoured and for many, the default choice, but writing in the present tense is a stylistic choice that is increasingly used in modern fiction. The present tense is used more in contemporary literary fiction, in short stories and in writing that plays or experiments with form – and also in a lot of middle grade and young adult books. Past tense is the default setting for most genre fiction. As the simple past tense is traditionally used for storytelling, it presents fewer challenges to the reader, who doesn’t notice the tense that is being used and is immediately immersed in the world of the story. Past tense foregrounds the story, rather than the prose it’s written in. Present tense tends to be a deliberate stylistic choice used by a writer to create a conscious effect. You are signalling the reader’s attention to when your story takes place. This tense choice can be particularly effective when you want a reader to understand the world of your story as it unfolds through the eyes of a first-person narrator.

Benefits of writing in present tense

✓ it’s cinematic.

The present-tense is ideal for writing an impressionistic narrative that is playing out in an immediate timescale. Screenplays are written in first person because they express ongoing narrative and a close perspective, and both of these can be used to great effect in fiction. If you’re writing a story and want it to feel as if it’s set in real time, the present tense is a good choice

✓ It’s immediate

You can make readers relate to what’s going on in your fictional world and be involved in it by showing what happens – events, feelings, ideas – in the moment they occur. When each impression or scene you write takes place in the absolute moment, it means that the reader is right in there, experiencing the events of your story as they unfold. This can create a sense of intimacy or dramatic impact.

✓ It can feel more authentic

Because present tense allows for closer narration, it can create the sense of a unique character perspective. A present tense narrative can convey emotions, thoughts and impressions in the moment. Many writers who use the present tense feel that it’s a natural tense to write to reflect the world we live in now, where the voice of the individual is prioritised and what and how we write is influenced by TV, film and online culture.

✓ It’s vivid

Writing in the present tense means the information you present hasn’t got the perspective of being reported later. It’s written in the moment, without an effect of being filtered or processed or reported (though we know it has, because you’re a writer and it hasn’t happened by accident). What the reader has to focus on is the image you create, as it occurs, which makes for dynamic impressions.

✓ It’s good for delivering a deep first-person point of view

If you want to deliver the mindset of a first-person character, the immediacy of writing in the present tense means that your reader is right in there with your narrator, seeing what they see and experiencing the world of the story through their eyes. Rather than being an omniscient narrator, the writer shares the character’s focus. If you are writing an unreliable narrator using the present tense is an excellent way of delivering a narrative perspective at odds with the ‘true’ version of events in your story.

Drawbacks of writing in present tense

χ some readers don’t like it.

For every writer who feels the past tense is a bit ‘old school’ there is a reader who prefers a narrative that sticks with the convention of using the simple past tense. Present tense stories may feel natural for young readers but adult readers with a lifetime of reading work written in past tense may find present tense jarring – and it may be hard for them to get beyond the tense choice and into the world of your story. Literary fiction readers will be more open to experiments in form but for readers of genre fiction who want to be immediately immersed in the story, present tense may detract from their reading pleasure.

χ It can feel contrived

There is nothing more likely to put off readers than a writing voice that feels like a self-conscious pose. If writing in the present tense doesn’t feel like a natural fit for your story, it will read awkwardly and draw your reader’s attention to your attempt at technique rather than the story you’re writing. If you’re unsure about whether to use first person, try writing two versions of a short story, or a few pages of a longer work – one in present tense and one in past tense – to see which approach suits your story best and feels most comfortable for you as a writer.

χ It makes it harder to use time shifts

Writing in the past tense makes it possible for you to set your story at any point in time you choose, and move around between time periods. Writing in the present tense limits you to the present: being committed to the present tense also means being locked into it, and having less freedom than a past-tense writer to manipulate time to your story’s advantage. A past-tense writer can move around freely in time (and use all the available tenses to do so); a present-tense writer is restricted. Again, it depends what suits your story.

χ  It can make the focus too detailed

Although the present tense is very good for conveying a first-person narrator or a close third-person narrator, it also means that the writer wanting to appear naturalistic may overwhelm the reader with details of what that narrator sees, thinks, feels and experiences. It may be tempting for your narrator to describe everything they see, but do readers need to know what they thought about what they had for breakfast? Too much focus on the ongoing internal life of the narrator can detract from the story that is being told. If you use present tense, make sure all the information your character conveys is relevant. The character may be the story, but present-tense narrative still needs to be a story.

χ It’s harder to write

The writer who choses present tense for their story limits their narrative options in terms of available tenses – writers using the past tense have up to 12 tenses they can use; present-tense writers have four. It’s more difficult to maintain a present-tense voice without flipping between tenses. It limits you if you want to write stories with complex time-schemes, or create layered characters other than a first-person/close third person lead. If you want to create and build suspense, present tense will only allow you to convey the kind of tension that arises from not knowing what is going to happen next.

The choice of whether or not to use present tense for your story depends what you want to write – it doesn’t suit everything. It’s a good choice if you want to write a story that feels immediate, or one with a close single focus on the narrator’s viewpoint. It’s less useful if you want to create a story that moves around in time. It draws attention to itself, so if you do use it, you have to use it well or readers will notice the flaws rather than your story. Read some present tense novels to get a feel for how it works and how you might apply it in your own writing. Try The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins; The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Rabbit, Run by John Updike, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

So now you're all fired up, what better time to start writing your present tense story than... right now! Get some ideas for how to start your story here . It's particularly suited to crime and thriller short stories ... Enter now!

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writing novel in present tense

How to Choose the RIGHT Tense for Your Novel

by Joe Bunting | 74 comments

One of the first decisions you have to make when you're writing a novel or short story is which tense to use. There are only two viable options: past tense or present tense.*

Which tense should you choose for your novel?

How to choose the right tense for your novel: past tense vs. present tense

*Future tense is certainly technically possible, but it's used so rarely in fiction we're going to skip it here.

What's the Difference Between Present and Past Tense?

In fiction, a story in past tense is about events that happened in the past. For example:

From the safety of his pickup truck, John watched as his beloved house burned to the ground. With a blank face, he drove away.

Present tense, on the other hand, sets the narration directly into the moment of the events:

From the safety of his pickup truck, John watches as his beloved house burns to the ground. With a blank face, he drives away.

This is a short example, but what do you think? How are they different? Which version do you prefer?

Past Tense vs Present Tense

Choose Between Past and Present Tense BEFORE You Start Writing Your Novel

New writers are notorious for switching back and forth between past and present tense within their books. It's one of the most common mistakes people make when they are writing fiction for the first time.

On top of that, I often talk to writers who are halfway finished with their first drafts, or even all the way finished, and are now questioning which tense they should be using.

Unfortunately, the more you've written of your novel, the harder it is to change tenses, and if you do end up deciding to change tenses, it can take many hours of hard work to correct the shift.

That's why it's so important to choose between past and present tense before you start writing your novel.

With that in mind, make sure to save this guide, so you can have it as a resource when you begin your next novel.

Both Past Tense and Present Tense Are Fine

Past tense is by far the most common tense, whether you're writing a fictional novel or a nonfiction newspaper article. If you can't decide which tense you should use in your novel, you should probably write it in past tense.

There are many reasons past tense is the standard for novels. One main reason is simply that it's the convention. Reading stories in past tense is so normal that reading present tense narratives can feel jarring and annoying to many readers. Some readers, in fact, won't read past the few pages if your book is in present tense.

That being said, from a technical perspective, present tense is perfectly acceptable. There's nothing wrong with it, even if it does annoy some readers. It has been used in fiction for hundreds of years, and there's no reason you can't use it if you want to.

Keep in mind, there are drawbacks though.

The Hunger Games and Other Examples of Present Tense Novels

I was talking with a writer friend today who used to have strong feelings against present tense. If she saw the author using it in the first paragraph of a novel, she would often put the book back on the bookstore shelf.

Then, she read The Hunger Games , one of the most popular recent examples of a present tense novel (along with All the Light We Cannot See ), and when she realized well into the book that the novel was in present tense, all those negative opinions about it were turned on their heads.

Many of the biggest present-tense opponents (like Philip Pullman ) use caveats like this. Some of them even blame The Hunger Games for later, less well-written present tense novels. “ Hunger Games was fine,” they say, “but now every other novel is in present tense.”

However, the reality is that it has a long tradition. Here are a several notable examples of present tense novels:

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Present Tense Novels: The Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Present Tense Novels: Run, Rabbit Run by John Updike

Rabbit, Run is sometimes praised for being the first book to be written entirely in present tense. But while it may have been the first prominent American novel in present tense, it was hardly the first in the world.

Ulysses by James Joyce

Present Tense Novels: Ulysses by James Joyce

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Present Tense Novels: All Quiet on the Western Front

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Present Tense Novels: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Like several of Chuck's novels, Fight Club , published in 1999, is written in present tense .

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

Bright Lights, Big City is notable both for being written in present tense and second-person . While it's not necessarily something you should use as an example in your own writing, it is an interesting case.

Other Notable Novels

Here are several other notable present tense novels

There are dozens of other notable and bestselling novels written in present tense. However, comic books are another example of popular present-tense writing, which use dialogue bubbles and descriptions almost universally in present tense.

5 Advantages of Present Tense

Present tense, like past tense, has its benefits and drawbacks. Here are five reasons why you might choose to use it in your writing:

1. Present Tense Feels Like a Movie

One reason authors have used present tense more often in the last century is that it feels most film-like.

Perhaps writers think they can get their book adapted into a movie easier if they use present tense, or perhaps they just want to mimic the action and suspense found in film, but whether film is the inspiration or the goal, its increasing use owes much to film.

John Updike himself credits film for his use of present tense, as he said in his interview with the Paris Review :

Rabbit, Run was subtitled originally, ‘A Movie.' The present tense was in part meant to be an equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration…. This doesn’t mean, though, that I really wanted to write for the movies. It meant I wanted to make a movie. I could come closer by writing it in my own book than by attempting to get through to Hollywood.

Christopher Bram, author of Father of Frankenstein , says much the same , “I realized I was using it because it’s the tense of screenplays.”

2. Present Tense Intensifies the Emotions

Present tense gives the reader a feeling like, “We are all in this together.” Since the reader knows only as much as the narrator does, it can draw the reader more deeply into the suspense of the story, heightening the emotion.

3. Present Tense Works Well With Deep Point of View

Deep point of view, or deep POV, is a style of narrative popular right now in which the third person point of view is deeply embedded into the consciousness of the character.

Deep POV is like first person narrative, and has a similar level of closeness, but it's written in third person. By some counts, deep POV accounts for fifty percent of adult novels and seventy percent of YA novels.

Present tense pairs especially well with a deep point of view because both serve to bring the narrative closer to the reader.

4. Present Tense Works Best In Short-Time-Frame Stories With Constant Action

Present tense works well in stories told in a very short time frame—twenty-four hours, for example—because everything is told in real time, and it's difficult to make too many transitions and jumps in time.

5. Present Tense Lends Itself Well To Unreliable Narrators

Since the narrative is so close to the action in present tense stories, it lends well to unreliable narrators. An unreliable narrator is a narrator who tells a story incorrectly or leaves out key details. It's a fun technique because the reader naturally develops a closeness with the narrator, so when you find out they're secretly a monster, for example, it creates a big dramatic reversal.

Since present tense draws you even closer to the narrator, it makes that reversal even more dramatic.

5 Drawbacks of Present Tense

As useful as present tense can be in the right situation, there are reasons to avoid it. Here are five reasons to choose past tense over present tense:

1. Some Readers Hate Present Tense

The main reason to avoid present tense, in my opinion, is that some people hate it. Philip Pullman , the bestselling author of the Golden Compass series, says:

What I dislike about the present-tense narrative is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate.

Writer beware: right or wrong, if you write in present tense, some people will throw your book down in disgust. Past tense is a much safer choice.

2. Present Tense Less Flexible, Time Shifts Can Be Awkward

The disadvantage of present tense is that since you're so focused on into events as they happen, it can be hard to disengage from the ever-pressing moment and shift to events in the future or past.

Pullman continues :

I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.

Since you're locked into the present, you're limited in your ability to move through time freely. For more flexibility when it comes to navigating time, choose past tense.

3. Present Tense Harder to Pull Off

Since present tense is so much less flexible that past tense, it's much more difficult to use it well. As Editorial Ass. says:

Let me say that present tense is not a reason I categorically reject a novel submission. But it often becomes a contributing reason, because successful present tense novel writing is much, much more difficult to execute than past tense novel writing. Most writers, no matter how good they are, are not quite up to the task.

Elizabeth McCraken continues this theme:

I think a lot of writers choose the present tense as a form of cowardice. They think the present tense is really entirely about the present moment, as though the past and future do not actually exist. But a good present tense is really about texture, not time, and should be as rich and complicated and full of possibilities as the past tense. They too often choose the present tense because they think they can avoid thinking about time, when really it’s all about time.

If you're new to writing fiction, or if you're looking for an easier tense to manage, choose past tense.

4. No or Little Narration

While present tense does indeed mimic film, that can be more of a disadvantage than an advantage. Writers have many more narrative tricks available to them than filmmakers. Writers can enter the heads of their characters, jump freely through time, speak directly to the reader, and more. However, present tense removes many of those options out of your bag of tricks. As Emma Darwin says:

The thing is, though, that film can't narrate: it can only build narrative by a sequence of in-the-present images of action.

To get the widest range of options in your narrative, use past tense.

5. Present Tense Is More Limited

As Writer's Digest says, with present tense you only have access to four verb tenses, simple present, present progressing, simple future, and occasionally simple past. However, with past tense, you have access to all twelve verb tenses English contains.

In other words, you limit yourself to one-third of your choices if you use present tense.

How to Combine Present and Past Tense Correctly

While you should be very careful about switching tenses within the narrative, there is one situation in which present tense can be combined within a novel:

Breaking the Fourth Wall is a term from theater that describes when an actor or actors address the audience directly. A good example of this is from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream :

If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended, That you have but slumber'd here While these visions did appear. … So, good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, And Robin shall restore amends.

As with theater, novels have broken the fourth wall for hundreds of years, addressing the reader directly and doing so in present tense .

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

A great example of breaking the wall is from Midnight's Children , the Best of the Bookers winning novel by Salman Rushdie, in which Saleem narrates from the present tense, speaking directly to the reader, but describes events that happened in the past, sometimes more than a hundred years before.

I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I'm gone which would not have happened if I had not come. ― Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Dickens' novel, A Tale of Two Cities , also uses this technique of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly. Here's a quote from the novel:

A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!

Which Tense is Right For Your Book, Past Tense or Present Tense?

As you can see present tense has its advantages and disadvantages.

If you're writing a film-like, deep POV novel with an unreliable narrator in which the story takes place in just few days, present tense could be a perfect choice.

On the other hand, if your story takes place over several years, follows many point of view characters, and places a greater emphasis on narration, past tense is almost certainly your best bet.

Whatever you do, though, DON'T change tenses within your novel (unless you're breaking the fourth wall).

How about you? Which tense do you prefer, past or present tense? Why? Let us know in the comments .

Practice writing in both present and past tense.

Write a scene about a young man or woman walking through London. First, spend ten minutes writing your scene in present tense. Then, spend ten minutes rewriting your scene in past tense.

When your time is up, post your practice in both tenses in the practice box below and leave feedback for a few other writers, too.

Enter your practice here:

View Practice (1 practices)

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Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris , a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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writing novel in present tense

Why Do I Bounce So Hard Off Fiction Written in Present Tense?

In the last year or so of my reading life, I seem to be encountering more fiction written in present tense. I’m not sure if this translates to more being published. But I am cracking open more and more new books written in present tense, usually from a first person perspective, but occasionally, third person. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that…I hate it? Or, to be less dramatic, I find it hard to overlook my distaste. Much more often than not, I bail on the given book within a few pages. This has happened even with books I was highly anticipating! So I find myself asking: why do I bounce so hard off fiction written in present tense?

Experiences Reading Fiction Written in Present Tense

The first time I remember thinking consciously about a work of fiction written in the present tense was when I read Jim Grimsley’s Dream Boy when I was a grad student. When we discussed in class why the author had chosen to write the novel that way, someone more clever than me pointed out that it served as a reminder that there was no safe present for the main character Nathan to narrate a story from. Dream Boy is a brutal story of abuse and homophobia, one Nathan doesn’t survive. The literary purpose the present tense serves in Dream Boy is powerful and chilling. When you look at the novel retroactively, you realize there is a disturbing, seemingly mundane clue all along that Nathan is going to die.

The books I’ve recently attempted to read that use present tense, however, don’t seem to be using it for the dark effect Grimsley is. The latest book I bailed on, in fact, was a contemporary romcom! ( One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston, for those who are curious. It’s written in third person present tense, which in my experience is less common than first person present tense). In addition to adult contemporary fiction and romance, I’ve also found present tense recently in contemporary YA novels. Just the other day, I even picked up a YA fantasy that was written in first person present tense. Fantasy as a genre has such  strong associations with the past — its ties to traditional myth and folklore, its predominantly medieval-inspired settings — that I was flabbergasted to find “I say” instead of “I said.”

Why Would Authors Choose Present Tense and Why Do Some Readers Like It?

When I brought my frustrations to Twitter, asking genuinely to reader and writer friends why authors would choose to write a work of contemporary fiction, YA, or romance this way, I got some interesting answers.   

One YA author, Nita Tyndall , commented that for them present tense adds a sense of immediacy to a contemporary narrative. In other words, it imbues a sense of really being there in the “present,” experiencing everything at the same time as the characters. They do specify, however, that they use first person present for this effect, not third person, which they find unnatural. This certainly put to words my experience. There is just something about present tense that feels unnatural to me. Like Tyndall, I find third person present tense even harder to acclimatize to.

A fellow queer reader, Lizzy Someone , made another excellent point. She wrote that present tense is very common, perhaps the default, in contemporary fan fiction. She even referenced Casey McQuiston as a writer who has roots in fan fiction. McQuiston may be bringing fan fiction conventions to traditional publishing. Why does fan fiction have such a strong tradition of present tense narration? Perhaps for the same reasons of immediacy or to convey a sense of unease that the character might die. That doesn’t explain its dominance though. There’s a whole Reddit thread debating the issue.

So What’s My Issue With Fiction Written in Present Tense?

So if authors are using present tense for specific purposes, and it’s even becoming the default in certain contexts, why do I dislike it so much?

I think the simple but at least partially true answer is I’m just not used to it. Younger readers are probably more accustomed to it. Likewise for those who’ve grown up reading fan fiction. But I suspect there’s a deeper reason as well. In fact, once I dug into my reading past, I discovered present tense might have the opposite effect on me than authors are intending.

A story told in the present tense often makes me feel like I’m being told about the story instead of being in the story itself. Why? The culprit, I believe, is my English literature training. In writing essays about fiction, the golden rule is the write about the details of the book using present tense. This rule is applied no matter what tense the book is written in. As a graduate student and teaching assistant, I taught students specifically not to write “Character so-and-so did this” in their essays.

Back to the issue of immediacy. Part of me absolutely sees using a specific tense to help the reader feel like they’re right there. But another feels a little push back to this idea. There are a LOT of sophisticated techniques writers can use to make readers feel as if they are right there along with the characters. Simply writing in present instead of past tense is not enough on its own. I suspect some of these books I’ve bailed on weren’t doing enough other than using present tense to draw in readers to their characters’ experiences.

What about you? Do you care or pay attention to what tense the fiction you read is written in? Do you like fiction written in present tense, or not?

writing novel in present tense

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writing novel in present tense

writing novel in present tense

In Defense of the Present Tense

It is everywhere, including our writing.

In 2010, the novelist Philip Hensher complained that half of that year’s Man Booker nominees were novels written in the present tense. He insulted the choice, dismissing it as only fashionable. Hensher went so far as to write an op-ed —in the present tense—complaining the present tense was “everywhere, like Japanese Knotweed.” His complaint is at least among the most generous I’ve come across—it acknowledges some historical examples of the present tense like Dickens’s  Bleak House , as well as that it is used in both English lyric poetry and the vernacular, as well as in journalism and screenplay treatments. Phillip Pullman did much the same , his op-ed citing the verb tense’s use in Bleak House also, as well as, occasionally, in Jane Eyre. But both men acted as if its use should be, if not abolished, severely curtailed.

Laura Miller, covering the controversy for Salon, writes :

What reason is it that writers give for opting for the present tense? According to Hensher, they’ve been assured by “creative writing tutors” that it will make their writing “more vivid” and immediate. Philip Pullman—author of the bestselling series of young-adult novels “His Dark Materials”—also jumped into the fray in the pages of The Guardian , blaming an aversion to the past tense on the “timorous uncertainty” of “sensitive and artistic storytellers” afraid of the “politically dodgy” implications of seeming to know too much about their own story: “Who are we to say this happened and then that happened? Maybe it didn’t, perhaps we’re wrong, there are other points of view, truth is always provisional, knowledge is always partial, the narrator is always unreliable, and so on.”

You might think that given half the novels on that year’s Booker long list were in the present tense, this could be proof the choice had some merit, but the verb tense was apparently so benighted Laura Miller takes on the role of defending it herself, concluding that the problem is with the writer who uses it, not inherently with the choice itself.

Yes, young writers are prone to believing that techniques “calling attention to” the unreliability of storytelling itself are far more daring, innovative and interesting than they actually are. But like other carped-about trends (minimalism, incest as a plot point, short stories ending in an “epiphany,” etc.), the present tense is only one among any number of crutches clung to by mediocre writers, usually because they’ve seen other, more talented writers use them to advantage. The problem lies less with the tool than with the workman.

In my experience, most conversations about the present tense go as follows:

“the present tense”


“good point that some of the writing is good”

“it’s really only good if people use it well”

[awkward silence, no further discussion]

As a part time professional ‘creative writing tutor’, I can say I only ever teach the present tense as one tool among many. I do not urge it on my ‘sensitive and artistic storytellers’, or any of the insensitive ones either. I teach students that verbs are the way they create a relationship for the reader to time, and function a little like the way a horizon line might in a picture. As for using it to dodge the ‘politically dodgy’, well, I can’t imagine teaching anyone that way with a straight face—and so that strikes me as something of a straw man. Or, woman, perhaps. As Laura Miller notes in that same coverage, William Gass wrote in 1987 on what seemed to him to be the alarming increase in the Present Tense suggesting it was in some way related to the increase in women writers. And, yes, of course, writing programs.

Which is to say, these complaints aren’t new. Reading the Gass essay is like finding the source code for so many contemporary complaints about literature (dating, yes, to 28 years ago). He begins with a deliberately bad story told stagily in the present tense—as if performing it badly is a way to prove it doesn’t work—then goes on to praise Katherine Anne Porter’s “Under the Flowering Judas Tree” as a good example. He insists the present tense was rarely used before that year, and is better left that way.

Gass then adds, re: women, “And they hand me a list of a hundred authors each named Ann (or Anne).” And of course, includes a dig at Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City .

We should pause to offer a little pity to Jay McInerney. To the extent that the anti-present-tense crowd views it as a recent fad, usually the first damning thing they can say about it is that Jay McInerney used it in a novel set in New York’s nightlife scene—a novel that everyone still knows, also. It could be said to have survived this hazing. As for the idea women are responsible for the increase, well, the pity I extend there is toward Gass (who would likely never accept it). He would seem to be aiming at writers like Colette, Anais Nin, Jean Rhys or Marguerite Duras (I’ll let you all decide which Anns he means). But at least part of the popularity of the present tense in 1987 must have come from the work of men also—in particular, writers like Updike, his Rabbit novels all written in the present tense—beginning in 1960—and bestsellers. James Salter’s present tense novel of erotic obsession, A Sport & A Pastime , was published in 1967. These are not obscure examples. And one of my favorite examples includes Gass—who never mentions anything in his essay of his experience of writing his own, much beloved story, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” written in the present tense in 1967—and which was and still is so widely taught, it easily has done as much to spread the use of the present tense as anything else anyone published in the 20 th  century.

He is oddly sure to fault writing teachers in programs for the spread of the tense, but he also says they are not teaching it—he believes the students are teaching it to each other, not the professors, and blames the professors for this. But either way, this, along with the previous complaints, really begs this question: What exactly are writing professors teaching about the present tense?

I approached a number of authors who teach or have taught writing to students at a variety of levels and asked how they taught the present tense. Many said they didn’t, which certainly encourages one theory—that the present tense may be the current preferred mode of the self-taught writer. Regardless, here are a few approaches and theories on usage.

Ann Beattie:

I suspect that it’s used so often, in part, because of things that unfold right before our eyes, or seem to—the obvious example being movies, when something happens, and happens, and continues to happen, until finally it has happened and then the movie ends. The experience of a movie is that you, and the movie, exist in the present tense, and that you are observing what is happening moment-to-moment. Related: what seems to be the writer hanging back and not judging, because there is no time for that if something appears to be happening in the instant. The writer, for better or for worse, is always present in the material (whether you want to call the writer an invisible—or sometimes quite visible—character, or not) but can appear to be just casually noticing what is unfolding, how things are proceeding. Present tense gives the illusion of being hands-off: just tracking, like a camera. (A camera itself, of course, gives the illusion that it records “reality.”) Sometimes it’s a way of pretending the writer is on an equal level with/equal footing with the character(s)—just a bunch of us hangin’ out, moving through “real” time. Or: De-emphasizing drama. If something is going on moment-to-moment and not assessed with a narrative fix or grip on it, the writer is pretending not to know (or truly doesn’t; how various writers create first drafts varies, of course) how things will unfold, so the writer and the reader are at least temporarily aligned, as they are engaged in speculation about the future.

Elizabeth McCracken:

I think a lot of writers choose the present tense as a form of cowardice. They think the present tense is really entirely about the present moment, as though the past and future do not actually exist. But a good present tense is really about texture, not time, and should be as rich and complicated and full of possibilities as the past tense. They too often choose the present tense because they think they can avoid thinking about time, when really it’s all about time. All narrative decisions are more interesting when you think about the mobility they grant you instead of the mobility they restrict.

Heidi Julavits:

Present tense allows us to pretend that action and thought are immediate and concomitant. I think it promotes seemingly objective reportage, of events and of feelings, and allows a person not to “think” or analyze too much what is happening emotionally or otherwise. So present tense can relieve a writer of that burden, if it feels burdensome. But I like my present tenses full of the past, if possible. Not as a flashback, mind you—I like my present tenses to acknowledge that the person in the present tense did not come into existence in this moment, and that a whole world of time exists behind them and props them up, even if it is never directly mentioned.

I emphasize how present and past tense create completely different kinds of narrative: past tense involves retrospective intelligence and insight, present tense creates a sense of immediacy and what we might call non-insight, a lack of information about what’s next. The narrator’s relationship to the story is completely changed when we move from past to present or vice versa. But if I have enough time, it’s best to fold a discussion of tense into a larger discussion of the elasticity of time in narrative, ranging from almost completely static narratives (as in Robbe-Grillet) to narrative leaps or super-fast transitions, as we see in lots of flash fiction, or David Mitchell, or Alice Munro.

What I focus on is less present vs. past, and more the difference between the “time narrated” and the “time of narration.” There’s so much power in modulating that gap and being able to work on both timelines. Present tense of course is one version of that relationship, with the two more or less occurring simultaneously, so we talk about what a narrator loses by narrating in real-time (reflection, perspective, the knowledge of actually telling a story, shaped as such) and also what’s gained (immediacy, certain kinds of useful bewilderment or misunderstanding, etc.) But I also use the present tense as a way of talking about the past, even though the speaker is really telling the story from the present. I think that’s a pretty common tactic, actually. I’m actually doing a similar thing in something I’m working on right now—the reflective present tense, which is the way both memory and trauma often work.

Swati Khurana, an emerging writer, had something closer to data to report from her recent experience as an MFA graduate student teaching an introduction to creative writing class to undergraduates—these courses, increasingly common, give students an introduction to writing poetry, the personal essay and fiction in one semester.

I think because the class started with poetry, people were really open to the present tense, and as most of Creative Nonfiction and Fiction pieces were really short, if they used the present in the different genres, it was only for about three to five pages. I found that almost all in-class prompt-inspired shared writing was in the present, and sometimes if they continued working on it, it would then shift into the past. I also did some POV exercises, where students had to write in You/They/We POVs, and they were also almost in the present tense as well. So in my findings, 1) writing poetry, 2) sharing raw first drafts, and 3) 2nd person and 1st/3rd plural POVs created contexts where my students most often wrote in the present tense. And 4) after I shared some podcasts of The Moth and This American Life , I saw more present tense in the Creative Nonfiction than before.

And what is the present tense for? Why use it?

The writer Shelley Salamensky might be speaking of the uncertainty Gass mentioned when she says, “In writing nonfiction, present tense inherently asserts an understanding that this is a step-by-step reconstruction from memory—exploratory, tentative, hypothetical, potentially fallible.” I would say, this implication extends to fiction. Or at least, it can. We can even taxonomize the use in nonfiction, as the writer Donovan Hohn says: “There’s the historical present, there’s the critical present (‘in this photo the mules appear to be eating something, the light suggests that it is midday’). There’s the epistolary or diaristic present—c.f., Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard (‘Sept. 28. At sunrise the small expedition meets beneath a giant fig. . .’).”

And when we get to the diaristic and the epistolary, when in combination with the conversational, we start to understand why we would use it in fiction.

We use it in poetry, journalistic profiles, vernacular stories told between friends, screen treatments, stage directions. In literary criticism, when describing what a writer has done, the writer’s work is treated as a continual present—a place where everything is still happening each time it is read. This resembles the way victims of assault and trauma think of their memories—they almost always tell the story of what happened to them in the present tense, because it is a place still vivid for them, in their minds. It is entirely plausible to imagine any of these being an influence on a writer in search of form or texture. The novelist Christopher Bram, for example, says of it, “I’ve used present tense myself only once, in Father of Frankenstein , but didn’t notice I was doing it until ten pages in. I realized I was using it because it’s the tense of screenplays. That seemed appropriate for a novel about a movie director so I kept using it.”

Given the present tense is also common as the verb tense of the letter and the diary entry, this seems impossible to assert that the speaker on the page is only ever reporting from something as it is happening, and has no time or room to reflect on the page. At the least, to insist that is all that is possible in the present tense strikes me as a misunderstanding. But this is easily one of the most widespread of misunderstandings about the present tense.

I most often use the present tense in personal essays when I am writing about the past—about events anywhere from the recent past to 30, 40 years removed. When I write in the present tense in nonfiction, it’s a kind of withdrawal into all of the available memory and evidence I can find as I look for the shape that might be there. Most certainly, an exploration of the past. In fiction, I use it when I am writing about a character’s past this way—performing their performance of this kind of act of memory. I see the tense as a way to visit a moment as I would visit a place, a way to walk through time as if it has dimensions, time that has been slowed down or even frozen, and in this way, I can consider the moments I describe more deeply than I might have.

In the present tense, you aren’t stuck to the moment—you can go forward and backward in time. In fiction, the demands of the present tense are in some ways the opposite of that exploration of uncertainty—the tense places a demand for the elimination of all other possibilities in the writer’s imagination— this is what happened and is what is still happening whenever this memory returns to this character or whenever this moment matters. Granted, it requires a belief that memory is like a text that cannot change, in the way writing can, once printed, be permanent and collectible. But the best writers play with this, say, as in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye , where she moves from the past tense recollections of an adult painter returned to her hometown to the present tense narrative of the child that painter was—and the subject is soon what she has chosen to remember and what to forget—and this is given to the reader, not to the narrator, to discover.

When I move from first to third person, or second, if I keep the present tense, it is not because what happens is somehow cinematic to me—it is perhaps closer to say that cinema most resembles what that looks like. If anything, it feels most like theater to me. But certainly, cinema is an influence on writers. John Updike, in his Paris Review interview , said, of his decision to set Rabbit, Run in the present tense,

Rabbit, Run  was subtitled originally, “A Movie.” The present tense was in part meant to be an equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration. The opening bit of the boys playing basketball was visualized to be taking place under the titles and credits. This doesn’t mean, though, that I really wanted to write for the movies. It meant I wanted to make a movie. I could come closer by writing it in my own book than by attempting to get through to Hollywood.

I think we use the present tense, when we do, because it is all around us, and to the extent the modernist imperative, of including the vernacular in fiction, still matters, this may be part of why it is there as a tool.

Does it provide immediacy? Maybe. But I think it does not automatically ensure immediacy any more than the past tense can ensure authority. I think we choose it intuitively because of any or all of those reasons. At the very least, perhaps it is at least time to stop saying it is new, or trendy, and admit that it is here, and has been, for some time. Denying the present tense is valid as a tool would seem only to contribute to its misuse. Which is really, it seems, what everyone who complains of it complains of.

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The Writing Cooperative

Tom Farr

Jul 8, 2020


The Benefits of Writing in Present Tense

How changing your verbs can create a more immersive story experience.

Most writers, when they’re writing a story, narrate their stories as if the events of the story already happened using past-tense verbs. For example, “Maggie stood outside the door and listened to her parents fighting.” The verbs “stood” and “listened” in this sentence are both past tense, which indicate that the narrator is telling us about something that has already occurred at some undefined time in the past.

Past tense probably feels the most natural way to write if you’re a storyteller. This makes sense because when we verbally tell stories to others, such as what we did with our families over the weekend, we’re telling the story after the fact using all past tense verbs. This is normal. We don’t narrate our lives as they’re happening.

Past tense isn’t the only option

As narrators of the events that happen in our real lives, past tense is really our only reasonable option. But when we’re writing a fictional story, we don’t have to be constrained by reflecting on a story and revealing the events of the story only after it’s happened. Instead, we can narrate the story as it’s happening.

The example I used earlier would turn into, “Maggie stands outside the door and listens to her parents fighting.” The verbs “stands” and “listens” in this sentence are both present tense, which indicate that the narrator is telling us about something as it is happening .

If you typically write stories in past tense, switching to present tense can feel awkward at first, but there are a couple reasons why I would encourage you to at least trying to craft a story in present tense.

Let the reader experience the story in real time

Writing in present tense gives your story a cinematic quality. Screenwriters, because they’re writing something that will be filmed, have to describe every action in a script as if it were happening right now. So instead of writing, “He walked through the door and slammed it shut behind him,” which is in past tense, the screenwriter would write, “He walks through the door and slams it shut behind him,” which is written in present tense.

If you’re writing a prose story, writing in present tense creates the same effect of making the reader feel like they’re experiencing the action of the story as it’s happening. This helps the reader to feel more immersed in the story than if it was told in past tense by a single character.

Suzanne Collins, who was a screenwriter before becoming a novelist, does this well in The Hunger Games . In the first two sentences of the novel, told from the protagonist Katniss Everdeen’s perspective, Collins writes,

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim`s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.”

Using present tense verbs, Collins is able to bring the reader closer to the story by allowing them to experience the story as it’s happening to Katniss in real time. We see what’s in her head in the moment, rather than her reflection on the moment after it’s occurred.

Drive the narrative pace

With the feeling of right now that present tense provides, your narrative pace is bound to improve. When you’re telling a story as it’s happening, the reader has to keep up with what is happening.

When a narrator is telling a story in past tense, as the grandfather does in the movie The Princess Bride , we know that if we stop reading the story somewhere in the middle, we can just come back to it later and the narrator will continue to tell us what happened.

With present tense stories, however, you can create a sense of immediacy by making the reader feel like they’re a part of the story as it’s going on. If you were riding in the back seat of a speeding car, you couldn’t just jump out of the car and hope to survive, nor would you want to. You want your reader to feel like they want to continue the ride because stopping will feel like they’re jumping out of a story they’re immersed in because it’s happening now.

I loved this effect as I was reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent series a few years ago because Tris, the main character, tells us what is happening to her and how she feels about it at every moment. I felt like I was reading something as it was occurring, and I hated whenever I had to stop reading because it felt jarring to be taken out of the story. And I couldn’t wait to jump back in.

Turn the past into the present

Though I wouldn’t say writing in present tense is better than writing in past tense (because past tense has its own advantages), creating a sense of immediacy and giving your story a more cinematic quality make it a storytelling strategy worth trying out. In fact, the paragraph below is written in past tense. Feel free to practice by rewriting it using present tense verbs.

Michael ran through the neighborhood as fast as he could. “You’ll never see me again,” he called out to all the people he passed by. When he got to the park bench where Sylvia agreed to meet him, he was disappointed to see that she wasn’t there.

Tom Farr is a writer, teacher, and storyteller. He writes regularly about teaching at Teaching ELA and his love of Star Wars at The Force Analysis . His work has also appeared on The Writing Cooperative, The Startup, and The Unsplash Book. Check out his fiction writing portfolio on Medium.

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Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader

The Editing Blog: for Editors, Proofreaders and Writers


Thank you for this, a lovely post.

You are very welcome, Robbie!

Thank you for making the use of tenses so clear. I have often had the 'had' crossed out by critiquers in my online critique group. And they are authors, too!

Cheers, Vivienne! The past perfect foxes some people but it's the ideal tool for anchoring when required.

Thanks for this! I've started a long thought-about novel recently and wondered about my tenses in the opening scene as I try to introduce back story as well as the unfolding events. You've reassured me that I'm getting it right!

Congratulations on your novel, Cat. Thanks so much for letting me know the article validated how you're handling your tenses. That's lovely to hear!

Personally, I don't think writing a whole book in present tense works at all. It can be used as you say, for a pov character or as Dickens sometimes used it to express a short chapter event, but I find it impossible to sink into a story in present tense and automatically reject books written completely in present tense.

Complicity worked for me. I've read a few other mysteries where it works and I love it in short stories because of its immediacy. But it is tough-going!

I'm writing my 3rd book and i was having a tough deciding on the tense to use for the protagonist. your article helped sort out issues in my head. i will use 1st person present tense for the protagonist and 3rd person past tense for the other chapters. very helpful post indeed. I'll be reading the other posts on your blog too. Thank you

So glad it helped, Kanchana!

Tense has been second to POV for me to use effectively. Thanks for this, it's the beginning of understanding. Now I just need to put it into practice. Got it bookmarked!

You're welcome, Linda!

What’s interesting is <s>that</s> readers are so used to this style <s>that</s> they can still immerse themselves in a past-tense narrative as though the story is unfolding now.

Thank you for this. My concerns and questions were addressed and answered.

Hi, thank you so much for this post. I have just started writing a fiction piece and am trying to find a concrete explanation when some tenses should work. You've completely explained them in this post. The excerpts were very helpful too. Thank you again.

Thank you for so clearly explaining this. I'm working on editing a novel that's written in past tense. When it has scenes of a backstory before the current (past) time, it's written in past perfect. That I follow, but does EVERY sentence have to be in past perfect? It seems so tedious/distracting to change it in every sentence and write the word "had" so many times. If the paragraph starts with past perfect and we get that it was 20 years ago, can the rest of the paragraph be written in past tense until a scene change (or new paragraph) comes along? Or is that a complete no-no?

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Mark Rylance in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall.

Make it now: the rise of the present tense in fiction

From Hilary Mantel and David Mitchell to Goldsmith’s prize winner Kevin Barry, more and more writers are adopting this way of storytelling to bring immediacy and intimacy to their work

I t was something of a shock for the writer Kevin Barry to find he was working on a piece of historical fiction. Barry began his latest novel, Beatlebone, in pursuit of John Lennon’s voice, imagining the singer travelling to an island in the west of Ireland to batter his way through a bout of writer’s block by screaming his lungs out. Browsing clips of archive interviews on YouTube, Barry found there was something old-fashioned, something antique, about Lennon’s diction – realising to his horror that the late 70s setting of his Goldsmith’s prize-winning novel was another era. But after making the leap into the past to capture the rhythm of Lennon’s speech for the dialogue, Barry found himself bringing the rest of the story right up to the minute, by reaching for the present tense.

The novel opens with Lennon already en route, like an animal “on some fated migration”.

.css-rj2jmf{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#866D50;} There is nothing rational about it nor even entirely sane and this is the great attraction. He’s been travelling half the night east and nobody has seen him – if you keep your eyes down, they can’t see you. Across the strung-out skies and through the eerie airports and now he sits in the back of the old Mercedes.

“I wanted to plunge the reader directly into the cauldron of an artist’s mind, and certainly the present tense is very effective in such a case,” Barry says. “Writers, just like everyone else, are so intensely mediated by online, television and film cultures now, it tends to feel like the natural tense to write in.”

Rather than finding a future vantage point from which the story can be framed, Barry is looking for a more intimate relationship with the reader, as if the novel is “being whispered into your ear, late at night, in some dank bar in the west of Ireland”. Perhaps even whispering is too remote, the novelist continues. “I think it is a case of trying to plant a voice inside the reader’s head, to make him or her hear the words as they read them … to make them read with their ears, essentially. You’re aiming to mesmerise, and for me that’s the quality that the best fiction has. It’s a mesmeric force.”

Barry is just one of a host of contemporary novelists who are turning to the present tense to weave this kind of magic. David Mitchell has been slipping into the here and now ever since his 1999 debut, Ghostwritten, but the shift is motivated more by instinct than any programme to rewrite the compact with the reader.

“Some books just come alive in the present tense in a way I feel they don’t when told in the past tense,” says Mitchell, suggesting the decision is a question of following the particular demands of each novel. “I thought that writing an historical novel in the present tense gave The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a strange paradox. This already happened a long time ago, yet it’s happening now. Time is such an important character in The Bone Clocks – it’s there in the title – that I liked the idea of a narrative that surfed the crest of the present moment for six decades.” As for his second novel, Number9dream, Mitchell remembers “sitting in my then-girlfriend-now-wife’s bedroom and just changing all the verbs from past to present, and liking it a whole load more. Books let you know what tense they want to be written in.”

The writer David Mitchell

More and more authors are answering this call. From Marlon James’s Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings to Paul Murray’s post-crash comedy The Mark and the Void to Attica Locke’s political thriller Pleasantville, the tide of the present tense has been rising ever since Philip Pullman declared it was threatening to swamp literary fiction back in 2010.

This contemporary upsurge can perhaps be traced back to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which won the Booker prize in 2009. But when she began working on a novel that put the camera behind Cromwell’s eyes , there was no theory attached, Mantel has explains: “I was writing as I saw it.

“It was only a little later I became aware of what had happened and saw that I’d made two important decisions very quickly – tense and point of view. And they are inextricable.”

While the past tense has been the convention, the default for fiction, Mantel continues, it wasn’t the first time she had brought history to life by pulling it into the present time.

“Large parts of my novel A Place of Greater Safety are in the present tense, and bits of it are close to the form of screenplay. I wrote that novel in the 1970s, though it wasn’t published till later.

“In fact, it’s nothing new to anybody. There are bits of Jane Eyre and Villette that jump into the present tense, where the focus is rapidly narrowed – there’s a tracking shot. We use the language of the cinema to describe it, but the technique predates cinema. Charlotte Brontë’s technique puts the reader and the writer in the same space, as well as in the same moment; you cannot separate them.”

The present tense seems natural for capturing “the jitter and flux of events, the texture of them and their ungraspable speed”, Mantel explains. “It is humble and realistic – the author is not claiming superior knowledge – she is inside or very close by her character, and sharing their focus, their limited perceptions. It doesn’t suit authors who want to boss the reader around and like being God.”

Hilary Mantel

This intimate perspective also lends itself to exploring doubt and uncertainty, she adds. “I have found that many of the givens of history melt away on close examination, so I am trying to reflect that perception. The past tense can take on a God-like knowingness. Here I stand: over there, separate from me, is the past event. I don’t think like that. I think we are in history, history is in us. I am moving, relative to the text I generate, and relative to all the texts that stand behind it, and which are constantly being reinterpreted. We are all moving. There is no moment I can pinpoint as ‘now’, at which I am standing to tell the story.”

The difficulty of finding a stable point from which a story can be told is perhaps only increased by the transience of the digital world. For Barry, this makes the internal music of a novel all the more important.

“Our attention spans are, of course, in flitters because of our constant online immersion,” Barry says, “and maybe we don’t have the ability to engage with a text the way that we used to, but the one thing that can still arrest us, and slow us down, is the human voice. I want to give the sensation of that mode of storytelling even on the page.”

Barry is untroubled by Philip Hensher’s suggestion that contemporary fiction suffers from writers adopting the present tense in the hope they might “ meet Hollywood halfway ”, arguing that “the novel is infinitely capacious, it can handle anything you throw at it”.

“Beatlebone has play scripts, monologues and duologues, an essay, the works,” Barry says. “All that matters, I think, is that you pack enough intensity into each sentence as you work along the lines of the thing. If you’re giving the reader a sensual charge through the sentences, they’ll go with you anywhere.”

Mantel says she never intended to start a fashion, but she shares Barry’s confidence in the novel’s ability to absorb cinematic effects without losing its particular power. “A screenplay transcribed into novel form, all show and no tell, can read as thin, flat,” she says. “The novel can do more than that.” The present tense isn’t an easy answer, she continues, or suitable for every story. “But if a writer is stuck I think it is always good advice to take himself into the present moment, view the characters and just write down what they say and what they do. A narrative shaped in the past can wallow and founder, but a present-tense narrative has to keep on the move – the ground is hot.”

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Stephen H. Provost is an author of paranormal adventures and historical non-fiction. “Memortality” is his debut novel on Pace Press, set for release Feb. 1, 2017.

An editor and columnist with more than 30 years of experience as a journalist, he has written on subjects as diverse as history, religion, politics and language and has served as an editor for fiction and non-fiction projects. His book “Fresno Growing Up,” a history of Fresno, California, during the postwar years, is available on Craven Street Books. His next non-fiction work, “Highway 99: The History of California’s Main Street,” is scheduled for release in June.

For the past two years, the editor has served as managing editor for an award-winning weekly, The Cambrian, and is also a columnist for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo.

He lives on the California coast with his wife, stepson and cats Tyrion Fluffybutt and Allie Twinkletail.

Stephen H. Provost

5 Reasons Not to Write Fiction in the Present Tense

5 Reasons Not to Write Fiction in the Present Tense

January 17, 2017 stephen h. provost.

I picked up a friend’s novel the other day, opened it and started reading. It’s well written, and the characters are interesting. They’re the sort of people I can relate to, which made me want to read further.

But that’s not the first thing I noticed about the book. The first thing I noticed was the fact that it was written in present tense.

Apparently, this is a thing – especially for young adult novels. I’m not sure why, but I’ve heard it’s trendy in this genre. Presumably, the idea is to convey a sense of immediacy: This is happening now , and you’re along for the ride, not merely hearing someone tell you about it after the fact.

That’s the upside, but there are enough downsides to more than offset it, in my book – well, not in my book: I’ve never written one in present tense. And here are five reasons I wouldn’t:

I’m not saying writers banish use the present tense to stylistic purgatory, any more than we should avoid first-person narratives altogether. I just think we should be selective about using such devices to be sure they don’t detract from the story. (I wrote my first novel, Identity Break , in the first-person format, and I'm pleased with the way it turned out; but if I had it to do over again, I’d probably opt for the third-person POV, because I could have told the same story more seamlessly.)

I’ll likely keep reading my friend’s present-tense book, because it has a lot going for it. The author is a strong enough writer to pull it off. But to me, that’s like being a golfer who’s good enough to win despite a two-stroke penalty, or a boxer can deck his opponent with one hand tied behind his back. I’d rather forgo the penalty and have both my hands free. 

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Do I always need to use present tense when talking about a novel’s plot?

Ask the Writer: What tense should I use when describing a novel?

Great Gatsby novel plot

Is this right? 

Yes, when discussing the events in a work of literature – or other form of art – use present tense. This is called literary present tense. The work of art exists in an eternal present. Every time you open the book and read, the events are unfolding.

In discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby , for example, you might say this:

When Gatsby meets Daisy at Nick’s house, the tension is high.

You would use past tense if you went on to discuss something that happened before this event. For example:

When Gatsby meets Daisy at Nick’s house, the tension is high. He is at a loss as to how to behave. Earlier that day, his preparations were rigorous. He even had Nick’s yard mowed.

Past tense is appropriate here because you shift to an earlier time within the world of the story.

You should also use present tense when bringing the author into the discussion:

Fitzgerald lingers on Gatsby’s discomfort.

Literary present tense might take some getting used to, but it’s the right thing to do.

—Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers Workshop.

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