Thursday, April 18, 2013

P is for Present Tense

Any new readers of the blog (hi!) might not know that in my spare time, I read slush for Flash Fiction Online. Basically, I read half of every submission we get – usually hundreds of stories a month. Given the amount of time I spend reading stories, I’ve developed pet peeves.

One of them is the use of the present tense. I am decidedly not a fan.

Now, before I started researching this article, I had no idea the depths of feeling that people had regarding the use of past vs. present tense. Complicating the issue is the fact that the debate seems to align itself closely to new writers vs. old writers (not old in age, but old as in more time spent writing). It is definitely not a helpful stance for all the old writers to turn up their noses and say things like “Only amateurs use present tense.”

I do admit that part of my problem with the present tense used to be that it just seemed trendy. But in reading all of the pro-present tense posts, it came out that though people have noticed the option of present tense, they didn’t choose it because it’s popular. They choose it because for them, the use of present tense makes the story seem more immediate. Because it makes it seem like the story is happening right now, that the reader is experiencing it with the narrator.

Alas, I disagree. Maybe it’s because I never felt any lack of immediacy in all those past-tense novels I’ve read all my life. All the dangers the heroes and heroines were facing all felt very real to me. Unless the story is being told as a journal, or another method where the narrator speaks directly to the reader, I assume the story is being told as it happens. Which isn’t necessarily obvious with past tense, but as one blogger put it:
Any reading of literature or watching of films involves a little suspension of disbelief. Even though you see who the author is (and the author is rarely the narrator) and that the book is fiction, you imagine or pretend, as you’re reading, that the book is “true” and that the narrator is, in fact, recounting events that happened. This literary contract I can live with… as long as the narrative recounts events as having happened in the past tense.
 This perspective made me smile:  
Whereas it’s reasonable to think that a narrator may be telling you about something they experienced before (as is the case with novels written in past tense), the idea that the narrator is actually standing right there in front of you narrating exactly what they’re doing right now is a hurdle that readers must get over in order to enjoy the story. Obviously no one (sane) goes around announcing to some invisible audience everything that they’re doing as they do it.
In the end, it’s all a matter of opinion, about what works best for you as a reader. I think that if someone wants to write in present tense, more power to them. But understanding the opposition, so to speak, is important (at least so you understand their perspective, and are less tempted to break a plate over their head when they complain about your tense choice).

This blogger explains the crux of the matter:
From what I can tell from a quick survey of Internet articles, readers notice when stories are told using the present tense. I’m not saying, nor are those readers, that there’s anything wrong with the use of present tense. We are saying that its use is noticeable. 

For me, I’m overall not a fan of different stylistic choices. Because though words are the heart and soul and the everything of a story, the instant your reader stops to notice the words, they get kicked out of the story for a moment, rather than being immersed in it.

But some stories do beg to be told in a unique and different way. So if your story needs to be told as something out of the ordinary, then as long as the story is reaching its best potential in that way, no opinions from anyone should stifle your creative process.

Bonus links:

This blogger offers some great tips on how to write in present tense:

Phillip Pullman on why present tense can be restricting:


  1. Great post! I must be an "old" writer because I'm not a fan of present tense either. I'll still read stories in present tense, but it kind of bugs me while I'm reading it. I really don't feel the immediacy that I'm supposed to be feeling.

    But I'll never let stylistic issues keep me from a good book. I just have my own personal preferences.

    1. I know, nothing like realizing you're in with the "old" writers!

      Yeah, a good book is a good book. I suppose that part of my problem with present tense is that I see a lot of poorly written examples in the slush pile, so it's given me an unfavorable impression.

  2. I love present tense. I love using it when writing, and I love reading books written in present tense. So many things are written in the past tense, and I get bored of it. There's something about the present tense that allows you to get into the head of the main character. Whenever I try to write in the past tense, I naturally veer towards present. So I think I'll stick with it :)

    1. Like I said, whatever works best for your creativity!

      It is tough how easy it is to judge on style rather than story. I suppose as long as you understand why people don't like it, then you can argue your choices all the better. :)

  3. I've thought a lot about present tense over the years. Once I tried to write in it, and it hooked onto me like a parasite. I still find myself reverting to it on accident.

    For me, it depends. In The Hunger Games, present tense worked, because the action was so intense. The present tense pulled me in and made it even more intense.

    But when a book isn't filled with action like that, present tense seems very cumbersone and, like you said, it pulls you out of the story. (I loved that last quote, BTW.) I think it was The Night Circus where I was extremely bothered by the present tense, because nothing was happening! By the end, I'd accepted it, and the lyricism it evoked, but it definitely made me crazy for a while. It didn't work for me.

    Great post, Sabrina!

  4. I agree that the Hunger Games is a stronger book because of the present tense perspective, and I wonder sometimes how much the intended audience has to do with the success of present tense. I see it written much more often in YA where the appeal of immediacy and perceived action work in its favor. I'm trying to think of adult books in present tense, but I'm drawing a blank (I mostly read YA and down except a few select authors, anyway). Anyone? Did it work in that context?

    1. Adult books that come to mind: City of the Lost, Choke - 1st person; House of Leaves, Blackbirds - 3rd person... And I have a TERRIBLE memory which means if I can think of any offhand it must not be uncommon. The tense never bothered me - I can't imagine those stories told any other way.

      Oh and I think 50 Shade of Grey is present tense, but that was not my issue with it. ;)

    2. Apparently, there's a long history of present tense in literary fiction. I found a lot of examples while researching this post, but ended up not including them. Such as "House of Sand and Fog" by Andre Dubus III, "Fight Club", "All Quiet on the Western Front," and "Rabbit Run" by John Updike.

      Some adult sci-fi/fantasy uses it to - Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" switches halfway through the book from present to past tense. Also, "The Time Traveler's Wife" and "Snow Crash"

      I think in YA, it's very trendy right now, and that's why we see so much of it.

  5. I don't care what tense a book is written in as long as I want to turn the page. ;) But I think present vs. past is not a simple choice because it intertwines with voice, and voice is so crucial to storytelling that I can't really separate the two. The only present tense that stands out to me is third person present, because of the strong movie-script feel. And lately I've noticed that past tense can be weird - I got hooked on MTV's Awkward, in which the main character keeps a blog (which is the voice-over narration), and she writes everything in past tense as though it were a novel. This leads to a lot of past perfect, which is just an odd way to keep a daily journal in my opinion. :)

    In the end, though, if it works, it works!

  6. I don't mind about tense, either, so long as the writer can pull the story off.

  7. I'll read present tense if the book came highly recommended, or if I get hooked really quickly, but I have never felt like it made the writing feel more urgent or immediate. I does feel like jumping into an icy pool, though, especially when I'm not expecting it. I mean I get used to it eventually, but it's off-putting those first few pages. I'll stick to past tense in my writing, at least for now.


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