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The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig Tags: Brian Klems.

W0943_On-Writing-Fiction_web.jpgWhen the literary historians of the year 3000 write about the fiction of our time, I believe they will consider our use of the present tense to be its most distinctive—and, perhaps, problematic—feature. Whereas present-tense narration was once rare, it is now so common as to be commonplace. In 1987, Robie Macauley and George Lanning dubbed it “the most frequent cliché of technique in the new fiction,” and since then, it’s appeared with even greater frequency. Although there are signs that its use is diminishing among established writers, it’s becoming the default choice for many younger writers.

—By David Jauss

Recently, I asked one of my talented undergraduate students why she wrote all of her stories in the present tense. “Isn’t that the way fiction’s supposed to be written now?” she said, then added, “The past tense makes a story seem kind of ‘19th-century,’ don’t you think?” Why, I wondered, did a tense that has served authors since the very inception of fiction suddenly lose favor? What made the past tense passé? And why was the present tense now omnipresent?

The best writers almost always seem to know, either consciously or intuitively, when to use present tense. Many of us, however, do not. Present tense has become something of a fad, and we often use it even when past tense would serve the story better. Whatever the causes for the prevalence of the present tense in today’s fiction, it is important that we understand its advantages and disadvantages so we can better decide when to employ it.

ADVANTAGES OF PRESENT TENSE

1. Present tense has more “immediacy” than past tense. Past-tense narration is of course “immediate” in a way, since the events of the characters’ past are happening in the reader’s present. But the immediacy of the present tense also allows us to convey a character’s change as it happens, not after the fact. In present tense, we are there with the narrator step by step as he changes, and hence the story’s climax can be both more immediate and intense.

2. Present tense can contribute to the characterization of a work’s protagonist. As Joyce Cary said, he chose the present tense for his novel Mister Johnson because its title character lives in the present and he wanted his readers to be “carried unreflecting on the stream of events,” just as Mister Johnson is. “As Johnson swims gaily on the surface of life, so I wanted the reader to swim, as all of us swim, with more or less courage and skill, for our lives,” Cary said. Many of the most successful present-tense novels and stories deal with characters who, like Johnson, are “boxed in the present.”

[Learn 5 Tools for Building Conflict in Your Novel]

3. The present tense can reflect not only a character’s nature but a work’s theme. One major theme of Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love is “the presentness of the past,” and therefore the use of the present tense when narrating past events makes excellent sense. Whereas the character Charlie Baxter fears the erasure of the past, his friend Bradley feels the present is, at times, less present than the past and therefore more subject to erasure. “The past soaks into you,” he says, “because the present is missing almost entirely.”

In Bradley’s view, the past is eternally present in memory. As he says, “That day was here and then it was gone, but I remember it, so it exists here somewhere, and somewhere all those events are still happening and still going on forever.” Bradley does more than merely state his view that past events continue to happen in the present; he demonstrates it. At one point, after two young lovers, Chloé and Oscar, have been housesitting for him, he hears the sounds of their lovemaking coming from the basement. He goes to investigate the source of the sounds, and once there, he says, “I felt the two of them passing by me, felt the memory of their having been physically present there. …” And then the narrative, appropriately, shifts to present tense: “I follow them up the stairs. I watch them go into the kitchen and observe them making a dinner of hamburgers and potato chips. They recover their senses by talking and listening to the radio. I watch them feed each other. This is love in the present tense. …”

4. Present tense simplifies our handling of tenses. Whereas past-tense stories often contain the majority of our language’s 12 tenses, most present-tense stories employ only four—the simple present, the present progressive, and a smattering of the simple past and the simple future—and many consist almost entirely of the simple present tense. Using fewer tenses reduces our ability to convey the full complexity of time relationships, of course, but there’s something to be said for this kind of simplicity. For example, when we’re writing in present tense, we can simply shift into the simple past when a flashback starts and then return to the present when it’s finished.

DISADVANTAGES OF PRESENT TENSE

1. Present tense restricts our ability to manipulate time. Altering chronological order and varying duration both work against the primary purpose of present tense, which is to create the feeling that something’s happening now. It seems natural to alter the chronology of events in past tense, when the narrator is looking back from an indeterminate present at many past times, but it seems unnatural to do it in present tense, when the narrator is speaking from and about a specific present.

2. It is more difficult to create complex characters using present tense. While it is certainly possible to create complex characters in present-tense fiction, it’s more difficult to do so without natural access to the basic techniques that allow us to manipulate order and duration. These techniques allow us to convey our character’s subjective experience of time and thereby achieve more psychological depth and realism. They also help us complicate a character by placing her in a larger temporal context. The more we know about a character’s past, for example, the more we can understand her present. Without the kind of context flashbacks provide, our characters tend to become relatively simple, even generic.

[Learn important writing lessons from these first-time novelists.]

3. The present tense can diminish suspense. Because present-tense narrators do not know what is going to happen, they are unable to create the kind of suspense that arises from knowledge of upcoming events. The narrator of Doctor Faustus provides a good example of this kind of suspense: “The truth is simply that I fix my eye in advance with fear and dread, yes, with horror on certain things which I shall sooner or later have to tell. …” Carolyn Chute, author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine, laments that we have to sacrifice this particular kind of suspense when we use present tense. What we gain in immediacy, she says, we lose in tension. Present-tense fiction can create another kind of suspense, of course—the kind we feel when no one knows the outcome—but not this kind.

4. The use of present tense encourages us to include trivial events that serve no plot function simply because such events would actually happen in the naturalistic sequence of time. As a result, a present-tense story sometimes seems, in the words of Macauley and Lanning, “less the work of an author than an unedited film.” Take, for example, Kate McCorkle’s slice-of-life story “The Last Parakeet,” in which for no apparent reason we watch the “Today” show with the narrator while she eats a bowl of Rice Krispies. The principle of selection can be applied more readily, and ruthlessly, in past tense.

This piece is excerpted from On Writing Fiction by David Jauss. One of the great resources on writing around. Check it out here.

Thanks for visiting The Writer’s Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.

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Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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24 Responses to The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense

  1. ChristineAmsden says:

    An interesting look at the issue. But something struck me right off the bat: You say that FPPT is becoming commonplace. Really? I’m a genre fiction reader, so perhaps the technique is becoming commonplace in literary circles? I have seen it some in young adult fiction, and some in science fiction, but (and I say this as someone who reads at least 3 books a week, on average) I still see the vast, vast, vast majority of books being written in the regular past tense. First person past is still fairly common, especially in certain sub-genres of fantasy, in chicklit, and in some mysteries. But first person present? I’m not seeing it.

    Which is probably why I disagreed with most of the advantages of the present tense:

    1. Present tense has more “immediacy” than past tense.

    I disagree. Because present tense is so rare, it creates a surreal feeling, almost dreamlike. In fact, the most common place I see present tense used (and the place I myself use it) is in dreams sequences. Immediacy in fiction is not a literal truth but a psychological one. If you want to talk literal truths try this one on for size: We, the readers, aren’t fooled. None of this is actually happening now. Which makes present tense simply distracting, not immediate.

    2. Present tense can contribute to the characterization of a work’s protagonist.

    Again, I disagree. But I think you have made your own counter-argument here in the disadvantages section. :)

    3. The present tense can reflect not only a character’s nature but a work’s theme.

    I agree BUT … This is a rare use of the technique. And it is only likely to be true in literary fiction. Genre fiction does not usually support the use of stylistic intrusions to support thematic goals.

    4. Present tense simplifies our handling of tenses.

    True. :)

  2. yeah best tiprs for writring, good job

  3. This is a really interesting article. I have written four novels in the present tense because they are light fiction and a beach read. Therefore it felt right. My newest one is fiction but less ‘fluffy’ and I am automatically writing it in the past tense. My two literary fiction novels are in both because they are composed of a present tense narrative alternating with flashbacks. Doing both parts in the past became too complicated.

    Which is to say, I entirely agree with this article!

    http://amzn.to/1nskbor

  4. PowerUnit says:

    I find 100% present tense is taxing on the reader’s mind. You have to utilize other tenses, and when done right, it can be quite interesting. I am writing in present tense but also in past reflective — he sees xyz, but there was a time when abc mattered more. He would… Now we’re in third reflective. I also drift into stream of consciousness, somewhat — he sees zyz, but what does it mean? How can he do xyz while zyzing? And now we’re into his head. And of course it has to be transitioned logically. You can’t jump around like an NBA basketball player who just made a spectacular dunk.

  5. pmettert says:

    I loathe present tense in books and stories. It irritates the crap out of me. I’ve tried to read it, but now if it’s present tense I put it back. It’s too bad because the storyline sometimes sounds promising. But if you can’t get past page one….
    I am not the only one. I have only one friend who will even try to read these books anymore.
    So take that into consideration as one of the cons.

  6. ann101 says:

    This happened to be exactly the article I needed right now. I started writing my book in past tense but I’m considering switching to present. While I’m still figuring out exactly what to do, this article clarified the advantages and disadvantages and told me exactly what I needed to know. Thank you!

  7. rbeez says:

    Nice! Thanks!

  8. KevinPress53 says:

    I wonder if Writer’s Digest Online accidentally credited Brian Klem with this article. I checked with David Jauss and he confirmed that this article “…it’s entirely composed of selected passages from my essay ‘Remembrances of Things Present’ in my book On Writing Fiction.”

    • It says By David Jauss right there after the first graph (I try to put “guest column” in the link at the very top, but sometimes I miss it. I fixed. Thought I COMPLETELY grabbed the wrong book to plug, and that is on me. It’s fixed now.

      • KevinPress53 says:

        I thought something like that might have happened, Brian. I saw David’s name after the first paragraph, but it looked like only the first paragraph was attributed to him. Thanks for the explanation and the fix.

  9. rbeez says:

    You could go to the source of almost all of this in chapter IV. Remembrance of Things Present: Present Tense in Contemporary Fiction in David Jauss’s book “On Writing Fiction: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft.”

  10. Terrycshan says:

    Thanks for this article. It brings up a question though, at least for me. In paragraph 3, under “Advantages” is the following quote, “And then the narrative, appropriately, shifts to present tense.” I can’t tell you how many times I have done this and how many times it has resulted in criticism from my mentors. I would point this out to one of them in particular, but she died recently. I don’t think it was anything I wrote, but….

    Anyway, her point was that I changed tenses half way through my piece, then I changed back. Admittedly, some of this was just careless and she was correct to point it out, but sometimes it seemed to work better, just as demonstrated in your article. Heretofore, I have had prove reads keep an eye open for this blunder in my work, but now, well, now, what to do, what to do?

    Since this approach (switching) is not traditional or common place, does one not appear to be a rant rookie when employing such a technique? I’m just asking.

  11. BE says:

    Very nice. I wrote my first middle grade novel in first person present tense, and when a teacher was reading it to her students — who really enjoyed the story — she found both first person and present tense somewhat awkward. A practice I sometimes follow is to read my own work out loud. Should have done so with that first book and maybe I would have discovered the same awkwardness. I have not written a novel in present tense since then, but I am not discounting the possibility. I do think it can work.

  12. This was an excellent editorial. I find present tense to constricting in my writing. The last novel I read in the present tense was Fiend by Peter Stenson and I couldn’t imagine that horror novel being written any other way. It was excellent. I know present tense is a trend with younger writers and I think that they believe this is a short cut to publication.

  13. Laura Morelli says:

    Brian,
    Thank you for an excellent piece! I wrote the first draft of my book THE GONDOLA MAKER in the past tense, as a third-person omniscient narrator. Somehow it didn’t feel right, even for a work set in 16th-century Venice. In revising my second draft, it took a great leap of faith to reset everything in the first person and in the present tense (not to mention in the voice of a man!). In the end that voice seemed right for the story. I think you have to trust your instincts when it comes to choosing tense, but it is not always a straightforward choice. I struggled with not being able to reveal pieces of the plot that the protagonist wouldn’t have known. An interesting writerly challenge! –Laura Morelli

  14. pr7169@aol.com says:

    Thanks, Brian. These were excellent points and a great help. My first two books (both police memoirs) were written in 1st person & present tense–an intentional means of providing the reader with only the information that I had at the time I had it. This built suspense and put the reader in my shoes, but it also made it difficult to describe a concurrent action taking place outside my purview. This article is great information for someone considering writing a present tense novel. I wish I had seen it a few years ago!

  15. Bob says:

    Brian always offers advice weighed in more than one direction. This one is valuable to the writers who struggle to determine the “best” tense. Currently, I’m rewriting a novel that covers past periods and will progress to present periods. I’ve decided to split the story into two novels. This article supported my decision. I plan on presenting this idea to my outstanding writing group of superior writers.
    By the way, Brian’s on-line information in Writers Digest always provides informative advice and considerations.

  16. Leela Vera says:

    Great read! While working on my memoir, Adventures of a Spiritual Sexologist, I find myself going from past tense to writing certain moments of reflection in present tense, because I think it brings the reader into the moment with me. I’ve been corrected by others on this, but for me it feels right. The tricky part is distinguishing that present tense from the rest (I’ve been using italics), so the reader isn’t confused by the time change. I’ll be interested to see if this flies with the publisher!

  17. LeftWrite says:

    I love articles such as this one which actually taught me something worthwhile. I think that my occasional forays into the present tense were often a case of me pretending to be a modern writer. At times it can lead to pretentious writing. It’s natural, I think, to tell jokes in the present tense: “A kangaroo hops into a bar and orders a drink…” But it’s more natural to tell stories in the past tense: “Me and Jimmy was walking down the street when this big guy started chasing us…” Actually, that’s (informal) past progressive, but you get my drift.

  18. Tam Francis says:

    Thank you for this blog. My writer’s group slammed me for writing in present tense and I did some research and wrote my own blog post about it. Your blog post is excellent in pointing out the pros and cons. I love it. I think some stories work better in present tense and some in past tense. It’s wonderful to have the choice and I think everyone should experiment with both.

    I will be sharing with my writer’s group!

    ~ Tam Francis ~
    http://www.girlinthejitterbugdress.com

  19. Mertz says:

    Thanks for writing out an even-sided article. Most blogs just come up with things wrong with writing in present tense and declare everyone should write in past tense, something I don’t really agree with. I see where both work, I just tend to favor present tense as a story happens as I’m reading it and I see it that way in my mind, like a movie. But to each their own.

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