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Writing in Present Tense: The Secret to This Popular Writing Style
Writing a novel or short story in the present tense can be exciting. It feels like everything is happening as you write the words. This is similar to what happens when you read a story written in the present tense.
But just because it's exciting and immediate doesn't mean it's right for every story. Once you understand the benefits and drawbacks of writing in the present tense, you can determine whether it's the right tense choice for your story.
- What defines the present tense in fiction.
- How to write in the present tense (with examples).
- Pros and cons of present tense writing.
Table of contents
- What is the Present Tense in Fiction?
- The Simple Present Tense
- The Present Progressive Tense
- The Present Perfect Tense
- The Present Perfect Progressive Tense
- Present Tense Books to Read
- Benefits of Present Tense Writing
- Drawbacks of Present Tense Writing
- Check Your Genre
- Consider Characters and Timeline
- Changing Tenses
- Still Not Sure? Try Both!
- Writing in Present Tense: Conclusion
The present tense is a type of grammatical tense used to explain events as though they're happening right now. While this is generally not the way people tell each other stories, it has become increasingly popular in fiction in recent years.
Here's an example of the present tense:
I'm waiting for the bus when I notice the man. Something about his body language bothers me. I have seen him before, but I can't remember where. Now I straighten as he approaches , as if making myself look bigger will force him to think twice if he means me harm. This is silly because I stand just a hair above five feet tall on my best day. The man passes me on the sidewalk, leaving me feeling a mixture of relief and self-recrimination. I've been prone to anxiety for years, but this is ridiculous.
There's a lot to talk about in that passage, but we'll get to it all as we go through this post. For now, just note the use of the present tense verbs, which are bolded above. Some are action verbs, while others (like “is”) are state-of-being verbs.
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Understanding the Present Tense: The Four Tenses
Even if you aren't technically familiar with the present verb tense, chances are you know it when you see it. If you're like many writers, you have an instinctive understanding of both major tenses used in fiction writing: the present and the past. This simply comes from all the reading you've done over your life.
While this is a good place to start, it pays to develop a deeper understanding. After all, this is the best way (along with practice) to master the craft of writing. So let's get into it without delay!
There are four verb tenses in the present tense that every writer should be familiar with . These are simple present, present perfect, present progressive, and present perfect progressive. The two you'll be using most while writing present tense fiction are the simple present tense and the present progressive tense, so we'll start with those.
This is the simplest and most immediate form of the present tense. It's used to describe actions taking place now. This can be for single actions or habitual ones. Most of the passage above is written in simple present, but here are some specific examples:
Something about his body language bothers me.
Now I straighten as he approaches . . .
This is silly because I stand just a hair above five feet tall on my best day. The man passes me on the sidewalk. . .
All the action described above is happening in the story's present — your timeline anchor when writing in the present tense.
Now let's look at the next most common form of the present tense used in fiction.
Sometimes called present continuous, this verb tense is used to describe action that is ongoing in the present tense. There are two examples of present progressive in the passage above:
I'm waiting for the bus . . .
. . . leaving me feeling a mixture of relief and self-recrimination.
The character is still waiting for the bus when she notices the man. It's an ongoing action. Same with the feeling she has after the man passes and she realizes she's not in danger.
Present perfect is used to describe actions that have already been completed before the story's “now.” It can also describe habitual past actions. Here's the only example from the passage:
I have seen him before, but I can't remember where.
The character has seen him before, in the past, making this an action started and completed in the past.
Sometimes called present perfect continuous, this tense is used to describe actions that were started in the past but continue in the literary present. Here's the only example from the passage:
I've been prone to anxiety for years, but this is ridiculous.
You can usually tell present perfect progressive by the use of “have” and “been” together. In this case, she started suffering from anxiety in the past (years ago) and is still suffering in the present. It's a continuous action.
As I’m sure you already know, it’s beneficial to read books written in the present tense if you hope to write one yourself. There are a number of present-tense books you can read from various eras. Here are some of the most notable:
- Bleak House by Charles Dickens
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- Rabbit, Run by John Updike
- Dead Girls Can't Tell Secrets by Chelsea Ichaso
As mentioned above, the primary reason many authors use the present tense is for the sense of immediacy. It gives the story a cinematic feel that is hard to replicate when writing in the past tense.
It also happens that the present tense can provide for a more intimate relationship with the narrator and/or the POV character . This can be ideal if your plot uses an unreliable narrator to pack a twist at the end.
Finally, from a writing point of view , some authors find it simpler to write a present-tense story than a past-tense story. In the past tense, you have access to all twelve tenses in the English language. In the present tense, you really only use four, with an occasional past perfect tense thrown in during a flashback. This can make things simpler during the writing and editing process.
The factors that make present tense writing great for some stories serve to make it less than ideal for others. The present tense can lend a story that takes place over a short period a sense of immediacy. But it can make stories with longer timelines seem awkward or strained. After all, it's hard to jump around in time smoothly while writing in present tense.
The factors that can make present-tense writing ideal for stories with one or two point-of-view characters also limit its usefulness in stories with larger casts. Not only is it harder to delve naturally into a secondary character's background or motivations, but it can give the reader whiplash when you jump around from character to character in this kind of writing.
Finally, a considerable drawback of present-tense writing is that many readers don't like it. While it is slowly getting more popular, especially in YA novels, it's still not the preferred style of many readers. This is why it's crucially important to pay attention to the genre before opting for this tense.
Tips for Writing in the Present Tense
Now that we've covered the four primary tenses you'll use when writing a present tense novel, let's dive into some tips to help you decide whether present tense is ideal for your story.
If you plan to become a professional writer, then you'll likely want to write to market. By paying attention to what readers of your genre like, you can write something that will have wide reader appeal. This is a great way to give your book the best chance of success .
So before you decide on present or past tense, take a look at your genre and see what tense most other authors (especially ones you like) are using. Let this influence your decision.
Conversely, if you’re writing just for the pleasure of it, you won’t need to worry about wide reader appeal. There’s certainly nothing wrong with concentrating fully on writing the book you want to write.
While it's entirely possible to jump around from character to character and across time in a present-tense narrative, it's not easy to do well. Since this writing tense feels so immediate, it can be jarring to jump ahead a week or a day—even an hour.
This is why present-tense novels tend to stick with a small number of POV characters (often only one) and take place over a relatively short period of time. So if you have a wide cast of characters all in different places or times, then consider carefully writing in the present tense.
We covered the four primary tenses you'll use when writing a story in the present tense. When you move from one of these tenses to another, it's called a tense shift. This is not the same as a tense change.
When you change to a different tense—like from present to past—there needs to be a clear reason for it. If you're shifting briefly to simple past to relay a past event before coming back to the present moment, this is okay. It's just not a good idea to alternate between these two tenses for significant chunks of the book.
For example, think carefully before doing something like writing certain chapters in the present tense while writing others in past. It's possible to craft a great story doing this, but it's certainly not the norm and it's not easy.
If, after reading this far, you're still not sure whether to use past or present tense, consider writing a couple of chapters of your story in both . Once you're done, step away from them for a few days or a week (or a month!), and then come back and read them with fresh eyes. This should help you determine which tense is right for your story.
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Writing in the present tense takes some getting used to. After all, this is not the natural way we tell stories. But that doesn't mean you should discount it altogether. It's a tool to keep your writer's toolbox. And once you understand it well, you can take it out and use it with ease when you need it.
To get used to writing in the present tense, consider short stories . Not only does the present tense work well for short fiction , but it's a great way to practice. This can help you pay attention to the benefits and drawbacks of the present tense before tackling a full-length novel.
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Writing in the present tense: The good and the bad
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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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- Simple past: I wrote a novel; he wrote a novel
- Past progressive: I was writing a novel; he was writing a novel
- Past perfect: I had written a novel; he had written a novel
- Past perfect progressive: I had been writing a novel; he had been writing a novel
- Habitual past: I would write a chapter every week; he would write a chapter every week; I used to write a chapter every week; he used to write a chapter every week
- Back in the day, he’d enjoyed driving down [...]
- 29 Seconds , T. M. Logan, Zaffre, 2018
- Complicity , Iain Banks, Abacus, 1994
- The Templar’s Garden , Catherine Clover, The Holywell Press, 2017
- The Wife Between Us , Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, Pan, 2018
- Time to Win , Harry Brett, Corsair, 2017
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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?
Very helpful, thank you so much.
Thanks Louise for the concise explainer. Just had a question regarding "She stood there for a moment, taking in the white Christmas lights..." What is the grammatical definition and purpose of the word taking in this phrase?
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How to Choose the RIGHT Tense for Your Novel
by Joe Bunting | 75 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?
*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?
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
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
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
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
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
- Bird Box: A Novel by Josh Malerman (I'm reading this right now, and it's great!)
- The White Queen by Philippa Gregory (the basis for the BBC TV Series)
- Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood
- Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
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.
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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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”.
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.”
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.”
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.”
- Hilary Mantel
- Marlon James
- David Mitchell
- Paul Murray
- Kevin Barry
In Favor of Present Tense Writing
One of the first decisions we have to make before writing is what tense we want to use. The default standard is past tense, which is fine, but I often work on manuscripts that would benefit from a present-tense rewrite . So, before you write, probably make the mistake of switching tenses in your first draft anyway, and then rethink your tense choice halfway through, let's see if you should just lead with present tense.
If your story is less about how a character feels about events and more about how they experience them, then present tense might be a better way to tell your story …
Past vs. Present
Tense reflects the time an action occurs. In present tense writing, your character and readers will experience actions and events as they happen. In past tense writing, you can still have immediacy, but the reflective tone of the narrator will undercut it. And that's where these two modes of storytelling truly diverge. Either you're telling an in-the-moment story or reflecting on the past.
Perspective and Tense
A great time to strongly consider present tense is if you decide to write in first-person point of view . First-person narration is already immersive by orienting readers directly into the narrator's perspective. We experience what they're doing, feeling, and thinking as they do, feel, and think! Alternatively, in a past tense narrative, first-person POV allows us to get deep into a protagonist's reflection and is a common way to create suspense because the narrator's emotions will filter into how they relive the event they're showing us.
Often, people believe past tense first-person narration is cleaner because the narrator isn't experiencing an onslaught of first-time sensations and emotions around what's happening. The past tense retelling of events is more focused because the narrator zeros in on how they've come to understand this event's place in the larger story. The flip side of this belief is that to keep first person present tense voice authentic, a writer must capture all the details a person might register in an in-the-moment kind of experience. Yet, this isn't entirely true.
We don't unconsciously tap into every sense and detail of every moment of our lives. We don't even do that for the big moments. A first-person perspective can lend itself to a vast explorable interior life , and a present-tense telling opens that POV up to the full experience instead of chosen elements of that experience. What keeps the writing clear is a focus on the relevant details of the event, even as it's happening. The difference is: in present tense writing those details won't carry a reflective sense of knowing like they would in the past tense.
Think of it this way: if your story is less about how the protagonist feels about the events and actions and more about how they experience those events, then present tense would be a better, more engaging approach.
Another Time for Present Tense Writing
Additionally, if your narrative is action-driven or happens in a short time frame, then present tense may be the sensible option. If your narrative is happening over a long period, that creates more room for the character to reflect on events in and before the story. Thus, you still end up with that more reflective element permeating the narrative voice. If your narrative happens over a short period, then present tense might create or amplify a faster pace. It'll keep characters and readers in the moment of everything happening.
Ultimately, past and present tense are both fine! I merely want to challenge you to consider which one will serve your story the best and not automatically go with the default, past tense. Want to discuss your writing in real time? Get live feedback from Rhiannon on the phone or Zoom!
Rhiannon graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2018 with a bachelor’s in English literature and writing. When she’s not reading or editing, she can be found writing YA novels. She spends her free time hiking with her dog, Ernesto, and perfecting the art of making vanilla lattes.
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Put your words down, flip them, and reverse them: writing your memoir in reverse chronology.
Why Do I Bounce So Hard Off Fiction Written in Present Tense?
Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature and an MLIS. Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ+ Canadian books. She also writes a monthly column on Autostraddle recommending queer books called Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian . Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian , Litsy: CaseyTheCanadianLesbrarian , Goodreads: CaseyTheCanadianLesbrarian , and Facebook: Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian .
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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?