The Tense Problem of Present Tense

04 Apr

A lively debate currently rages in the fiction-writing world, pitting past-tense narrative against present-tense.  Assuming that a (presumably older) writer is interested in learning more about writing in present tense, one quandary they face is that, while present tense has exploded onto the fiction scene and would tend to suggest that the writing world is moving toward it as the desired contemporary mode, the majority of reading materials available are in past tense.

I think this important to note because we learn to speak the language we hear growing up; composers tend to write in the genre they predominantly listen to; writers write based on the works they have read.

The point being that learning another language as an adult requires some effort and—as a good teacher will tell you—immersion.  So how then are we, as writers who have predominantly been exposed to past tense fiction, supposed to suddenly pull off present tense that is readable and engaging?

I believe this may be part of the difficulty with those readers, including myself, who have picked up a book in first person present tense only to feel a little repulsed by it. Although I enjoyed the storyline of the book in question, I continue to have mixed feelings about it even now, over a year later.

The first time I heard an oboe played (by a high-schooler), I hated it. It sounded terrible—the kind of music where you stop up your ears in misery.  Later, I heard an oboe played by a professional, and suddenly I loved it.  The point being that those who hate present tense may not truly dislike the tense itself but rather the imperfect manner of its application, primarily by writers like me who have never been immersed in it.

With that in mind, I recently decided to give present tense another chance and purposefully picked up a book I knew to be written in it.  What a difference!  It was well-crafted, and I easily connected with the main character within the first couple of sentences—the same amount that it had taken to repulse me from the other book.

So to those writers like me who have difficulty with consistent application—go forth and read (present tense)! A basic internet search will pull up several available lists.

To those who have had difficulty with accepting this new-fangled thing—go forth and give it a second chance.  You may be surprised.

What about you — are you a writer or a reader who can relate?  Do you love/hate/don’t care about what tense a book is written it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Posted by on April 4, 2013 in Writing


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2 responses to “The Tense Problem of Present Tense

  1. Erica

    April 14, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    Interesting entry. I’ve only recently encountered many novels written in present tense. They seem to be more common in YA fiction than adult fiction, at least in my preferred genre, fantasy. But I read a SF book recently, Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, which employed first person present tense for the autistic protagonist and third person past for the other character povs. It worked. Of course, she was trying to enhance the contrast between the protagonist’s perspective and that of the non-autistic characters.

    I suspect that some of the appeal of first person present tense in YA work is that it hits home that the story is happening now, in the voice of the protagonist as he or she is in the story (a teen) rather than as an older, wiser self who is sternly admonishing the reader not to make the same mistakes. One way teens haven’t changed since I was one is that they feel that they’re the only people who really “get it.” In-voice fiction aimed at this demographic needs to capture this perception without coming off as preachy or judgmental.

    I have a bit more trouble with third person present than with first. It just feels more contrived to me, and doesn’t seem to bring anything to the table over deep third person past tense (which feels very in the moment, voice and perspective wise). But maybe that’s my own taste speaking. Whether this is a fad that will fade as younger readers age and change their tastes (for example, I grew up reading books written mostly in omni, but I don’t tend to prefer that pov now) and how much of it is here to stay remains to be seen, I guess. Some people who dislike present tense really hate it though. I’ve read editor’s blogs ranting about what they view as a gimmicky fad. Wonder what it will take to change their minds.

    Nicely written.

    • Willow.M.Stevens

      April 16, 2013 at 5:19 am

      Yes, I also find 3rd person past tense to be very much in the moment, but as you said, it may only be taste and experience, since most of the books I’ve read (I’m a fantasy/sci-fi fan myself) were written that way, with an omniscient narrator. First person present tense (w/obviously limited narrator) is definitely a trend that some are embracing and others are bucking, but it remains to be seen if it will be a fad that fades or a novelty that becomes the norm.

      To me, first person present tense does seem very much in the moment, like the narrator telling you as it happens. Past tense in that case would make it seem less thrilling b/c then you know the person survived, and lends to the possibility of the older, sterner self sounding preachy, as you said. But when it’s not first-person, that argument becomes null.

      On the other hand, third person present tense just feels odd to me, like reading a screenplay instead of seeing it acted out.

      Third person past tense, to me, feels like a narrator unconnected with the story. The image of an old man sitting around a campfire telling scary stories pops to mind — he’s telling what you know is a story, and you don’t know if it’s true or not, but your imagination makes it present and real as you listen.

      But hey, I can take anything that’s well-written, regardless of tense, person, narrator, etc.


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