Present vs. Past Tense

When novels written in present tense first began to appear, I thought sure it was a fad. A trend that would disappear as quickly as it had sprung into being, when sane readers and writers everywhere would agree on how annoying it was.

Wrong. It hasn’t disappeared; in fact, it’s caught on and stuck. People have strong opinions about it, with those who dislike it usually speaking the loudest. Philip Hensher weighed in on verb tense use after the 2010 Booker Prize short list was announced last fall. Three of the shortlisted books were written in present tense. Mr. Hensher took—or should I say takes—strong exception to the practice, calling it “modish,” and in historical fiction, becoming “cliche.”

Philip Pullman also entered the fray. His piece in the Guardian is thoughtful and measured. If your current WIP is in present tense, you might want to see what he has to say.

None of the writing craft books in my collection even mentions verb tense, at least, not as a subject in the index. However, the internet, as you might expect, didn’t disappoint.

Use of the present tense is widespread in YA fiction. Revolution (Jennifer Donnelly), The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Carrie Ryan), By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead (Julie Anne Peters), The Indigo Notebook (Laura Resau), and The Hunger Games Trilogy (Suzanne Collins) are just a few of the titles I found on my bookshelves which are written this way.

And two of the most exciting and creative adult books of the last two years, Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell) are both in present tense.

After reading dozens of books in the present tense, I began to understand the rationale for using it, and I no longer found it so distracting. It brings immediacy to the writing. It makes the story more compelling, as if it’s happening right now, and I can see why teens like it. I decided to experiment with it in my own writing, with mixed results. It’s not as easy as it looks.

I’ve come to believe that (1) if you’re going to use it, have a darn good reason why it works for the story you’re telling; (2) read it out loud to make sure it doesn’t sound like stage directions; and (3) check and double check it to assure all the verb usage is correct. Using past tense is so much more natural, it’s easy to slip back into it and not even notice.

One other caution. It’s really confusing, once you’ve written in present tense, to change to past. For some reason, none of the verb tenses seem right, or maybe I should say, sound right. This effect wears off eventually, but I don’t think it’s just me. I’ve heard other writers say the same thing.

How do you feel about present tense vs. past tense? Do you notice it as a reader? Do you use it as a writer?

15 comments on “Present vs. Past Tense

  1. When it’s done well, I find I don’t really notice the tense that much, be it in present past, or whatever. I think I did a radio story once that I wrote in the present tense and i remember find it confusing — I kept accidentally switching back to past tense — it must be hard to write an entire novel that way!

  2. Hi Katie–Many people say they don’t notice the tense, so I guess you’re right about “when it’s done well.” I think it’s hard to return to past tense after writing in present. Everything seems off kilter.

  3. I liked Wolf Hall, but the present tense took some getting used to. I prefer to read books written in past tense, but occasionally present tense works. I agree that it is becoming cliche, and I hope the fad passes.

  4. Hi Janet–I still prefer past tense, too. It will be interesting to see if it is a fad, or if it will endure.

  5. Pam – This is an interesting topic. I’ve written 2 novels in present tense, then gone back and rewritten them in past tense. I find it easier to foreshadow upcoming events when I write in past tense. I do love high-action novels written in present tense, however, because they make me feel like I’m right in the middle of the action with the protagonist

  6. Hi Ceil–I’ve done that, too. Not whole novels, but partway through, I’ve decided present tense wasn’t working and switched to past. Contemporary action novels–you’re right. It’s a very effective use of present tense. That’s interesting, what you said about foreshadowing. Something to keep in mind.

  7. Hi Pam,
    Present tense:
    When present tense isn’t done well, I find it hideously annoying. So I’m with you that “done well” is the important factor.
    Interestingly, the book I just finished writing is in present tense but I began writing it in past tense. The character demands present tense, and she cooperates with me now that I’ve switched.
    Past tense:
    When present tense wasn’t done well, I found it hideously annoying. So I was in agreement with you that “done well” was the important factor. Interestingly, the book I have just finished writing was in present tense but it was started in past tense. The character demanded present tense, and she cooperated with me only after I switched.
    Victoria

  8. Hi Victoria–I had to read your comment about five times before I caught the present/past switch! I guess that proves the point. I’m glad your character decided to cooperate, because, God knows, that doesn’t come easily.
    Pam

  9. While it may not, strictly speaking, be an example of use of tense, the first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (in the masterful translation by Gregory Rabassa) is famous for including the future, past, and present:

    “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

  10. Thanks for this well thought out and researched post, Pam. Like you, I notice it less now than when it first became popular, and I sometimes wonder if that is because I am just becoming more used to it, or if writers are getting better at it.

    The only book that I really felt the present tense contributed to me liking the voice more was the Hunger Games. It did feel more immediate, more passionate that way somehow.

    In most cases though, I feel pretty neutral about it (in fiction. Non fiction/blogs, etc. are a different matter entirely.)

  11. Thanks for your comment, Jeannie. It certainly no longer bothers me the way it once did. You make a good point–perhaps writers are becoming more skilled in using present tense, so it feels less contrived.

    Pam

  12. I like them all. Currently working in past tense. Hard Face Moon was all present. However, Nothing Here But Stones was a combo. I remember shaking in my shoes when my editor asked me to change all to present tense. A copy editor disagreed and said it was OK as long as it transitioned smoothly. The copy editor prevailed. (There’s a much longer story here but too long to post.)

  13. Nancy, thanks for weighing in. So good to hear from you…now, if I could just see you in person! I forgot that Hard Face Moon was in present tense. It worked great for that story, but then, you definitely have the skills to pull it off!

    Pam

  14. I’m glad I found this article! I’m going to write about this on my blog and wanted some info and opinions besides my own. I was startled at first by present tense writing in novels, but I have grown to love it. In my head it’s like the narrator doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, instead of past tense writing, where the narrator is telling the story after it all happened. I enjoy present tense a whole lot now. Thanks again!

  15. Hi Mickey,
    Your welcome…glad you found the post helpful. I love your enthusiastic description of present tense. Sounds as though you’ve completely integrated it into your reading experience!

    Pam

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