WHY ALL THE PRESENT TENSE?

More and more and more and more over the past several years I see novels written in the present tense. Though this isn’t necessarily some new invention, going well back in time to Dickens at least, past tense more or less overwhelmed all other choices for decades in there, and though there are three, only two are practical. Go ahead. Try to write a novel in the future tense.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about this whole present tense thing, having never really written fiction in present tense. My first instinct is that this is purely authorial choice. A good story, well-told in present tense is a good story, well told, which is all I ask for as either an editor or reader—and is all I’m going for as an author.

But still, this present tense thing just seems to be an outlier, a weird trend that started . . . how? And will be around for . . . how long? And comes from . . . where?

My first instinct was that it came from Hollywood. Screenplays and story treatments are written in the present tense, like this bit from Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’s screenplay for Blade Runner:

INT. DECKARD’S APARTMENT – NIGHT

A blurry photograph, unclear, FILLS THE SCREEN.

The photograph intensified. The foreground BLURS AND SHARPENS it’s the “man” in Leon’s room with the wardrobe behind him. The head is turned away and downward, the face unreadable.

Another change! A dramatic one. The picture is suddenly three dimensional.

Now we see that Deckard is studying the picture in a viewer controlling the effects with punch controls.

The ashtray next to him is full of butts. The bottle of vodka is nearly empty.

He sucks on his cigarette and empties the vodka bottle into his glass and goes back to peering into the viewer.

He punches up.

A transparent grid with vectors is superimposed over the photo.

Deckard’s eyes move over it carefully.

All the money is in Hollywood, writing million-dollar screenplays, so everyone’s learning to write screenplays, and . . . is that it? The quest for the impossible-in-publishing quick pay day infects the long form prose narrative?

I hope not.

And that doesn’t really explain why the present tense trend seems to have started up in “literary” fiction while the big Hollywood money is in genre fiction (science fiction, romantic comedies, action, etc.). In fact, present tense has been a trend in literary circles for so long, we can go all the way back to September of 2010 for the first inklings of a backlash. In the Telegraph editorial “The Booker judges should take a stand against the modish present tense“ Philip Hensher does just that:

The routine use of present tense in the historical novel is quickly becoming a terrible cliché. There is, too, a spread of appallingly dull novels that run, “I go downstairs and make a cup of tea. On the television, the news is talking about a disaster in India. Got any drugs, I say to my flatmate Baz.”

The present tense is the voice of the very informal anecdote—“So I say to him, who do you think you’re talking to, and he looks at me and says . . .” It is the way we tell jokes—try to start a joke, “A man walked into a bar,” and see what a strain it quickly becomes. But in a literary context, it quickly takes on a weird, transfixed, glassy quality—the opposite of vividness.

In fact, present tense is so rare in fantasy and science fiction, compared to literary novels, it led to Charlie Jane Anders, writing at iO9 in “10 Writing ‘Rules’ we Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break“ appealing for more present tense some five years later:

At least, I’ve heard some people say this is a big no-no. It can be a bit disconcerting when the narrator is telling you about stuff as though it’s happening now. But present tense can also really work to make the story feel more immediate. And it can feel more arty, since a lot of vaguely literary writing is in the present tense. But also, if you want to see present tense working to create a dark, intense mood, check out Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels.

But then she also seems to think third person omniscient (aka third person lazy) is okay (and it’s just not). She does agree with me about the weird and absurd anti-prologue bias, though, so it’s kind of a toss-up.

But what is it about present tense that might appeal to authors and readers like Charlie Jane Anders, if not one particular Booker Prize judge?

There seems to be an assumption of additional immediacy, that present tense brings the reader and the POV character closer together—something I’m always happy to see happen. Brian Klems included this among his “The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense“ at Writer’s Digest:

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.

Shouldn’t that be “they changes”?

Sorry.

“Can be,” sure, but isn’t necessarily always true. Not everyone agrees with this assumption of immediacy, including myself and author Philip Pullman, who write in his Guardian op-ed “Philip Pullman calls time on the present tense”:

What I dislike about the present-tense narrative is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate.

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.

I also want authors to use all the tools available to us, and to use them carefully and well. But then present tense is one of those tools, and here’s at least one mega-bestselling genre novel that didn’t seem to suffer any from the present tense:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Yes, that was the first paragraph of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. She made that choice, she wrote a novel that’s a good story, well told, and so who am I to tell her she did it wrong? Who is Philip Pullman, either?

In “Make it now: the rise of the present tense in fiction,” Richard Lea quotes author David Mitchell, about a year and a half ago, in The Guardian:

“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.”

That changing an already-written manuscript from tense to tense can be a more difficult process than it may seem. It’s definitely not a matter of searching for “was” and replacing it with “is.” This is yet another instance where a good editor can—and must—help you keep a very careful, very close eye on that process.

No matter what, consistency is king. So with a few stylistic exceptions (first person, present tense inserts like R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt journal entries wrapped in a third person, past tense narrative, for instance) if you start in present tense, stay in present tense. If it starts to fall apart on you—if something about that style choice begins to interfere in your storytelling? Past tense is always there for you.

Or vice versa.

But still, this trend toward present tense does seem to have stalled out a bit in adult science fiction and fantasy, but has made its present presence known in young adult genre fiction. So then is present tense okay for young adult, not so much other science fiction and fantasy? Yes and no. Is it prone to the whims of individual agents, editors, and readers, some of whom hate it, some of whom love it, and some of whom don’t care either way?

What else is new!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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8 Responses to WHY ALL THE PRESENT TENSE?

  1. Bill says:

    Good article. I do not like the present tense. I find it very artificial. To me there is no sense of immediacy just a sense of artificiality.

    I don’t read books written in the present tense. The last book written in the present tense that I like was “The Main” by Trevanian and I read that thirty years ago. I love Jonathan Kellerman’s writing but I have a very had time with “Billy Straight” half of which is present tense.

    I won’t say that the present tense is bad. Just that I do not like it. I can deal with a couple of pages of present tense in a prologue for instance but not a whole book. Or even a short story. This is just my own hangup.

  2. Jason J McCuiston says:

    This is a timely article for me. The MS I’m working on right now is a UFO thriller set in 1947, and when I started it I was writing in third-person past tense, and it stalled on me. When I sat down to rewrite the opening pages, for some reason it came out in first-person present and away I went. I don’t tend to write in first person POV or present tense, but it just seemed to work for this story. Now, that being said, it still remains to be seen if the thing is publishable but I’m having a pretty good time writing it. We’ll see. As ever, thanks, Phil!

  3. jmwwriting says:

    Very nice article. I find present tense creeping up more and more in sci-fi and fantasy, and I don’t care for it. I think it started in literary fiction because lit is more open to experimentation. Genre fiction tends to be a rigid, old-man’s club, that loves its conventions. I’ve written about the use of present tense a lot, along with first-person and other stylistic choices. For me, the ultimate rule is if you move away from standard convention, it should have a reason. There should be a clear reason why you are writing in present tense, or first-person. If there isn’t, and you’re doing it just for style or to be quirky, it’s going to fall flat. I’ve written a couple S/F pieces in present tense because it was right for the particular piece, but it was a long and hard decision to get there. As it should be.

  4. jmwwriting says:

    Reblogged this on jmwwriting and commented:
    This is a very nice article on the rising use of present tense in fiction, especially short fiction. I find present tense creeping up more and more in sci-fi and fantasy, and I don’t care for it. I’ve written about the use of present tense a lot, along with first-person and other stylistic choices. For me, the ultimate rule is if you move away from standard convention, it should have a reason. There should be a clear reason why you are writing in present tense, or first-person. If there isn’t, and you’re doing it just for style or to be quirky, it’s going to fall flat. I’ve written a couple S/F pieces in present tense because it was right for the particular piece, but it was a long and hard decision to get there. As it should be.

  5. rileyjfroud says:

    I really think that any hard and fast rules don’t work. Guidelines, sure, but rules? They’re stifling and can actually do damage to a talented writer’s work. I’ve read some books in present tense that have been perfect – the tense suits the mood and the story and whatnot. I’ve read other books in present tense where it really didn’t work, but that’s the way of the world, isn’t it? When an author chooses to do something in a particular way, it’ll either work or it won’t. Just because it doesn’t work for some doesn’t mean it won’t work for others.

    Great article, it really got me thinking 🙂

  6. Hugh Cook says:

    The first present tense novel I recall reading was John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. I can accept third-person narration in present tense, as Updike’s novel is (was), but first-person narration in present tense always strikes me as mannered, self-conscious, and less than believable. I have a hard time reading it.

  7. Pingback: Wiing Links 5/8/17 – Where Genres Collide

  8. Tess says:

    Very interesting article. I went through this dilemma with my adult SF MS. I have a screenwriting background and therefore am very comfortable writing in the present tense. But when I started on my novel, I did the standard thing and wrote in past. I didn’t hate it. But somewhere along in the editing process I started to second guess everything and decided the story -had- to be told in present.

    It wasn’t a complete exercise in futility. I do think it helped me tap into my “voice” and the characters, to a certain extent. On the very first agent submission, I received a full request. And following that request, a request to change the MS to past tense. I did it, of course, feigning enthusiasm all the way.

    Looking at it now, the story is just as well told in past as it was in present (which probably means it should never have been in present) and the last thing I want to do is alienate readers. But as some of your examples prove, I do think there is a place for present tense in adult genre fiction. Whatever your feelings about fan fiction, I have read some -beautiful- pieces most of which were written in present. When done correctly, tense should be the last thing the reader notices.

    Thank you for sharing your insights on this topic!

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