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”?
“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!