Thursday, December 17, 2009

Present Tense: When and Why?

I wrote a guest blog last week for our counterparts at Criminal Brief: The Mystery Short Story Web Blog Project ( in which I discussed the use of present tense as a means of jumpstarting a story or scene. The subsequent comments and posts pertaining to my blog dealt with when and/or why an author should use present tense. I wish to continue that thread here.

I love S.J. Rozan’s three-page story “Going Home,” which is written in second person point of view and in the present tense. And I just picked up THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION, which appears to be heading in that same fast-paced direction. I began my current project writing in the present tense. Wrote maybe 30 pages that way. Then I went back, revised, and changed it to past tense.


If I’m being totally honest, I must admit I switched to past tense partially because I lost my nerve: I didn’t know if I could continue that pace—effectively and with sufficient purpose—for 300 pages. But I was really tempted to try. For at least several opening pages, I liked the way it read a great deal. But I felt the present tense voice would eventually distract the reader. (And my mantra is: the author shouldn’t be noticed.) Plus, the story’s point of view is first person (so, logically, my protagonist is therefore retelling a sequence of events that have already occurred). In that scenario present tense would not be one’s natural speaking voice. So I cut my emotional ties to it and revised, making it past tense.

The question of when to use present tense and why persists. I use it when it punches up the tension in a scene. Present tense offers an immediacy that past tense, no matter how vivid, just can’t offer. Most of the time, in novel-length fiction, I find it hard to leave past tense to incorporate present tense, but there have been a few rare times when I thought it was justified and the switch added the level of tension I was looking for.

That’s my two cents worth. I’m curious to see what others say about present tense versus past.


Vicki Delany said...

As a reader I generally do not like present tense at all. Present tense sounds forced, as you pointed out particuarly in first person - that is not the way we tell a story. I have recently written a short story in first person present, and I did think it added an extra degree of intimacy. But for a novel - don't write and rarely want to read it.

Charles benoit said...

My YA novel, YOU, coming out next year from Harper-Collins, is told in 2nd person present tense. I loved writing it and think it's the best thing I ever wrote. One of the reasons I wrote it that way is that I needed/wanted to push myself as a writer and that was a place that I wanted to go. We'll see what the masses say. More tomorrow.

Dana King said...

First person often seems forced and artificial. That may be because we're so used to reading past tense, but part of it may be due to the fact that, no matter how successful the suspension of disbelief, our minds are aware we're not reading about something that's happening NOW, or there's be no way to get it on the age for us to read it. Anything that happened in the past is fair game.

The only successful present tense stories I've read were so smoothly done it didn't occur to me until well into the story we were actually in present tense. Tim Hallinan is the best I can think of right now, in his Poke Rafferty series.

Rick Blechta said...

I think present tense often doesn't work because the writer is not skilled enough at it. It isn't hard in short bursts, but to maintain it for a whole novel is something else again. April Fool by William Deverell is an example of a present tense novel that works very well — because Deverell is a damn good writer.

Whether or not it says something negative about me, I don't think I'd ever have the confidence to try to pull this off.

Interesting topic.