Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Musings on Writing in Present Tense


I settle down in my chair and open the book. A smile spreads across my face as I read the words on the page. A sound outside causes me to look up moments before the bullet breaks the glass in a nearby window, narrowly missing me. I... 

Hmmm. that was easier than I thought it would be. It seems very odd and unnatural for me to write a story in present tense. I noticed that, when I wrote the few lines at the start of this post, that I opted for first person, not third, which is my normal comfort zone. Somehow, first person seems more natural when it comes to present tense.

I’ve never written a story in present tense. I have no problem reading books or short stories written in it. I know there are people out there who are adamantly opposed to reading anything written in present tense. That’s not me. As long as it’s a good story, it doesn’t matter to me what tense or person it’s written in as long as it’s well done and captures my interest. Okay, maybe I’d have an issue with something written in second person.

What got me started on these musings about present tense? I recently picked up the first book in the Oxford Key mystery series by Lynn Morrison, Murder at St. Margaret. It’s a cozy mystery series set at, you guessed it, Oxford University. The main character is an event planner who also happens to be one of the caretakers of magic at the university. It’s a fun read with interesting characters and a good mystery. It took me about a chapter before I realized it was written in present tense. The same was true when I picked up Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. In both cases, I noted it, then pretty much ignored it and kept reading.

I’ve read a lot of cozy mysteries over the years. This is the first time I’ve found one written in present tense. Maybe there are others out there, but I haven’t run across them.

That got me wondering if I could write a decent story in present tense and what kind of story would best be told that way. I’ve heard that present tense creates a sense of immediacy you don’t find in past tense. The events seem to play out in real time. Honestly, I’m not sure it makes that much difference to me.

Maybe those of you who teach writing could enlighten me on writing in present tense. The few YA novels I’ve read, like The Hunger Games, seem to be written in that tense. Is that a rule for YA these days? 

I’m also curious about everyone’s opinion on reading books written in present tense. Do you like it, hate, don’t care? How long did it take you to notice the book was written in present tense?


Anna said...

I always notice present tense right away. Unless the book comes very highly recommended, so that I already am disposed to read it, I close the book immediately and look for one written in past tense. Life is too short to be wasted on unrewarding reading. To me, present tense does not foster a "sense of immediacy" but destroys the realistic impression of inhabiting the narrative dream that past tense provides so well. Why use present tense and put up an artificial obstacle to the reader's experience? Writing already has its built-in hurdles to be leaped. Bad for the reader, bad for the writer. OK, I'm opinionated (or did you notice?). Thanks for letting me rant in this sociable space.

Susan D said...

As a reader, I find it works for some stories, and not for others. Done well, and appropriately, (and in the first person) it flows naturally.

But so often I get the feeling the writer is playing with a new form. Especially annoying is multiple POVS, all in present tense. Or--and here's a giveaway that the writer hasn't quite got it yet--the POV character mentions something that happened earlier...and they use the past perfect tense, ignoring that, if you're speaking from the present, then what happened last week or last year is the simple past tense.

Okay, now I'm ranting too. :^)

Sybil Johnson said...

With so many people having strong feelings about books written in present tense, I do wonder why people write in it. Thanks for the comment, Ann.

Tanya said...

As an editor (day job), I tend to not react well to present tense because in most cases it seems contrived.

That said, I think there are a few effective uses of present tense within a story told in past tense. Selected thoughts of the protagonist, possibly while under stress or in danger, could be written in present tense (and probably using italics) and be effective.

The other usage that can be appropriate is when a place, real or imagined, is described. It sounds odd to me to say "The river flowed under the bridge where the accident happened." One would assume that the river continues to flow (unless it's dried up), so I'd find it more natural to say "The river flows...." This also applies to descriptions of where characters live. While most authors say "Raymond lived in a small cottage," if the character lives there for the duration of the story, I think it's more natural to say "Raymond lives in a...." Does anyone else react this way?

Anna said...


Protagonist's thoughts: yes, present tense is acceptable and not at all intrusive.

"The river flowed...where the accident had happened..." Sequence of tenses, so very useful and clarifying; not used enough these days; all too often people write "If I knew then what I know now" instead of "If I had known then..." and that construction even makes it into print, alas.

"Raymond lived..." Past tense is in keeping with the surrounding narrative. Present tense would seem quite unnatural.

Sybil Johnson said...

This is an interesting discussion. Thanks for all of your comments.

Susan D said...

I know what you mean, Tanya. It pulls me out of the story when the narrator says something like, "My brother was 5 years older than me..." which makes me stop to wonder if the brother has died.

Ellen said...

I wrote my first novel in present tense. In the 1980s the brat pack writers (Tama Janowitz, Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, and Jill Eisenstadt, among others) brought present tense into the fore, so when I was drafting my novel as my MFA thesis in 1990 I fell under the influence of that trend.

Looking back, I think the choice was a sound one for the book I wrote (which did receive a good review from The New York Times Book Review), which was set in a small Ohio town and was more of an ensemble cast of characters than focusing on one main character. Present tense gave the narrative an immediacy at the expense of any sense of a future, which is what growing up in a small town often feels like, and what I hoped to convey.

My more recent books are all in past tense :) Great discussion!