Saturday, September 21, 2013

Writing in the Present Tense

Are we moving beyond the past-tense in modern literature?  Novels are no longer summaries of events and dialogue like in Jane Austen's time. Novels of the movie age show rather than tell. I often hear authors say to write cinematically--to put the reader in the action. Though films have occasional flashbacks, in general, they show the events as they unfold. Even directions in scripts are written in the present

Traditionally, most novels are written in the past tense. This is what people expect. However, we are experiencing a trend (especially in young adult dystopian novels) to use the present. Books like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Legend give the reader a first-person, present-tense experience.

When I first read The Hunger Games, I had trouble getting into the present-tense writing style. I am accustomed to stories told in the past. To me, it makes sense for a narrator to tell events that have already happened. It took a few pages for my mind to switch from the familiar past tense. After the first chapter, I became so engrossed in the novel that tense was no longer a barrier. Similarly, in my own writing, I find it hard to switch. I am working on an experimental piece in first-person present tense. This is a change from my usual third-person, past, and it takes me a few paragraphs to adjust my style.

I have found that writing "in the now" gives quick-paced action and smooth transitions to flashbacks. It's easier for the reader to believe the point of view character is in life-threating peril. For a book written in past tense, there is always an inkling in the reader's mind that this has already happened. The protagonist is telling it, so she can't have died during the climax. Present tense doesn't give this same certainty to the reader, which is probably why it's used often in modern dystopian literature.

Even so, writing in the present tense is nothing new. Shakespeare wrote plays before novels even existed and used present tense for stage directions. They fight...Paris falls. Novels such as Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Updike's Rabbit, Run also employ the present. However, books like these are the exceptions in classic literature. For the most part, stories are told using the past tense. The storyteller is relaying events that have already happened.

Recently, I asked on Twitter for people's opinion about tense and person. Those who responded prefer the past tense. Keep in mind, many of my followers are of my generation. We grew up reading Goosebumps and Ramona Quimby--narratives told in the past tense.

Kids today still read those books, but they also read stories told as they happen, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Twitter feeds and Facebook statuses. Today's generation is reading and writing as life unfolds, pushing storytelling into the present tense. It's unclear how the social-network medium of storytelling will impact literature of the future. Modern readers want books that are cinematic. In the future, will they expect books to be concurrent?


  1. I'm not picky about the tense as long as the story is readable. Glad you linked up to Get Inspired :)

  2. Concurrent books, that's an interesting thought. Maybe it will happen when digital books can easily accomodate video clips, music etc. I know that's already possible (technically speaking) but it's expensive to pull off, particularly the videos that require actors, shooting in appropriate settings etc But once the Vooks become run of the mill, sure, we'll have concurrent books, you're right about that!

    Thanks for an interesting post. As to my own tastes, I'm a little conservative. I prefer the past tense. The present tense throws you in the present moment and makes it difficult to hop from one character to the next: it becomes a single point of view and that can be rather restrictive, the flashbacks notwithstanding...

    1. Books are certainly evolving due to technology. Who knows whats next as ebooks and multimedia books become more popular.

      As for present tense, I think it works better in short stories and picture books. Novels told in the present have to be crafted really well.

  3. Great topic! I hear discussions about this too, especially from pro-past-tense readers not liking present-tense books. I don't have a problem with them. Like POV, I think the choice depends on what effect the author is trying to achieve.