Why Use Present Tense?

Photo credit: FL4Y on Flickr
So after reading my post on first sentences, a certain fabulous blogger suggested that I write a post on the choice between present and past tense, which, in my opinion, is totally brilliant and a bit of a wonder that I hadn’t done so already. However, I’ve come to realize that this post is going to be enormously long if I try to cover both, so while today’s post will primarily focus on present tense, Monday’s post will cover past.

Quick note: for the sake of this post I’m going to focus on first-person POV, but the same principles apply to third-person as well.

Stylistically, the differences between past and present tense are pretty subtle—and both function well in their respective novels. Books like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Across the Universe by Beth Revis and The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson were all successful with their use of present tense while books like The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Immanuel’s Veins by Ted Dekker and The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin worked well with past tense. (Note: I haven’t fully read all of the books I mentioned, but I’ve at least read samples if not the whole thing, and found the voices to be particularly interesting).

So what’s the difference between the two? Why use one over the other?

Having read (and written in) plenty of both, the biggest difference that stands out to me is the sense of immediacy and closeness. Now I’m aware that closeness isn’t really a technical term to describe writing and I should probably use another more professional-sounding word, but closeness is the word I currently have in my head. So.

By “closeness” I mean the proverbial distance between the reader and the narrator. I’m sure you’ve all read a novel and found that the narrator felt distant, which made it difficult for you to connect or empathize with the protagonist (and you probably put the book down unless you were forced or felt particularly compelled to read it for whatever reason). That’s the distance I’m talking about—the closeness.

In my experience at least, I’ve found that this closeness correlates directly to the tense the work is written in, and the relationship is something like this:

So...this is a little hard to read, but hopefully you get the idea. 

Now, that’s not to say that books written in third-person past or even omniscient past can’t create a close relationship to the reader—it just in many cases takes a little more effort on both the writer and reader’s part.

You see, when a novel is written in present tense, the reader is in essence experiencing the events of the book at the same time as the narrator, and it’s this feeling of going through the plot together (immediacy) that tends to create an instantly closer relationship. Books written in past tense of course can create the same sort of relationship—as I said the differences between the two are very subtle—but the effect of the narrator recounting the story (as is the case in novels written in past tense) is a half-step farther than the narrator experiencing the novel with the reader.

The immediacy of present tense works particularly well in fast-paced, action-packed novels—which is why I think it worked so well in The Hunger Games. For these kind of novels, present-tense adds an extra edge—the characters are going through their battles with the reader. The protagonist hasn’t experienced this already—and thus isn’t telling us about a battle three years ago that they very clearly survived from or else they wouldn’t be around to tell the story—so there’s an added sense of vulnerability. Although it’s very rare for protagonists to die, the sense that things are happening now can give the added feel that anything could happen—even, possibly (although unlikely), the death of the protagonist.

But like every tense, there are weaknesses you must be aware of.

Present tense (especially first-person present tense) can be more difficult for some readers to adjust to. Whereas it’s reasonable to think that a narrator may be telling you about something they experienced before (as is the case with novels written in past tense), the idea that the narrator is actually standing right there in front of you narrating exactly what they’re doing right now is a hurdle that readers must get over in order to enjoy the story. Obviously no one (sane) goes around announcing to some invisible audience everything that they’re doing as they do it—which for some readers is a fact that makes it rather difficult to enjoy novels written in first-person present tense.

For this reason, present-tense can be a little more difficult to write convincingly. Your voice and story must be strong enough to make readers overlook the fact that realistically, the protagonist should not be describing everything that’s going on at this present time.

If done well, however, present-tense is a perfectly viable option that can function really well for certain types of novels.

What do you think? Have you ever written in present tense? What novels have you read that used present tense well (or that didn’t)? 

37 comments:

Rik Davnall said...

I write present tense whenever a story gives me even the vaguest of excuses. It just seems to come more easily to me than past. In my current WIP, there's a frame story, where the main character is on trial, relating past events, so I used present tense for the trial to emphasise the separation (an obscure children's book I can't remember the name or author of I read fifteen years ago did more or less this to amazing effect, and I've never forgotten).

I actually feel it's non-action scenes that work best with present tense, though; sometimes that additional closeness really brings up the tension in what would otherwise be dry conversation.

Ava Jae said...

I'm a fan of present tense myself and have also found it comes rather easily. I suppose it's as close to stream of consciousness as it gets. 

You make a good point about non-action scenes--the additional closeness absolutely can emphasize the tension that might be a little harder to punctuate on in past tense. 

hankesj said...

Great post! I've found it very difficult to write in first person, present tense. I once heard a famous author say that you can base a writer on their writing skills by their successful effort at first person, present tense. I guess it's just that hard to write? I'm not sure, but it is a challenge for me. One that I would very much like to overcome someday. Anywho. Loved this post and I love your blog! Always a wealth of information. Thanks!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Fantastic post! I just finished my first venture with present tense (a short story) and it was more difficult than I expected. But it was right for the story, and I will often slip into present tense writing when I'm crafting a particularly intense scene. But for the most part, past tense works for me. (Also Tahareh's book is far from action packed, but the immediacy in her head made present tense a good choice, I think.)

Interesting thing I've found about 1st person: it really only works well for silent reading. If you're reading aloud to an audience, it's jarring for them to hear you read "I...I...I" all the time. I never noticed this until reading a first person story to my kids and they commented about how strange it was (even though they read 1st person stories themselves and have no trouble with it).

(BTW LOVE Beth Revis' alternating 1st person in AtU and can't wait to read Million Suns!)

Ava Jae said...

I think like anything, the biggest challenge is to write first person present well--it certainly takes some practice and exposure to it first. 

Ava Jae said...

I absolutely agree that the immediacy in Tahereh's book worked beautifully. I don't think it would have had quite the same effect had it been written in past tense. 

That's a really interesting observation. I hadn't really thought of it that way before, but come to think of it, it does feel a little strange to read first person novels aloud to an audience. I suppose it seems natural for silent reading as we think of ourselves in those terms (our inner voice so-to-speak works in first person). 

And funnily enough, I didn't think I was going to like the alternating first person in AtU and I was totally wrong--it worked better than I could have imagined. Can't wait until I get my hands on a copy of A Million Suns

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I'm with Ric. I find it easier to write present tense than past. I'm not sure why that is, especially when most people struggle with present tense.

Ava Jae said...

I feel like present tense is easier (for some of us anyway) to get down on paper, but more difficult (or time-consuming, at least) to polish into something well-written. At least, that's been my experience. 

Laurapauling said...

I think it also depends on the story. Some narration styles, characters, and story work much better with present tense. But I do think it's harder to write!

Ava Jae said...

I absolutely agree that it depends on the story. Some books work beautifully in present tense and others much better in past tense. It all depends on the style and voice of the novel. 

I'm intrigued to see how many people find writing in present tense easy and how many find it difficult. Judging by the comments it seems to be nearly 50/50 so far, with a few extra votes on finding it difficult--interesting! 

Krista Wayment said...

I rarely notice tense unless it is done poorly. Like I read Hunger Games and don't think I even noticed it was in present tense. So when I read I don't really see much of a difference between closeness and urgency with the tense or POV.

Susan Sipal said...

I'm so glad you're covering this topic, Ava. I've not yet fully written a story in present tense, though it's interesting to me, I've started several that way, then switched them when they got going. I think it was that immediacy of involvement with the character that made it feel a good place to start for me. But it is unusual, still, and so I ended switching to past once I was well into it.

I've read some present tense stories, and I agree with you, the writing needs to be very strong!

Daniel Swensen said...

As long as it's not also in second person. That's the line!

J. A. Bennett said...

It's funny that you say this becasue I once had my first page read and critiqued before an conference and their biggest complaint was that was first person present tense. Go figure.

BTW, I noticed you have my old blog on your sidebar, just thought you should know :)

Rik Davnall said...

I've actually been inspired by this to do a blog post of my own on present tense, so I'll let you know when that's ready :)

Southpaw said...

Present tense is a hard one. I generally don't like it. It's almost too much. I get exhausted as a reader.

I did write a flash fiction in present tense to get the feel for it. It is way hard to write too!

Ava Jae said...

It's a subtle thing, but one that can work really well with some stories, as it did with The Hunger Games

Ava Jae said...

It's funny because I've found that I sometimes switch into present tense when I start really getting into the writing. I've found it to be one that I enjoy writing in, but it's certainly difficult to polish. 

Ava Jae said...

There's a reason I didn't include it on the closeness chart. :D

Ava Jae said...

First person present tense is difficult for some readers to adjust to. That comes down to personal preference. 

Also, I'll have to fix that. Thank you for the reminder! :)

Ava Jae said...

Like most things, it's a matter of taste as well as stylistic preference. Some people find that they can adjust to it well, others (like yourself) find it exhausting or too difficult to connect to. 

It seems present tense is one of those polarizing things as far as how easy it is to write--judging by the comments so far people find it either easy to write in or difficult with little in-between. Interesting! 

Ava Jae said...

Great! Definitely give me the link when it's up! :)

Joe Bunting said...

I actually really like present tense. Updike used 3rd person present well in Run Rabbit Run.  You might like that, although women tend to be put off by him.

Anyway, Updike said the same thing you do. Present-tense gives the text an immediacy. There's this sense that the whole future of the novel becomes unstable because you don't really know what's going to happen because the narrator doesn't know what's going to happen.

Ava Jae said...

I haven't read much Updike, but as I do happen to like present tense, I'll have to keep that in mind. I like the way you described the future of the novel in present tense--unstable. It certainly does feel that way when not even the protagonist knows what will happen, something that I've found I enjoy with present-tense novels. 

Rainy Kaye said...

I'm not a huge fan of first person, and I like present tense even less. I prefer third person limited in past. Third person limited has the "closeness" of first person because the reader can only know what the character knows. Something about the use of "I" in first person continues to jar me from the story. As for past tense, I view stories as something that has already happened and is being relayed to me. It's a matter of preference. I think it might be a matter of category too. YA books seem to be more eager to use first person present.

Ava Jae said...

I think you're right that genre is at least somewhat related to the tense used--YA has a pretty high ratio of first person POV novels and of those, a good amount are also present tense, whereas Epic Fantasy, for example, tends to be third person much more frequently. In the end, it often comes down to just a matter of preference.

Anonymous said...

Read what Philip Hensher and Philip Pullman have to say about the present tense. It might just curb your enthusiasm (you can Google their articles) for what I think can only be achieved by a first class author. Yes, there are some niche or genre writers who pull it off consistently because the present tense rather lends itself to sci-fi or horror writing. But when it comes to more classic or 'literary' fiction, as an editor I often see a promising novel dashed upon the rocks of this tense. I do my best to discourage what I see as a real handicap (at worst) or a huge challenge (at best).
But wearing my commercial hat - as one working in the publishing industry - I am convinced that present tense fiction for mainstream novels is 'reader-unfriendly'. And who wants to alienate the reader? It's hard enough to find them in the first place.

Piggy said...

I get all this, I like first person in the past. but it would have been helpful to see some examples or to have learnt how to write in first person, present....

Ava Jae said...

Some great examples are those books I mentioned. I've found that one of the best ways to get a feel for a tense (besides writing, that is) is to read. :)

Robin Red said...

I'm debating right now how to start writing this story I plotted. I'm all ready to go, but I have no idea if I should start in 1st person present for the suspenseful moments (which are aplenty) or if I should stick to third-person past, which I'm good at. Maybe I'll write the first chapter in both and have a beta examine them.

Ava Jae said...

I've found that when in doubt with POV, trying out both (or however many options you're debating on) can be a great way to help you get a sense for which you'd prefer to write the full manuscript in. In my experience, usually one will come more naturally to the story.


I wish you the best of luck!

Phil said...

What is the present tense for

Right on

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Phil!

Tiaan Lubbe said...

I have recently completed my first novel. It is Young Adult/ New Adult and it has a dystopian story. It is set in the future and has alot of action in a fairly short amount of time.

Anyway, here's my actual point. I wrote it in Third person limited present tense. It also makes POV jumps between characters as the each experience a part of the story that the others might not be able too. I made this decision because of, like you said, it gives the story an immediacy and a closeness ( love the word btw) to the characters.

A group of people have read it and none, except one, of them gave any comment on it except the relating comment of how much they loved the intensity and immediacy of the events. The only one who commented on it is a poet and likes those deep philosophical novels of self discovery.

I would love to hear your though on this and also the thoughts of some of your readers?

Does the fact that it's not first person or even third person omniscient make a difference to the present tense and the likeability of it?

Ava Jae said...

Hmm, so this isn't going to be a hugely helpful answer, but as far as any writing (or otherwise creative) element goes, how likable it is is 100% subjective. As a rule, first person tends to be closer than third, but both can work really well and still feel close depending on the writing and the style. The decision between first and third makes a huge difference in how the book sounds and can affect tone, but as for how likable it is, that's really subjective. Some people love first person and hate third, some people love third person and hate first, some (like myself) think both can work really well depending on the situation.


So that's my two cents.


P.S.: Congrats on completing your first novel! Very exciting. :)

Tiaan Lubbe said...

Thank you Ava. I believe I have reached the conclusion that because of the likeabilty's subjectivity it would be unwise to change my tense because some find it...unattractive. The fact is that others won't. As the universal law says...one can never satisfy all. So I'll stick to what's best for my story and spend some good hours on making sure that at least the work is technically correct...for those, you know, knotty bunch! ; D

Ava Jae said...

Yes! Definitely take your time editing and revising—it's the most important step. But as you said, it's impossible to please everyone, so I wouldn't worry too much over the likability of one tense or POV style over another. :) Good luck!

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