Writing in the present tense: The good and the bad
What are the pros and cons of writing a story or novel in present tense?
Before you start writing your novel or short story, you need to decide what tense to write it in. There is no right or wrong but the choice you make will determine your approach. Will your story recount events that have already taken place (Lucy waited by the door) or will it be set in an ongoing present (Lucy waits by the door)? You can see just from those two brief examples that each option will offer different possibilities in terms of writing style and narrative approach.
You have two tense choices when it comes to writing fiction: past and present. Using the past tense in fiction is time-honoured and for many, the default choice, but writing in the present tense is a stylistic choice that is increasingly used in modern fiction. The present tense is used more in contemporary literary fiction, in short stories and in writing that plays or experiments with form – and also in a lot of middle grade and young adult books. Past tense is the default setting for most genre fiction. As the simple past tense is traditionally used for storytelling, it presents fewer challenges to the reader, who doesn’t notice the tense that is being used and is immediately immersed in the world of the story. Past tense foregrounds the story, rather than the prose it’s written in. Present tense tends to be a deliberate stylistic choice used by a writer to create a conscious effect. You are signalling the reader’s attention to when your story takes place. This tense choice can be particularly effective when you want a reader to understand the world of your story as it unfolds through the eyes of a first-person narrator.
Benefits of writing in present tense
✓ It’s cinematic
The present-tense is ideal for writing an impressionistic narrative that is playing out in an immediate timescale. Screenplays are written in first person because they express ongoing narrative and a close perspective, and both of these can be used to great effect in fiction. If you’re writing a story and want it to feel as if it’s set in real time, the present tense is a good choice
✓ It’s immediate
You can make readers relate to what’s going on in your fictional world and be involved in it by showing what happens – events, feelings, ideas – in the moment they occur. When each impression or scene you write takes place in the absolute moment, it means that the reader is right in there, experiencing the events of your story as they unfold. This can create a sense of intimacy or dramatic impact.
✓ It can feel more authentic
Because present tense allows for closer narration, it can create the sense of a unique character perspective. A present tense narrative can convey emotions, thoughts and impressions in the moment. Many writers who use the present tense feel that it’s a natural tense to write to reflect the world we live in now, where the voice of the individual is prioritised and what and how we write is influenced by TV, film and online culture.
✓ It’s vivid
Writing in the present tense means the information you present hasn’t got the perspective of being reported later. It’s written in the moment, without an effect of being filtered or processed or reported (though we know it has, because you’re a writer and it hasn’t happened by accident). What the reader has to focus on is the image you create, as it occurs, which makes for dynamic impressions.
✓ It’s good for delivering a deep first-person point of view
If you want to deliver the mindset of a first-person character, the immediacy of writing in the present tense means that your reader is right in there with your narrator, seeing what they see and experiencing the world of the story through their eyes. Rather than being an omniscient narrator, the writer shares the character’s focus. If you are writing an unreliable narrator using the present tense is an excellent way of delivering a narrative perspective at odds with the ‘true’ version of events in your story.
Drawbacks of writing in present tense
χ Some readers don’t like it
For every writer who feels the past tense is a bit ‘old school’ there is a reader who prefers a narrative that sticks with the convention of using the simple past tense. Present tense stories may feel natural for young readers but adult readers with a lifetime of reading work written in past tense may find present tense jarring – and it may be hard for them to get beyond the tense choice and into the world of your story. Literary fiction readers will be more open to experiments in form but for readers of genre fiction who want to be immediately immersed in the story, present tense may detract from their reading pleasure.
χ It can feel contrived
There is nothing more likely to put off readers than a writing voice that feels like a self-conscious pose. If writing in the present tense doesn’t feel like a natural fit for your story, it will read awkwardly and draw your reader’s attention to your attempt at technique rather than the story you’re writing. If you’re unsure about whether to use first person, try writing two versions of a short story, or a few pages of a longer work – one in present tense and one in past tense – to see which approach suits your story best and feels most comfortable for you as a writer.
χ It makes it harder to use time shifts
Writing in the past tense makes it possible for you to set your story at any point in time you choose, and move around between time periods. Writing in the present tense limits you to the present: being committed to the present tense also means being locked into it, and having less freedom than a past-tense writer to manipulate time to your story’s advantage. A past-tense writer can move around freely in time (and use all the available tenses to do so); a present-tense writer is restricted. Again, it depends what suits your story.
χ It can make the focus too detailed
Although the present tense is very good for conveying a first-person narrator or a close third-person narrator, it also means that the writer wanting to appear naturalistic may overwhelm the reader with details of what that narrator sees, thinks, feels and experiences. It may be tempting for your narrator to describe everything they see, but do readers need to know what they thought about what they had for breakfast? Too much focus on the ongoing internal life of the narrator can detract from the story that is being told. If you use present tense, make sure all the information your character conveys is relevant. The character may be the story, but present-tense narrative still needs to be a story.
χ It’s harder to write
The writer who choses present tense for their story limits their narrative options in terms of available tenses – writers using the past tense have up to 12 tenses they can use; present-tense writers have four. It’s more difficult to maintain a present-tense voice without flipping between tenses. It limits you if you want to write stories with complex time-schemes, or create layered characters other than a first-person/close third person lead. If you want to create and build suspense, present tense will only allow you to convey the kind of tension that arises from not knowing what is going to happen next.
The choice of whether or not to use present tense for your story depends what you want to write – it doesn’t suit everything. It’s a good choice if you want to write a story that feels immediate, or one with a close single focus on the narrator’s viewpoint. It’s less useful if you want to create a story that moves around in time. It draws attention to itself, so if you do use it, you have to use it well or readers will notice the flaws rather than your story. Read some present tense novels to get a feel for how it works and how you might apply it in your own writing. Try The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins; The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Rabbit, Run by John Updike, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.
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