Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Why are so many novels being written in the present tense these days?

Who's asking: Peter Johnson, London

Elvis Costello sings it in "Brilliant Mistake": "I wish that I could write a book/And talk in the past and not the present tense..." but more and more novels these days are being written in the present tense.

I've mentioned before that I have trouble with this. Present tense works for short stories and magazine articles, but it's very difficult to pull off over an extended narrative. It's probably the single biggest piece of advice I give to my first-novel clients who bring me present-tense novels: don't.

The problem with present-tense narration is how you convey information that happened in the past, particularly if you're writing from something broader than a narrow first or third-person point of view. Past tense? Past perfect? Pluperfect conditional?

I can't point to a single reason we're seeing so much more of this, but I have a few theories. First, present-tense narration feels immediate and emotionally engaging, which is why it does work well for short stories -- action's moving, the reader's with the narrator from the beginning, experiencing what the narrator experiences in the literary equivalent of real time.

Second, people read more magazines than books these days, and magazine articles are often written in the present tense. When people who don't read many books sit down to write books themselves, they model their prose on what they read or watch -- which, all too often, are magazine articles and intrusive voiceovers from cheesy movies.

In rare cases where an author's a good enough writer to sustain present-tense narration over the length of an entire novel -- as in Theresa Schwegel's books, for example -- the best the author can hope for is that the reader stops noticing the present tense after reading a page or two. Thus, the writer's setting himself or herself an unnecessary challenge before the reader even begins.

So I'll say it again: if what you want to do is engage your readers, why make it harder for yourself and them?

If you're a writer working in the present tense, tell us why you do it.

Five Random Songs

"Can't You See," Marshall Tucker Band. Six minutes of classic Southern rock, and the flute makes all the difference.

"(Don't Go Back to) Rockville," R.E.M. The practice of putting portions of song titles in parentheses is something else that's always baffled me. Insights into this phenomenon are welcome.

"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," The Beatles. This album came out 40 years ago last week, and I read a bunch of articles suggesting that it hasn't aged well, or that it might not be as iconic as people thought, or that Pet Sounds is a better album. To all of these articles I say: I beg to differ.

"Creeps Like Me," Lyle Lovett. One of his grimmest, funniest songs. "Look around and you will see/This world is full of creeps like me/You look surprised, you shouldn't be..."

"If I Had My Way," Peter, Paul and Mary. Paul, I think, was signing copies of his new book at BEA, but I never saw him in person.


Claire said...

One other positive thing about present-tense is that the narrator doesn't know the ending yet. This limits foreshadowing, of course, but can be useful depending on how the author wants the story to unfold. Still, I agree it's not easy to sustain.

AnswerGirl said...

Good point, which is why memoirs written in the present tense (and I've read a couple) are particularly annoying.

robin said...

I wrote a novel in present tense. Although it isn't published yet I've gotten amazing feedback. Not one agent or publisher commented on the tense. The only problem I seem to be finding is marketing.

You asked why one would write in present tense? I agree with what you wrote. I do find the present tense more emotionaly engaging and immediate. I like the idea that the reader is feeling what the characters are feeling at the same time. It almost makes the reader an active part of the work.

Anonymous said...

I am new to fiction, but not writing. I've been working as a reporter for the past 11 years.

Most everything I write is in the present tense and it is natural for me.

Newspaper writing and novel writing are so completely different. I find myself not wanting to use any passive words..

Currently I am editing my novel. I belong to a writers group in real life, and also one on line. So far most of the comments have been positive.

On another note a friend of mine recently had his novel published. You guessed it, he wrote in present tense. According to him the only one that gave him flack about it was other writers.

Dickens wrote some pieces in the present tense. Also here a list of recent novels in the present tense.

Atwood, Cat's Eye
Dubus, House of Sand and Fog
Ellis, American Psycho
Frey, A Million Little Pieces
Hornby, High Fidelity
Palahniuk, Fight Club
Wong, The Pacific Between

Personally I can't see memoirs written in the present tense..

AnswerGirl said...

Newspaper articles are not written in the present tense, although magazine features often are. Are you confusing "active voice" with "present tense"?

Passive voice is the enemy of all good writing, but it is not the same as past tense.

What Dickens novel was written in present tense? I'm looking at BLEAK HOUSE and TALE OF TWO CITIES right now, and I assure you that both are narrated in the past tense. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" would lose some power in the present tense, don't you think?

And I wouldn't mention James Frey in any context as anything but a bad example.

econoclast said...

I'm with you, Answer Girl. I'm looking at this new site, authonomy, put up by Harper Collins as a kind of public slush pile where authors can rise by popular acclaim -- it's a way for the publisher to get a sort of free screen of "over the transom" books. A lot of them are written in the present tense. I just find it irritating, and I hate myself because it seems prejudiced and irrational. But I think future readers will perhaps share my feelings and find it merely mannered and dated.

The really irritating one is the History Channel, where they insist on describing long-ago events in this way. Why? Bah, humbug!

I write the old fashioned way, as anyone can see who peeks at my novel, 1985, on

Eleanor said...

I only use first person present tense in dream sequences, the third person present tense I reserve for screenplays, for immediacy, using brevity as a watchword.


Daniel said...

My novel is comprised of several self-enclosed chapters, split in past and present tense. The past tense comes along when a narrator is actually recounting a past event, and present tense when the event is happening in real-time. I do that for clarity, but also to better engage the readers.

Sometimes you can better involve a reader in the psychological experience of a terrifying or heartfelt moment when the reader doesn't have the sense that if there's a narrator, the story has a 'safe' ending..

AnswerGirl said...

You mean "composed of," I know, or perhaps that your novel comprises present-tense and past-tense sequences. (Sorry, but this is one of my bugbears.)

The present tense/past tense mix can certainly work — in fact, I misspoke earlier when I said that Bleak House was all past tense, because it's actually the first novel I know of that uses the device of switching off between present tense and past tense, and omniscient and limited points of view.

I maintain, however, that it takes a truly skilled author to bring this off without it feeling like a stunt. Declan Hughes manages to do it in his recent City of Lost Girls, and I just edited a manuscript in which the present tense was the right choice for dream/memory sequences.

Too often, however, authors use it because they think it's a short cut to creating a sense of urgency, and tangle themselves hopelessly in a mess of complex verb tenses they can't manage.

Its a clock! said...

Assuming we are talking about true present tense, and not the kind where past tense is implied, there are lots of other reasons not to write in the present tense also:

It precludes that unspoken layer of implication created by a first person narrator looking back through span of time--an invaluable tool for the writer. Think about how much would be lost in Gatsby if Nick Carraway were piecing together these events in the present, rather than recalling them from the position of having experienced them.

Its also problematic for allowing a narrator to summarize narrative events--and again, a layer of implication lost here. The things a narrator chooses to tell us or not tell us are often reveal things about their consciousness. In the present tense the narrator is obliged to give us information we don't need, just for the sake of stage direction. ("I lift my head. The room is filled with people.")

Related to the above--it can be claustrophobic. The reader often doesn't know what information to privilege, and so may get overloaded.

No way to modulate narrative distance. Writing in the past tense the author may choose to strategically zoom in tight to a character, tell us everything they see and experience--in the present tense, the author is stuck in this mode.

Others as well I'm sure, if I had my craft thinking-cap on! The thing is, it is a formal choice, and it does have some advantages, like plausibly limiting what a narrator can know in the narrative's present action, but too often writers do not consider the pros and cons of it as a device. They just assume it will lend an immediacy to the writing. And it might, but you throw a lot of tools out of the kit in the process.

AnswerGirl said...

You put it better than I could. Thanks.

JadedRogue said...

I am writing a novel that has strategic flashbacks and the past tense completely bogged down the other sections of the novel. My editor suggested I try present tense for my ''on going'' story and past for my flashbacks. It works but its a lot of work and you have to be mindful of that over the shoulder/in their head/claustrophobic feel. I've gotten nothing but positive feedback. The only negative I had was that it sometimes felt like it moved to quickly. It totally changes the pacing, the scenes, the timbre of what is going on. I can be done and it can be done well. The Hunger Games, Fight Club, etc. To each their own

Diem Burden said...

I started writing my first (unpublished) book in the past tense for the simple reason that I automatically and subconsciously started to write in that tense.

After about 40thou words I read a book written in the present tense and liked it so much that I decided to change mine over. That was hard work, I can tell you. That book is at about 140thou words now and has been put to one side for a while.

I am currently at 46thou words in another, present tense novel and, although a novice, I have found no problem in writing in this way.

I personally prefer to use it because we automatically slip into present tense to tell a (short) story of an exciting event, such as a crime we have witnessed.

140thou is a l-o-n-g story yet it works, for me at least! I've yet to get any feedback on either text though.

Maybe I've chosen badly, and will have to re-write all those verbs!!!!

DarCald said...

I admit that I have passed on novels after the jarring discovery of being written in present tense. It can work well for a brief scene as stated above but for a typical novel it gets tiring. I blame it on our society's attempt to make experiences more immediate for the sake of "selling" something - from first person shooter video games to the annoying trend of so-called "reality TV". I also think texting and the irritating/hilarious need for some people to constantly be in communication with...whoever they are constantly in communication with on their cellphone (via the aforementioned texting or voice) are all symptoms of a gradual shift in thinking from relating what happened to what IS happening as potential causes for the accompanying literary shift as well. But I am tapping this response on my iPhone and am at the door so I need to go now, TTFN. ;-)

Matt Allen said...

I stumbled across this, while researching for a novel that I am currently in the early stages of writing. I have to say, that I completely disagree. I do not read magazines, so its not that I'm copying that format. I simply enjoy reading present tense because it is easier for me to fall into the action. Its easier for me to feel the character's pain when it is currently happening. That is why I also enjoy writing in first-person, present tense. Its easier for me to become that character, making writing flow so much quicker and organically. Just thought I'd put in my two cents here. Thanks!

M.T. Dismuke said...

I stumbled onto this post while trying to find some articles on Preset Tense Writing. I write in the present tense and was getting a little frustrated with reviews that basically were 'warnings' about my writing style.

I write present tense because it came natural to me. Not many can pull it off and it does take some time to refine it. Past tense to me is slow, boring, and dreamy. I prefer to live in the now, have my blood pumping, and feel as if I'm in the scene. Over time I've greatly polished my style and am still refining it. I found that Present Tense requires action over narrative. I lead with action. This makes present tense flow much smoother than trying to narrate it. I now reserve narration only to 'set up' a scene then switch straight into present tense action. Both The Necro Device and my current work, Darkness & Daemons are present tense and I'll be honest, there is a lot of readers out there who just can't grasp it. Those who are more open find it to be extremely thrilling.

AnswerGirl said...

I just deleted an interesting and insightful comment because it was posted anonymously. I hate doing that, but I don't allow anonymous comments. You don't have to sign in, but you have to sign your posts. My name is on this, and yours should be too. I will keep saying this until people pay attention.

Tyler Barras said...

The criticism of present tense in fiction today reminds me of Truman Capote saying Kerouac's "On the Road" was not writing but merely typing. Capote and Updike and that older generation of established literary elites were not very fond of the Beat Generation and the new literary techniques they were using. Just as I'm sure Modernists like Hemingway and Faulkner and Joyce received harsh criticism from the older, established generation that turned up their noses at their extreme Modernist styles.

The point is, the older generations tend to reject the younger generations when the younger generation rejects the status quo and experiments with something new. It has always been that way and it always will be. The good news is (for the younger generation, that is) that the younger generation ends up winning in the end and what was deemed a passing fad becomes the new norm.

I see a lot of critics of present tense fiction blaming this "fad" on social networking and reality TV and magazines, but so what? Did the novel reach its final stage of evolution in the 1980s or something, after four hundred years of incessantly evolving with each new generation? No, the novel is always adapting to the needs and interests of the new generation, and it always will. The older generation just needs to accept that and acknowledge that the use of present tense in modern literature is the new generation's contribution to the evolution of the novel and their attempt to redefine the novel to make it more relatable to their own generation.

That said, I think present tense works best when you're writing in first-person steam of consciousness. It also helps to use multiple narrators so that it doesn't get so "claustrophobic."

Helen Brazier said...

Yeah, yeah, I'm all for the continued evolution of the novel but this is getting old already and no longer feels new or experimental. Some of the most boring books I've read recently have hidden behind this allegedly avant-garde device - yawn, yawn.