In Defense of Present Tense

Most defenders of the present tense say “it makes things more immediate” or “it makes the story more suspenseful.” Those are fine reasons, but they’re not mine. I could give a hoot about whether the story happened or is happening. As a reader, I don’t care. On the first page, I want an author to 1) show me someone interesting, 2) doing something interesting, and 3) write it well.

Reason #3 is why I write in present tense – it makes me a better writer. When I write in past, my mental mouth is full of cotton. It’s garbled, it’s clunky, I use too many words. Present tense cuts through the noise and modifiers.

Present tense is just “real” tense. Some say “I don’t like when present tense slips into past, it’s jarring!” Sometimes that’s a legit mistake, but sometimes it’s necessary. If your characters are working in the present, that means they still have a past. Like real people, your characters can have a ‘now’ and a ‘then.’ If you’re flashing back to their childhood, or even earlier in the story, you almost need to weave in past tense.

I can also show character growth by working in this “real” tense. In an early draft of Paradisa, my characters Clara and Hephaestus become instant friends upon meeting. In the first half of the story, the narrator explains that “Clara trusts Hephaestus.”

Later in the story, after Hephaestus betrays Clara’s feelings, the narrator explains that “Clara trusted Hephaestus.”

That distinction is much more profound when you start in the present and can play with some past tense verbs. If your whole story is in past tense, the best you could say is “trusted” and “had trusted”….and I have a personal aversion to putting “had” in front of any verb.

It’s not the tense and it’s not a gimmick – maybe it’s just bad writing. Those who turn their nose up at present tense often construct paragraphs like the following, in order to show how staccato and unnatural it is –

  • Anna crosses the room and opens the door. She looks out at the bright summer morning, admiring the cleanly cut grass and smell of leftover dew. She goes to the mailbox and grabs her mail, then goes back inside. She hears the phone ring. She picks it up.

Yeah, I’d roll my eyes at that too. That paragraph isn’t bad because it’s present tense. It’s bad because it’s poorly written! If you read the same paragraph in past tense –

  • Anna crossed the room and opened the door. She looked out at the bright summer morning, admiring the cleanly cut grass and smell of leftover dew. She went to the mailbox and grabbed her mail, then went back inside. She heard the phone ring. She picked it up.

– it’s almost equally abysmal. The past tense does make this piece of drivel a little more tolerable, but should past tense be desirable because it masks bad writing? Or perhaps, present tense is just harder to convey effectively. The first paragraph sounds distinctly like someone is giving you a play-by-play, because that’s what you get when present tense is butchered. The second just sounds like a weak narrator.

Play with psychic distance. But it’s also very obvious that the second paragraph was converted from present to past. Many authors think differently when they’re writing in present tense, and therefore they write differently. This is largely due to psychic distance. When you’re new to present tense, it’s easy to set your psychic distance over-the-shoulder for the entire story. Don’t do that. Remember you can still get inside a character’s head, or step very far back into the corner of the room. You can reflect on what a character is thinking and feeling, not just what they’re doing. You can also reflect on previous feelings and future worries. It doesn’t have to be constant “right here, right now, action.” The story world is still your three-dimensional oyster, in both time and space.

I’m no expert, but here’s a paragraph from Paradisa. I think it’s a decent example of how to avoid the play-by-play mistake of my “Anna” paragraph, mostly because I avoid standing over Connor’s shoulder moment-by-moment. (A little ironically, I also managed to talk about the past here while still using the present. But if I did it this way too many times, I think it would get tiresome.)

  • He doesn’t remember the moment of impact. Just before – listening to his younger sister prattle about her thermodynamics homework – and after – airbags exploding like popcorn, lap belts clinging, their car spinning with a screech. Now Connor stands outside the wreckage, somehow, unable to recall jumping out.Night swallows the edges of his swarthy silhouette. Before it makes him disappear, Connor’s words regain decibels.

Point of view matters. Finally, we should acknowledge that Third Person and First Person make a big difference.

First-person present can fall into the play-by-play ditch or it can be flawlessly conversational. In order to achieve FPP, your character needs a good voice. A boring character talking about their day – “I pick up the phone. It’s my best friend, Jenny. She asks me if Johnny is going to the football game tonight” – is an awkward snooze. But if your narrator is Holden Caulfield – “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth” – the tense is invisible.

Third-person present is my favorite way to write. To me, just write it like you would past tense. My thought/creative process doesn’t shift with either. The present tense just allows me to say what I would in past, except more succinct and rhythmic.

So, that’s my weird rant on present tense. Of course it can be done poorly, but I’m sick of the detractors using poor writing as examples of why present tense fails. Like anything, it just depends on how you use it!

3 thoughts on “In Defense of Present Tense

  1. Sincerely, I never really used the present tense before I started writing my flash fiction. To me, it was a difficult tense to write in because it felt “unnatural” to me, but I think it’s for a much different reason than what you’ve listed. Over time, I’ve noticed that genres seem to “work” better with different tenses. I’m not sure why, but just check out the books you’ve read.

    Fantasy tends to be past for some reason. Yeah, I’ve read some in present, but those are rare. It’s as if fantasy authors saw themselves as someone chronicling something that happened already.

    Non-fiction, however, seems to go the other way around. I think that’s where I’ve encountered the present tense the most.

    Personally, I think that tenses work depending on what you want to do with your story. It’s all about narrative style. Past tense is someone telling something that happened (regardless of third person, second, or first person). The present is something happening right now. So the real question is not that about quality; it is why should the event you are retelling “happen” or “happened.”

    • I must just be a really weird writer or a really bad one, because I literally cannot deduce why “happening” vs “happened” matters. I never give a second thought to it when I’m reading a book, mostly because it’s fiction regardless. Usually I just assume that the tense picked is the tense the author writes most eloquently in – cause that’s my reason! Haha.

      Genre can matter. Like in thrillers, if a protagonist is telling it in past, you assume they got out alive to tell about it. If it’s present, I guess the assumption is that it’s happening now and they might die at the end. I feel like those sorts of “reasons” can be gimnicky though – mostly because they make the reader aware of the author. I don’t think I’ve ever actually read a present tense book and thought “huh, it’s in present tense so the character might die.” I just want people to write beautiful books in the tense they write best in.

      • Nah, I don’t think it makes you a bad writer just because you don’t know about that. As I mentioned, I have trouble with the present tense, which is why I use it fairly often in my flash fiction. I try to play with the tenses a lot there. Though, to be fair, (and though I never say this on my blog), most of my flash fiction is experimental in some way. I approach it as my laboratory.

        Nevertheless, some stories do work better in present tense than in the past tense. You mentioned that a past tense (first person) would hint that the protagonist got out alive. There are some famous stories where they don’t, but that’s pretty true. Keep in mind that’s just for first person. Third person past tense could have tragic endings.

        Ask yourself the following questions when you write, and you’ll see what I mean by happened vs happen.

        1. Who is my narrator? You should ALWAYS know who your narrator is, whether it is you, the author, or a character in a story. This tells you the voice they are using when describing and how everything should play out. If it’s the protagonist speaking, then you have to decide, would they tell it in first person or third person?

        2. When is the narrator telling the story? Is the narrator describing things as they unfold in front of him/her, or are they telling you from memory? This can actually open up some more questions about reliability.

        3. How do the previous two questions affect the story you want to tell? Here’s an exercise for you. I know you don’t really write flash fiction, but it could be a little break from your big project. Write a 500 word flash fiction piece in first person present. Then write the same story in first person past. Can you see how the story actually changes though it’s the same event? Events in the past are much different than events in the present. The past is a memory, while the present is immediate truth. Always remember that the past goes through our memory’s lens. How that affects your story, that’s up to you.

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