Present, Tense

May 2nd, 2014

Every now and then a reader feels moved to write me to say something helpful like, “I could probably enjoy your books if they weren’t written in present tense.”

present tense sign

Well, okay.  Thanks for the share.

I could respond by pointing out that two of my three series are, in fact, written in the old tried-and-true tense, which is to say past.  But why confuse the issue? The issue is that this person can’t read/doesn’t enjoy narrative fiction in the present tense.

And my basic reaction is, so?

As someone who reads both fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, dramatic and narrative writing, in both modern and archaic English–and manages to enjoy all of them–I have difficulty sympathizing with those who find a switch in tense to be an insurmountable obstacle.  It seems to me it should be simply something one gets used to, as one gets used to a writer’s style or the fact that the last words in some lines of poetry rhyme.  It’s not as though writing a paragraph in the present tense turns the text a bright, unappealing yellow and makes it leap and waver all over the page.  If one were in a frame of mind to push the old envelope, one might even look for reasons to like present-tense storytelling.

The-End-Greece short

I’m aware that past tense is traditional for narrative storytelling, and I think there were originally a couple of good reasons for that. First, back when we shared stories in the verbal tradition, as Homer did, the past tense told listeners immediately that the story they were about to hear was complete, that it had both a beginning and an end and that, God willing, if they sat there long enough they might be able to hear both of them.

Second, ancient narratives often told well-known tales of gods and heroines, and it was no secret that those stories had happened in the past, often the very remote past. Present tense would have been confusing.


Novels, when they finally arrived upon the scene, were usually told in past tense, although not those written in the once-very-popular epistolary form, in which the story is told through an exchange of letters (Pamela and Les Liaisons Dangereuses are well-known examples, but there were hundreds of them).  Letters in such novels are written, as letters generally are, in the present tense.

Dickens opens Bleak House, possibly his greatest book, in a marvelously vivid present tense (my favorite opening paragraphs in literature), but when he changes over to the first-person perspective of the narrator, Esther Summerson, she’s telling a story with its roots in the past. From then on the novel is in past tense.

As are most novels.  And I have no problem with that.  My problem is with people who get all willieknocked when they brush up against a story told in the present tense.

Because, you know what?  We live in the present tense. The things that happen to those we love take place in present tense.  And to move away from life and into art, two of the storytelling forms we most enjoy–theater and film–are present-tense media.  When a film or a play wants to move to past tense, it usually creates a framing device: a flashback, a memory, a dissolve through something someone is saying.

present color - bw

A framing device

We’re comfortable with the present tense in daily life, on TV, at sporting events, and in theaters.  So what’s the big deal about finding it in printed narrative?

Actually, I think it’s just habit.  It’s what we’re used to.  To someone who has read hundreds of novels in past tense, the present tense, at first sight, just feels wrong.

But so what?  For fifty years or so, audiences and even film professionals felt that gritty, realistic films were best shot in black and white.  The Civil War was in black and white, the newsreels from both World Wars were in black and white.  There was something trustworthy, something unglossy about it.  No trickery involved.  In black and white, you could believe your eyes.  Black and white was real.


Except, of course, that the world isn’t in black and white, any more than it’s in past tense. It’s in color and it’s in present tense.  As Orson Welles (who knew quite a lot about black and white) pointed out, it was a technological accident that black-and-white film came first and dominated the film industry long enough to train the audience’s eye to the point where it was seen as, somehow, “realistic.”  If the first films had been in color, black-and-white either never would have been developed or would have been viewed as an amusing abstraction – maybe as a way to show us how aliens view the world.

There is no way in which the past tense is inherently superior to the present tense when used to tell a story.  I use both and enjoy writing both.  I read both and enjoy reading both. I think they have different strengths.  If someone isn’t flexible enough to get used to it, he or she shouldn’t read it.  But don’t fulminate about how it never works, or be prepared to argue with, among others, Dickens, John Updike, Erich Maria Remarque, Franz Kafka, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Niffenegger, Andre Dubus III, Walker Percy, Chuck Palahniuk, Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Lethem, William Gibson, Lisa See, Ken, Kesey, Michael Chabon, Richard Russo, Jhumpa Lahiri, and hundreds of others who have created fine, even brilliant works of narrative fiction in the present tense.

all quiet

Another promising novel ruined by the present tense

But whatever you do, don’t imitate the English lit-fic novelist and (naturally) professor of creative writing, Philip Hensher.  Apparently put out by the commercial and aesthetic success of Hilary Mantle’s Wolf Hall (which is in present tense), Hensher ranted, “The routine use of present tense in the historical novel is quickly becoming a terrible cliché. There is, too, a spread of appallingly dull novels that run, “I go downstairs and make a cup of tea. On the television, the news is talking about a disaster in India. Got any drugs, I say to my flatmate Baz.”

Well, clearly what’s wrong with this wretched little pastiche is the tense.  Look here:  “I went downstairs and made a cup of tea. On the television, the news was talking about a disaster in India. Got any drugs, I said to my flatmate Baz.” 

See?  Makes all the difference.

Good writing is good writing and bad writing is bad writing, no matter what the tense.

11 Responses to “Present, Tense”

  1. Bonnie Says:

    Thanks fir mentioning Walker Percy. I’d forgotten how much I like his writing.

  2. Keith Says:

    I got stuck in present tense for a while, mostly because depending on how you do it, it can be so much shorter. Past felt bloated and archaic until I finally started writing something that worked better that way.

    People who don’t like the present tense are entitled to dislike whatever they like, but it reminds me of my kids refusing to try gravy. Yes, you are so right, it’s just awful stuff, hand that over here.

  3. Larry Chavis Says:

    Tim, I am one of those readers who find present tense, umm, less desirable, perhaps, than the traditional past tense. Why? I can’t really say; I suspect your conjecture of “habit” may well be the case. However, though it’s not my preference, a story’s being in present tense is not an obstacle; I’ve read – and enjoyed – many, and will again. Every writer’s work will have something that a given reader won’t particularly care for, but work well done generally will overcome such minor quibbles. At least that’s true for me.

  4. Robert McKay Says:

    I’m here on the blog, but with my situation I won’t be able to take part in any ongoing discussion. 🙂

    I’ve tried, more than once, to read things that are in the present tense. And it just irks me so much that I *can’t* read it. The same is true when in an otherwise past tense story someone begins recounting a dream, and suddenly begins using the present tense. It doesn’t work for me.

    The reason is simple: That’s just not how people actually tell stories, or recount dreams. I’ve been around for 54 years now, and I have NEVER – never, not once, not even for five secones – heard anyone, ever, tell someone about a dream in the present tense, or tell a story (true or tall) in the present tense. People just plain don’t talk that way. And so when a book purports to be someone telling me a story, and it’s in the present tense, it is utterly foreign to how people actually tell stories, and it won’t let me pay any attention to the story.

    There is one – just one – exception. “Stud City” by Gordon Lachance is in the present tense, and it works…but it still makes me notice the writing when I ought to only be immerses in the story.

    BTW, “Stud City” appears in Stephen King’s *The Body*, whose narrator is Gordon Lachance. 🙂

  5. Susana Núñez Says:

    In my humble view, the value of a novel lies in depicting a world that feels as real as my own. When I’m inmersed in a novel I cannot say whether the tense is present or past, I just view the world through the author’s words. If telling in the present tense is adequate to the plot and the characters, use it as much as you wish, I’ll be glad of entering the time.

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, everyone — it’s actually fun to be blogging again. I thought I’d worn out on it during that 260-day marathon, but this works great. These are fun to write and I get such fine responses.

    To work backward, because the newest ones are on the screen when I’m down here answering . . .

    SUSANA, you and I are on the same exact page. If the book works, it works, and tense becomes a style choice that either does or doesn’t support the other things the writer is trying to do. I was surprised, when I made that list of writers who work (some of the time, anyway) in the present tense to find Walker Percy and Remarque on it — I’ve read both THE MOVIEGOER and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT several times and didn’t remember either of them being in present tense, although they both are. And you’re invited to enter any of my books, in either tense, as often as you like.

    ROBERT, yours is the response I was sort of hoping to get because it actually demonstrates my point. What all your objections come down to is that you don’t like the present tense so you don’t read it, so you’ve never learned to enjoy it. (You haven’t read ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT? ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST? THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE? THE COLOR PURPLE? THE STRAIGHT MAN? Will you not read them now that you know they’re in present tense?) Someone telling you a story and someone writing a book for you to read are attempting to create entirely different experiences. (How many verbal storytellers are aiming for 80,000-100,000 words?) No one who tells you a story can, for example, move into the minds of the characters and tell you what they’re thinking/how they’re feeling/when they’re lying. No one telling you a story can tell it (with authority, anyway) from any viewpoint except their own. Reading and listening are different experiences based on different kinds of texts. (And actually, people — especially young people — do tell stories in present tense, all the time: “So me and my friends are hanging at the mall and there’s this big chow-down cop, and he’s staring and staring at us . . .” and on and on.) I’m not putting that forward as an example of sophisticated narrative, just by way of making the point that it’s not all that unusual to hear a story told in present tense. As far as dreams are concerned, they’re quite frequently told in the present tense when they’re repeating dreams, which many of the dreams recounted in books are. When you have a recurring dream it makes sense to tell it in the present tense because it’s always the same — it will be the same dream tonight that it was last night. This is the present continuous tense, and we use it all the time. If we get up every day at seven, we instinctively use present tense to describe that, whereas if we only got up at seven a couple once or twice, we use past. This applies to most people even when they’re relating something that happened in the past — “I get up at seven, so I was already having coffee when the bomb went off.” In a recurring dream, all the events happen over and over, and most people tell them in present tense. Past tense is a preference on your part and it’s obviously your privilege to hold onto it, but it makes me wonder how you deal with texts that are much more alien than is modern English in the present tense — Shakespeare, for example.

    LARRY, I understand your perspective and agree with it. I personally can’t stand books with long sequences in italics (prologues, especially) but I’m willing to put up with them if the story and the writing hold me, italics or no italics. For me, tense and/or italics aren’t character or plot or setting or psychology or emotion or any of the other things that I think are important in a novel. They’re no more a reason not to like a book than an author’s insistence, for example, on always referring to the central character by both first and last name, or the infinite proliferation of the word “said” in novels by Robert B. Parker.

    KEITH — I LITERALLY got stuck in first-person in the first Poke novel, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART. The tsunami hit Phuket as I was starting to think about the book, and I realized that the mood of national shared mourning that follows such an event was the emotional climate the book needed. So I started with the footage we all saw over and over again, of the people trying to run back to the beach as the wave comes in, and since it was on the air incessantly I wrote the first line in present tense: “For the thousandth time in twelve weeks, the blue rises up,” and continued that way through the only prologue (not in italics) I ever wrote. Then, on the first page of the narrative, I realized I was avoiding verbs: “House and river. Moon and trees. Across the river, the glow of the city of eight million, like the ghost of a brushfire.” (Something like that, anyway.) And when the first verb came it was in present tense, and here I am, seven books and about 800,000 words in, still writing Poke’s story in present tense.

    BONNIE — You and me both. One of the great American writers.

  7. Everett Kaser Says:

    You keep this up, Tim, and you’re going to have another book on the subject of writing!

    I must admit to be a past-tense partial person (hmmm… perhaps I could have worded that more clearly? 🙂 The present tense in NAIL was a big stumbling block for me when I first read it, because it kept taking me out of the story, a part of mind kept complaining. But, as you pointed out, that’s just because I wasn’t used to it, I’d spent 50-some years reading almost entirely past-tense stories. But, even old dogs can be trained to do an occasional trick, and it didn’t stop me from enjoying the book, nor did it stop me from enjoying one of the best series of books in the past 10 years!

    Everyone, of course, is entitled to like or dislike whatever they like. But if they want to state it as universal truth, they’d best back up their statements with defensible arguments, as you’ve so cogently done here. Here, here. (Or is that “Hear, hear?”)

  8. fairyhedgehog Says:

    Sometimes the present tense will startle me when I start reading a book, sometimes I don’t notice it. Either way I can get used to it.

    I’ve also read a book written in the second person present tense. It reads like a text-based computer game, which is entirely appropriate for the story. (It’s Halting State by Charles Stross in case anyone’s interested.)

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hey, Everett. Yeah, just what the world needs, another book about writing from me. The last one was literally the last title the publisher put out before shutting its doors.

    Your point is my point: if you don’t like it, don’t read it, but don’t try to pretend it’s anything more than a personal preference on your part. Tense is nothing to get all tense about.

    I have no idea what’s coming next, but it will probably be about writing, too, since that’s all I’m doing.

  10. Michael Rubin Says:

    Present trense writing forces a sense of immediacy that sometimes is warranted and others just a stylistic trick to make an otherwise meh story stand out.

    So, for me, it’s the overall reading experience and I try to put myself in the writers hands, so to speak, and let them tell their stories the way they think are best.

    BUT — I have to get over one major hurdle: I detest the TV newsreaderidiots doing everything in the present tense…”We’re learning tonight that…” Hey, many of us learned that on the radio six hours ago. Or, we read about it in yesterday’s newspaper. Drives me nuts and ergo my otherwise devoted wife because I always rant whenever they do it, with their mock-serious frowns. Arrggh.

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi FAIRYHEDGEHOG — long time! Exactly, “either way, I can get used to it.” Tense is NOT characterization, plot, setting, emotional foundation, narrative drive, economy of effect — not those things or any of the other aspects of a book that can actually make it or break it for me. That said, however, I’m not sure I could handle present-tense, second-person, so maybe I’m not so cool.

    MICHAEL, I agree, immediacy is one of the primary effects of the present tense, especially in action sequences. I also like the idea that it does away with what I call the “narrator’s illusion,” which is the suggestion that someone has survived all this and can recall it in something like tranquillity.

    Newsreaderidiots are objectionable on so many fronts that it’s hard to pick one, but I’ll go with yours. And thanks for writing.

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