Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Monday, February 4, 2008

writing in the present tense --- again

Those of you who drop by my blog from time to time may have caught my occasional gripes about the increasing number of authors who write in the present tense. I have long been mystified by this apparently spreading trend, but now I think I know one source of its popularity. The answer is --- screenplays. Just last week, I was killing time in a local Borders Book Store, and found the script of a screenplay that had been adapted from some popular novel. Don't ask me which one; I can't remember the title. Just the fact that everything in a screenplay --- like a stage play, only with somewhat different directions --- was written in the present tense!

The reason for this had its beginning about ten or fifteen years ago, when a lot of aspiring writers got the idea that they could make money, and lots of it, by writing screenplays. This just happened to coincide with the widespread adoption of computers and their associated technology; there is now screenplay-writing software on the market. Previously, most "present tense" writing seems to have been confined to some of the more "extreme" literary novels. Now this technique seems to be proliferating everywhere.

Before I get into a more serious critique of this phenomenon, I would like to point out that the venue of a novel or short story is somewhat different from that of a play or a movie. Plenty of stage plays have been "translated" into film, but even that takes some "rearrangement", since, unlike a staged play(for better or worse), the action is continuous; it isn't broken up by intermissions between acts or obvious scene changes. The action simply flows from one scene to another, or so it seems to the moviegoer. "Translating" the written word and fitting it into a film script is even more of a leap; it takes longer to read a sentence than it does to watch actors performing an action on screen. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of these particular media. They are simply different ways of telling a story. But anyone who works with these things has to take the differences into account. I've seen some very good adaptations of novels into film; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and all of the Lord of the Rings films are good examples. But seeing these books "translated" into film is a very different kind of experience than actually reading them. And, siginficantly, both C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both wrote in past tense.

Now one might object that these authors are an "older genration" that never thought of writing any other way. They would be correct, of course. But you could also argue that any narrative is a retelling of past events, even if the past events being retold are about the reactions, say, of people who witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center by al-Qaida operatives. In other words, the kind of "you are there" immediacy present tense suggests is at best a device to "get you there".

This works in certain situations; it might work well if the writer is trying to recreate the reactions of those who witnessed the destruction of the Twin Towers, as opposed to the reactions of those who smashed their aircraft into them, or US Muslims who didn't know what to think, for example. It also works well in some books aimed at "young adults", especially if it's about contemporary problems, or purporting to be someone's diary. But I'm not sure a "you are there" technique works quite so well in fiction that is set in some past historical period, yet I've seen an increasing number of authors using this technique, presumably imitating the "immediacy" of a screenplay.

For one thing, it takes a really good writer to pull this off in a compelling way. I haven't, so far, at least, seen any writers who are completely able to do this, with a few partial exceptions. One of them was a novel about a young girl who is thought to be dead, but is really in a coma. While in a comatose state, she starts to become an angel, and does all kinds of things, including influencing the terrorist who threw the bomb that supposedly killed her. Here, a present-tense narrative actually works quite well; the girl is a spirit floating about the city where she was bombed.

But then, a number of historical writers are jumping onto the "present tense" bandwagon. Some of them are trying to be more "literary" than "genre". Others just seem to want to "make history real" by using "screenplay" techniques. What these latter(and perhaps some of the former) writers forget, however, is that narratives from Beowulf onward, were really narrating a slice of the past. In other words, you don't really need this kind of "immediacy" to get people engaged with whatever your character is doing. As long as you, the author adequately describes what the character is doing, with reasonably appropriate motivation, the reader will probably be engaged, if they get past the first few pages(even the first fifty). "Immediacy" is nice, but generally unnecessary in most writing, besides which it can annoy some readers. I can't tell you how many times I've picked up an interesting-looking historical novel, only to put it down because it takes place in some past era, but is written in the present tense. To me, this just gets in the way of the storytelling, and intrudes on the character.

Obviously, the writers who do this, don't feel this way. But I think in the end, writing a book like a screenplay probably won't work as intended in the long run, except, perhaps, in some literary novels and books aimed at young people. Besides, too many writers just don't know what they're doing, but somehow manage to get published anyway. But that's another story, I suppse.
Anne G


tricivenola said...

Dear Anne,
Thanks for your comments on this irritating present trend, no pun in intended. I noticed it first with The Crimson Petal and the White, which is so good I plowed on anyway regardless. Then someone gave me Life of Pi, also an excellent novel, but annoying because I'd realized by then that this is an editorial gimmick to pump up boring writing. These two novels don't need any pumping up. The present tense impedes my going into the story. I'm continually reminded that I'm reading, and I want to forget. I have a feeling that in time this will date the writing more than a 'forties hairstyle dates a Hollywood film.
I wrote my own book before I read any in present tense, and finding a way to get the "immediate" parts of the story across took some work. As you mentioned, I used a form of dialogue. It worked well.
I hope that someday both the abovementioned novels will appear in a revised tense format. They will make even better reading.

Anne Gilbert said...


I agree that this trend is annoying. It's been popping up with increasing frequency in the past few years. And yes, I think it tends to get in the way of a reader's "getting into" a work. But OTOH, some readers just "don't notice" it after a while. My criticism of "present tense" writing is not that it should never be used, but rather that it's often used inappropriately. Certain kinds of YA fiction is a good place to use present tense, especially if it is something set in, say, a gritty urban setting that some young person can "immediately" connect with. Short stories often use it, although short story writers tend to be "artier" than other kinds of writers. Sometimes science fiction writers use it, and I can sort of see why, though personally, all this does is make me not want to read whatever the writer is writing. But I don't think it has any place in a "historical" context. And like you, I think it can just be a lazy way of attempting "immediacy". In order for a writer to get away with writing in present tense(and I('ve seen this, too), s/he should be very, very good at his/her craft, and know when to use it effectively. Most writers who use present tense as a "device", just don't. And there are no real editors any more to say "this is good, but you don't need this particular 'device'"
Anne G

Raza said...

I agree that there are a lot of writers who tend to mess up when it comes to present tense. but when used appropriately, it can really suck a person into the action. the vicarious essence of the first person can never be replaced by third person. and i don't know about the influence of screen plays but writers have been using it for a long time before perhaps even the advent of cinema. take chehkov for example and more recently - john updike. examples of successful usage are rare but when they manage to pull it off - the effect can be amazing.

Anne Gilbert said...


The key here is "when used appropriately". Unfortunately, much of the time, present-tense narrative tends to be used in a "gimmicky" way(yes, it does "suck you into the action", but that isn't always the best way to write a story). It's true the Chekhov used it, but not in his short stories(and when I was learning Russian, I studied some of them in that language). He wrote his plays this way, which is a different "kettle of fish", as they say. Since plays are based on dialog, that makes sense. And sometimes this technique is appealing to some kinds of younger people who read Young Adult novels, and many YA novels are actually written this way. But again, even there, this tends to be much overused and rather "gimmicky"; it doesn't really add anything to the story as a whole.
Anne G

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

Amen! I've been critiquing an author's book that is in the present tense. I've tried to tell her that not only is it generally taboo, but it's very difficult to read. She doesn't believe me!! I love the way TV put it--"I'm continually reminded that I'm reading, and I want to forget."

Anne Gilbert said...


It's not "taboo", exactly. Short story writers often do this, for an "immediacy" effect. The problem is,"immediacy" isn't always appropriate. The other problem is, that some writers seem to think that whatever they are writing is eventually going to be made into a screenplay, but that doesn't happen all that often. For me, the bottom line is, present tense isn't used appropriately all thatoften.

Toby said...

Cripes I am in the middle of an editing process and am having a real problem with this. I can tell you, you’re 100% wrong as to my motivations for initially using the present tense. Personally it's all about action and nothing to do with screen plays. I generally prefer this style because it makes me feel that I am there with the character as the action happens. In my own case I want to make you feel less safe than you do in a traditional past tense story. You don't have the feeling that the character will just survive each challenge because this is their 'story'. Just my two cents but I personally find past tense a bit like being told what happened on an aunt's holidays it all feels over and done with one way or another. For me the present tense implies possibility and hence evokes more tension. Perhaps it is not screen plays that are responsible for the trend but films which have gotten us used to seeing things as they unfold. For me the movie Alien would work better in the present tense than the past… something is moving through the ducts … rather than something was moving. In the first example I feel tension because the attack has not yet happened and could go any way in the second what happens is fixed and immutable the protagonist will survive or they won’t but the story has already happened. Now obviously there is tension because you don’t know what did happen but I would suggest that there is more tension in not knowing what will happen. I’m not saying everyone necessarily has to feel this but I do and presumably if it is a growing trend other readers and writers do too. That’s the other side of the argument I guess. I personally enjoy the present tense and I would ask if the objection is simply that people have broken old conventions if it is a legitimate gripe. Surely art should not be confined by conventions this feels a bit like someone asking why you didn’t colour inside the lines to me. I would quickly add that I respect everyone’s right to respond “well then that book is not for me”. Then again I might respond “I'm very sorry to have annoyed you but that works for me. Why don’t you go and write your own book in the past tense?”

Anne Gilbert said...


Like I said, "immediacy" in a story isn't always the most appropriate way to go. I can udnerstand that you "want to be there with your characters", which is an interesting way of putting it, but I am "there with my characters", and I am writing what I'm writing strictly in past tense. I'm not doing this because it's "traditional", though I do feel, personally, more comfortable writing this way. But "being there with your characters" can be achieved in any number of ways, without going to "present tense" wirting. My objection, BTW, isn't so much the writing in present tense itself, but the fact that I, personally, think it's a way of writing that has become nearly ubiquitous in some genres and "subgenres", particularLY YA books where, at some time, somebody, thought they could engage young people by making the work very "immediate" by "sucking the reader in". This sometimes works, but it has to be handled carefully, and I don't think it's very appropriate for fiction set in a historical past. I've read a few historically-themed books written this way, and they could just as easily have been written in the past tense, with no loss of interest from the reader. Obviously we disagree yere, and as a writer, you have to go with what works for you. It just doesn't work for me, and in many cases, I just don't think a lot of writers who do this are able to handle it very well.

kejia said...

I agree completely. The only book I've been able to read in the present tense is the Stephanie Tolan's YA novel "Listen!" where the main character is connecting with a wild dog. Even though the present-tense technique irritated me, it was plausible because dogs do live completely in the present. But in most other cases, YA and adult, it's a lazy gimmick. It reminds me of my attempts to write in French, sticking to present tense so I don't have to remember verb conjugations. I will be so glad when this fad is over.

Anne Gilbert said...


I'm not sure why your reply took so long to reach me, for which I apologize. But that is what happened. In any case, I don't usually have the patience to wade through some present-tense novel, unless the subject is very compelling, and the writer knows what he/she is doing. Trouble is, a lot of these "present tense" writers seem to think their novels can be turned into screenplay scripts, or else somebody in some writing class told them to write it that way, because they like the "artiness" of it, and really do think it gives "immediacy". And that's the problem. It's way overused, and often inappropriately, in my opinion.

Toby said...

One for Kejia... I would just like to refute your assertion of laziness. Anyone who sits down and puts in the work required to complete a full length novel can hardly be 'lazy'. Serriously don't writers who have worked that hard deserve the benifit of the doubt? You are always free to say that you don't like it but this is getting a bit judgemental if you ask me!

Anne Gilbert said...


The writer may have "worked very hard" on creating "immediacy", this is y true, and in this sense, they are not "lazy". But I, personally, think you, the writer, should ask yourself, very seriously why you need to use present tense! In certain kinds of literature, and with some frequency in historical novels, this is the writing technique used. It's often as if the writer thinks, well, it's for teenagers or young adults, and they can't "wait" for the story to unfold, or it's in historical time, let's do it as if it's happening now", rather than thinking "is this really necessary? Will the reader accept what is written the way the author wants it?" Or are they doing it at the behest of some agent or editor who thinks this is the "best" way to go? If it's any of these answers, IMO, think again.
Anne G

Toby said...

Anne, I would absolutely agree with you that present tense has no place in a historical context. In fact one of the reasons I use it is because I write nothing in this vein. I have written Sci-fi, Fantasy and suspence stories. In these Genres I would argue that that sense of intimacy can have some real power. In a fantastical setting it can help you feel like you are actually peeking in on another world (an effect I love) and in a crime /mystery setting I feel that past tense is as out of place as present tense in a historical setting and for the same reason.

If it is ridiculous to try to get me to buy something that happened a hundred years ago as happening now then surely it is equally artificial for someone telling me about a murder mystery that has already happened to keep some of the details they know hidden just for the sake of suspense. In other words if you know the butler did it just say so if someone told me things this way in a real world situation I would find it highly annoying. “A dark figure was running from the scene of the crime.” … yes and presumably if this is all in the past you know who that is so why hold out artificially? It is far more effective to my mind if the investigator is unravelling clues in real time so that the reader shares his/her sense of discovery rather than a vague feeling that the writer is playing some kind of parlour game with them. Not that ‘who done it?’ can’t be fun I am just saying that in this case past tense runs afoul of something similar to your objections to present tense in a historical context.

I would also agree with you when you say a writer should be careful about making their decision. I use the tense that ideas and the story seem to flow in… it’s something that happens in the gut and just feels right. If you change the tense of your story (I would say either way) and you are just doing it to please someone else I think you could have real problems. (always listen to the editor though even if you throw all their blue scribblings out of the window three days later!) As someone who has used both the past and present tense I would just like to say that it is categorically not about writing a screen play (something I have tried and am not that keen on) and it is not laziness. It is a decision on the writer’s part that I feel should be respected at least as much as a readers right to decide not to continue reading a work… as I say anyone who puts in the effort to write deserves some benefit of the doubt… it’s fine to disapprove but not so fine just to assume that the writer was ignorant or lazy.

Toby said...

Hmm that's the second post that has failed to appear. I don't know if my longer reply will ever turn up but I just wanted to say that I agree both that a writer should choose their tense own tense and that present tense would work badly in known historical contexts.

However as I mentioned in my missing response: past tense can have similar problems. The Genre I mentioned as an example was crime/mystery fiction. If it is not written in the present tense as an unfolding story I would argue that the suspense novel is reduced to a parlour game. The past tense indicates that the writer knows all the facts but is deliberately shrouding known details. If the story is not happening in real time so that the protagonist finds things out along with the reader how can the writer telling the story be anything but obstructive? If someone told me a story in real life and constantly omitted things so I had to keep guessing what was actually happening I would be justified in getting a bit frustrated with them. Sure the mystery can still be suspenseful and fun but it is at least as artificial as present tense in a historical setting. I also pointed out that immediacy can be very effective in SF and fantasy stories that take you to another world... Just some food for thought.

Anne Gilbert said...


Two things here. First, it is obvious that you are very passionate about how well present tense can "work" in science fiction and mystery. But have you ever considered that, no matter how "immediate" the result, to you, it might just be sufficiently irritating for a lot of readers, that your story just might sell as well as if it were in more "traditional" form?

Second, I have another problem with this: I read a lot of science fiction, and I've seen some that is in present tense, and it might work for a fair number of science fiction
readers(but not for me). I have, AFAIK, never seen any mysteries, even real "edgy" noirs, written in the present tense. The authors of these genres, that I've read, just don't seem to feel the "need" for this technique. In short, you not only need to consider how you feel, but what will go over with whatever audience you are trying to attract.
Anne G

Mary Reed McCall said...

It depends on the book, for me. Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt is written in the present tense, and I think it works very well. Even though it's a memoir set many decades ago, the use of the present tense lends an intensity and a "come along with me as I tell you this story" kind of feel to the book.

I agree, though, that in the wrong author's hands (or with the wrong story) the use of present tense can sound merely like a play-by-play description of events. Then it is annoying!

Anne Gilbert said...


Like I've said on this subject over and over and over, the key here is "when used appropriately". Trouble is, many people just don't know how, or when, to use present tense appropriately. Angela's Ashes is probably an exception, because McCourt obviously knows what he's doing(although I've never read the book, but he consistently gets very good reviews for his writing). But some of my readers feel very passionately, that they "must" use present tense in their work, for the "immediacy" or "intensity", but don't bother to factor in (a) their own skill or (b)the effect this may have on the reader. And I will just keep repeating these warnings whenever the question pops up, as it probably inevitably will.
Anne G

Anonymous said...

As someone who has primarily used past tense in historical novels, one might expect me to agree with those who observe a "taboo" on using present tense in fiction. But I'm more suspicious of people who attempt to establish conventions that, all too often, ossify into prejudices.

There's nothing inherently wrong with using the present in fiction, as long as it's handled in a consistent manner that assures me the author is in complete control of his or her tools. Indeed, nothing is more annoying than sloppy writing than skips back and forth in tense.

Moreover, I have no problem with narrating historical events in the present tense. Indeed, it could be helpful, insofar as it jars readers from their safe, received modes of reading about historical events.

To those who think there's so inherent illogic to writing the past in the present tense, shall we assume--by the same argument-- that all science fiction writing set in the future MUST use the future tense? No? Then why the reverse?

I say let a thousand flowers bloom.

Anne Gilbert said...


YOu make a very valid point. My objection to present tense in novels, particularly YA and an increasing number of historical novels is, that in many cases, the use of present tense adds precisely nothing to the narrative. It takes a fairly skilled writer to bring this off convincingly enough so that the reader won't "notice" it. And it is now almost a convention in YA novels, especially those where they want to emphasize feelings, feelings, feelings of some teenager, or want to make their narrative seem more "immediate" so that young people will read it. I've read a few historical novels in present tense. The one I remember most vividly, the writer in question had enough skill to pull it off, but it didn't really add anything to the narrative. This is what I object to, not the fact that something is written in present tense. If you can do it well, and you really think the story needs it, go ahead. I just think that in a lot of cases, this may be bad judgment on the writer's part.

A.C. said...

Thank God! I thought I was crazy! When I encounter fiction written in the present tense, my instinct is to go to the bathroom and vomit. It's so wrong and it's so difficult to explain why.

I call fiction written in the present tense the "reality television of literature." It's a bad trend that should have died a long time ago and for some reason didn't. When I say this around other writers, I can tell right away who is a fan of this horrible trend because they grunt and try to offer up some excuse for it.

I like to put it this way: A good story is like a pool, or an ocean, inviting me to dive in and swim. When the story is written in the present tense, there is no water, just hard glass that I bang my head against when I try to "get into" the story. I hate it. As for the young man who claimed he was being told not to "color outside the lines," someone needs to assure him that there are plenty of rules to break (once you know and understand them, ,) but this is NOT one of those rules! This is a matter of welcoming readers versus slapping them in the face. Long live the past tense!

Anne Gilbert said...


I've read just enough stories written in the present tense so I've kind of come to the conclusion that there's nothing wrong, per se, with this technique -- if it works. The trouble is, it doesn't, really, in a lot of cases. When that happens, even in YA literature, I hate it! I think there may be a number of trends coalescing here. One is, that some writers think they will be able to easily turn their work of art into a film script. But as you are probably aware, the chances of that are rather slim. The other possibility is, they took some writing course and their instructor likes the technique him or herself, and doesn't really realize that it doesn't suit the story, exactly.Most students in such courses are generally too intimidated by the instrucor not to try it, so they end up trying it and trying it. If they get to be good enough writers, then they may be able to bring it off. Otherwise. . . .well, all I can say is, there are times when it works and when it doesn't. For my purposes, and my story, it just doesn't, and I never even thought of writing it this way.
Anne G