Monday, July 26, 2010

some very quick thoughts on the present tense

So I've been getting a TON of submissions in the present tense lately--normally, they're speckled throughout (maybe a 1:4 ratio, present to past). But lately EVERYONE seems to be writing in the present tense. So I felt the need to make a public service announcement.

First off, let me say that present tense is not a reason I categorically reject a novel submission. But it often becomes a contributing reason, because successful present tense novel writing is much, much more difficult to execute than past tense novel writing. Most writers, no matter how good they are, are not quite up to the task.

I'm not just being conservative here. It's true that historically, most novels have been written in the past tense. This is not purely convention--there are practical reasons for narrating in the past tense:

IN THE PRESENT TENSE, YOU MUST KNOW AND INCLUDE EVERY TINY DETAIL--there is no room for skipping forward. By placing the narrative in the immediate present, you're investing every moment and every breath with importance. Using past tense allows us to glibly skip forward and cut out of scenes easily once they have been milked for their interest. But in the present tense, you've already chosen the importance of, well, the present, which makes it much more difficult to escape artfully from the many boredoms that pad the interesting parts of our day-to-day life. This means that unless you are very, very skillful indeed, the format of your narrative may force you to include content that bores your audience, either directly or gradually.

THE PRESENT TENSE IS VERY STRESSFUL FOR YOUR READER. The flip side of the above point: if you haven't bored your reader, you've probably stressed them out. Think of the incredible tension of following every moment's move and thought and emotion--either there's not enough going on, and it's boring, or there is enough going on, and it's totally exhausting for the reader. Actually, this technique can work really well for high-energy thrillers, but if that's not your genre of choice, think about the unwelcome side effects. Frankly, life is exhausting to live--that's why we seek escapism in a nicely written novel--so don't make your book exhausting to read!

So present tense narrative is very difficult to execute. Can your story support moment-to-moment narrative? And if it can, can your reader handle it? Two questions to ask.

THE PRESENT TENSE CAN JAR UNCOMFORTABLY WITH SUBJECT MATTER. Somehow, present tense narration has a very modern feel to it. So I can put my finger on no more scientific reason for my aversion to reading certain stories in the present tense than that sometimes it can make the writing seem to contemporary (or too edgy) for the subject matter in the book.

ARE THERE NOVEL GENRES WHERE IT'S OK TO USE PRESENT TENSE? Yeah, actually--playing off the subject matter point, I've read a couple scifi and crime novels/thrillers where the author pulled off the present tense. However, that does not make it a less difficult feat to accomplish.

CAN SHORT STORIES BE WRITTEN IN PRESENT TENSE? Sure! In fact, many great short stories are present tense. The reason the shorter genre is ok for present tense: you're sustaining the narrative for a shorter period of time, and often focusing on tense moments or short but deep plot arcs. A short story is a great place to explore moment-to-moment action or emotion.

DO NOT FLIP-FLIP TENSES. This is like flip-flopping perspectives. You may feel you NEED to do it to best showcase the drama or action in your story, but eventually it's just laziness: if you had worked a little harder, you could have figured out how to say something as powerful in the same tense that you started writing in. Remember that above all things: flouting many conventions is actually laziness. Sometimes it's not, but try to be your own harshest critic here.

In summary, when you embark on a writing project, the present tense may seem like a good idea. But please think carefully about all the above points--it would be sad to think that the wrong tense choice was what got between you and a book deal.

65 comments:

Alan Orloff said...

IMHO, present tense: Just Say No.

Anonymous said...

I've never been a fan of reading present-tense books. This is the biggest reason why I couldn't finish the Hunger Games. Ugh.

IsaiahC said...

It could be worse. It could be in second person.
GAAAAH. I hate, hate, HATE present tense. Nothing makes me put a book down faster.

Anne said...

I recently read a YA novel in present tense. It was jarring at first but as I became used to it I really liked it.

Anonymous said...

I had been meaning to read The Hunger Games, but now that Anon at 10:32 tells me it's in the present tense, I won't bother.

Kristan said...

Great advice! I used to hate present tense, but a few people use it really masterfully (to disagree with Anonymous: I LOVED Collins' writing in The Hunger Games, because I felt totally in the moment with Katniss). I still lean towards 3rd person past tense narration, both as a reader and a writer, but I no longer categorically refuse to read/write 1st person or present tense. If done well, it can be fantastic. And your comments a great guide for writers who are considering whether or not they can do it well.

Anne Mazer said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! This so needed to be said. Occasionally - maybe once in a lifetime, in the hands of genius - a present tense novel will work, but they are mostly tedious and unbearable...

Sugar said...

Well...I'm trying it.. It is hard I must say. But I'm sticking with it :)

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

I've used the present tense where the narrator dies at the end of the story because how else could they tell it? (Bit of a mind bender).

Lily Cate said...

Hey, if its good writting, I don't care about the tense.
As a writter, I don't think I'd ever bother with it, but as a reader, present tense can make for fantastic endings.

JAX said...

Don't discount Hunger Games just because it is in the present tense!! It is a really good series, and I don't think it would have the same effect in the past tense. I agree with the issues surrounding present tense though.

Anonymous said...

I just have a hard time with the presence of mind it takes to tell a story so immediately.

Isn't that one of the first rules of writing we learn? If the language inhibits your reader, you can't tell your story, no matter how good it is.

I realize it's a stylistic choice, and it can go over well in some cases, but as a reader, the structure and tense are distracting and unnatural.

I don't narrate my life as it happens to myself - or anyone else - so listening to/reading someone else do it is incredibly jarring.

Julia Crouch said...

I've just finished Jane Fallon's Foursome. As first person fiction that appeals to the recreational female reader (OK - I'm not going to say chicklit) it is written in a breathless present tense and is none the worse for it - the light subject matter suits it well.

My theory is that we are getting so used to reading present tense in blogs and social networking that it is becoming the default writing mode, but it is not necessarily best for a novel reader. My blog (hidden for now) is developing in present tense, but my writing is firmly past tense. So far...

Anonymous said...

I have to second, no third, the anons above about The Hunger Games. I avoid reading present tense when possible. There's something 'off' about most books I've read in present tense.

Kelly said...

A million years ago, when I wrote my college thesis, it was on Jane Eyre and how there are 6 moments of present tense in the otherwise past tense novel. If done right, switching tenses can be a effective vehicle for highlighting important or dramatic moments in a novel. They certainly jumped out at me, and proved to be an interesting topic for further discussion. But I would also argue that Charlotte Bronte was a masterful writer and was able to pull it off. I agree that past tense is generally more appealing to read.

Heather Hansen said...

I hate present tense. However, Hunger Games was amazing!

Heather said...

This is a great point. There has to be a reason to write in present tense. When the narrator is telling the story presently, they don't yet know what's relevant and what isn't, so they should really say a lot more than they would if they were narrating using past tense. That's why I prefer past tense (for now) - more creative control over the story. But with the right story, and when done well (as you said), I think present tense can be refreshing once you get used to it.

Misty said...

I'm sad to hear present tense take such a beating. I like it. I think it can dial up and radiate life, when done well. Hunger Games is a great example.
Knowing that audiences prefer past tense, I suppose I'll give that a whirl in the future, but for the current WIP, the tense was given to me along with the story. It wasn't something I chose so much as something that felt right. Here's to hopin' that the audience feels it's as right as I do!

Amanda said...

I must prefer to read books in the past tense, and to write them that way too! I'm curious, though - do you think that past and present can be used as a specific alternating device, the way a book may alternate chapters first person by two different people? Like for instance, if the first chapter was in present tense, because it IS telling exactly what is happening, then the next is past tense, because it's telling past events leading up to the present, then the next is present tense, and so forth? Just curious. I could see that working with the right writer and story.

Olivia J. Herrell said...

This is a timely post for me. I, too, prefer past tense in both reading and writing. That said, I am working with a flashback scene. It seemed appropriate to write it in present tense, but when I read it back it doesn't feel right.

This discussion helped clarify why, thanks!

~that rebel, Olivia

Jess Tudor said...

Off the top of my head, Jeri Smith-Ready writes her WVMP novels in present, and it doesn't jar or bother me, I like it because of the whole life/death/undeath thing with the vampires being stuck in time. Also I seem to recall Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall being in present, which made total sense since she was re-living the same day over and over.

Otherwise, no. And that last point. NEVER SKIP AROUND (unless you're a master like Bronte) - it is so jarring, because the reader notices, and when the reader notices, she's thrown out of the story. *sad face*

Charles Gramlich said...

I actually started a novel in present tense and put it away. It creates quite a compelling narrative drive but it is extremely hard, I found, to find the time or quiet moments to develop the characters. I may go back to it eventually but not right now.

Tao Joannes said...

As a writer, I think that it can be used without going into excruciating moment-to-moment detail, if done well. Using "flashbacks" or backstory can add some narrative variety. In work with convoluted timelines, present tense can help distinguish present action from past action nicely, I'm thinking Chuck Palahniuk mainly, here. Fight Club is an excellent example of first-person, present tense used in this way.
Maybe it just lends itself well to minimalism.
I've got a throwaway story on my blog written in 1st person present tense, and I think it works rather well, for a throwaway. I use the techniques mentioned above, dropping in backstory, and skipping ahead where it might bog down. http://www.taojoannes.com/2010/07/how-not-to-get-to-bad-durkheim.html

Judy Croome said...

De-lurking to add my voice to the pro-present tense supporters! :)

And to say I'm glad I read this post. It's given me a lot to think on. I was thinking of switching tenses in my current WIP - some chapters are written in the past and I was wondering if re-writiing them into past tense wouldn't make the time gap clearer. Hmmmm. To change or not to change?
Judy

Jill Wheeler said...

I read a lot of YA, and it seems like past tense is becoming rare. In fact, sometimes it jars me to read a story in past tense. I've written in both past and present tense, and present seems more natural to me. Then again, I'm writing thrillerish stuff.

August said...

I disagree that historical novels tend not to work in present tense. The two best historical novels I've read in the past year are Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and The Sealed Envelope by Emma Donoghue. Both are in present tense. There are lots of others.

Julie said...

A lot of YA is present tense but like you said its both contemporary and edgy. Courtney Summers books would be a perfect example of that. The present tense almost has a specific voice to it and if it doesn't groove with your characters or writing stlye then it would be a total flop.

Linda said...

@Amanda Glad to find a dissenting sister! Yes, yes... present tense is hard to do well, but I find past even more difficult; writers get lazy, wander into passive voice, describe the scenery ad nauseum, then do a lot head-hopping. Ugh. Painful.

Books with multiple POVs presented in multiple ways -- 3rd, 1st, even 2nd -- and tenses are written, and written well. See Julia Glass' THE THREE JUNES and Anita Shreve's TESTIMONY for examples.

It all boils down to subjective tastes, but when an editor expresses her preferences, beware what you send her ;^)

Provocative post. Thanks for putting it out. Peace...

Sierra Godfrey said...

You are saying this very well! I am keeping this.

Blork said...

This reminds me of a blog post I made in 2006 in reaction to Stewart O'Nan's short novel "A Prayer for the Dying." It was written in the present tense, but also in the second person singular, so it was jarring upon jarring. When you consider its historical setting, there was a third level of jarring.

Imagine reading a novel in which, on every line, you are told what you are thinking and what you are doing and that you are an undertaker in the 1870s. It's one thing to create such a character and to render him such that the reader can empathize (that's what any writer wants) but with it being second person singular, present tense, it was just awkward and pushy. I so wanted to like the novel (everything else about it was great) but I just couldn't wrap my head around that perspective.

The whole song and dance is here, on the Blork blog.

Maureen McHugh said...

I've written a novel in present tense, my first novel China Mountain Zhang, and several stories in present tense. I'm not sure I find it works the way you describe, at least for me. I do agree that there is an immediacy in present tense that is very different from past tense. But I don't feel even remotely that in present tense I have to include every tiny detail. In fact, i think of present tense as a minimalist tense.

Perhaps a better way of expressing that is to say that I agree with your sense that it feels, not modernist but fairly contemporary (although again, I would say minimalist--80's kind of fiction) and that it requires a kind of almost impressionist touch with detail. The details have to feel textured. They have to evoke a great deal.

I do think that it's very possible to slow down in present tense, it just has to be in the moment for the character.

Lee in Limbo said...

I've used present tense, as well as past/present switches, but I believe I've handled both situations correctly. That said, I'm (essentially) unpublished, so what you say may be true of more editors/editorial assistants than I care to admit.

My point is simply that I don't think it's unworkable. Present tense is a very powerful tool that can produce a very strong response in a reader, when strong response is what the story demands. However, it's also like playing with nuclear isotopes; prolonged exposure is potentially fatal, and there are so many ways to go wrong that it's probably better left to somebody who really knows what they're doing... or who has nothing left to lose.

I do agree that most fiction writing done in present tense is fairly unpleasant to read, however. I feel for you if you're having to read a fair bit of it right now. Present tense should not be undertaken lightly, and definitely should not be abused. I'd probably crack if I had your job. Hope it gets better soon.

Lee.

Misty Waters said...

I actually don't mind reading either, because most of the time I don't even notice it. When I do notice, it's in past tense and I'm annoyed. I prefer present only because I can be right there w/ the MC.
I write my books in present and can't imagine doing it any other way. It's how it comes to me, I guess. No complaints and only good job's from editors, so I guess I'll stick with it!
(Hunger Games = brilliant)

Maureen McGowan said...

I've heard other editors say that when the present tense is well-executed you barely even notice. I have to agree with that.

It really suits some kinds of stories, particularly fast-paced thriller or adventure stories. In first person, if the narrator is telling the story after the fact (in past tense) a lot of the danger and intensity disappears.

No lazy writing aloud in present tense. You simply cannot write the boring bits. :)

Maureen McGowan said...

Oooo... I like what the other Maureen said about it being the minimalist tense. I agree with that.

As soon as the narrator starts to describe too much, or even think too much, in the middle of action or dialogue, it stops working.

On the other hand, I do think you can pull off the quieter moments by using internal thoughts, interspersed with the sparest details of what the narrator is doing while they're thinking.

Precie said...

Yet another example of why I *heart* moonrat. Lovely insights with depth and breadth...all to get help us look at our writing choices and their effects more carefully. :)

Brad Jaeger said...

I probably wrote the first 35,000 words of my novel in present tense before realizing the very same problems you illustrated above.

Great post, moonrat!

Anonymous said...

Honestly, when I first came across present tense, it was jarring, but now that I've read a few novels (Jellicoe Road, Saving Francesca, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Hunger Games) in present tense, I absolutely love it. The language just seems to flow better, at least in my opinion. It certainly takes getting used to, but once you are used to it, I think it works just as well as past tense.

Kirstin Cronn-Mills said...

I write YA (edgy contemporary), and I write in present tense. No, you can't write the boring bits, but you don't write a whole lot of slower bits in YA because the readers expect a quicker pace anyway. I prefer how it sets a reader smack in the middle of the action. For YA, it's a good stylistic choice (in my opinion). It just depends on on the action at hand.

Beth Kephart said...

I do think the YA genre makes room for a different kind of present tense—one in which the past, rendered in past tense, can flow, easily, lyrically, powerfully. But it is hard to do, absolutely. As a teacher I often ask my students to take a moment in remembered time and write it first in present tense, and then in past. It's an easy exercise that teaches much about voice.

Anonymous said...

There are different kinds of present tense. There's Brent Musberger present tense: "I'm looking live at the Rose Bowl. I turn my head and see my color commentary, Steve what's-his-name." Then there is present tense that is like past tense, except the narrator doesn't know what's coming next. That's easier to write, and easier to read.

Anonymous said...

I do agree that present tense is difficult to do well. I DON'T agree that a writer cannot skip forward. I believe the same rule applies in present or past -- write the part of the scene that is compelling and then be done. If your next chapter begins twelve hours, twelve days or twelve years later, SO WHAT? We do not need to live every moment with ANY character, regardless of the POV or tense

Steve said...

I like reading fiction written in present tense. The narrative voice does not carry the weight of knowing how things are going to turn out, of knowing what will follow from the action that is being described. Present tense feels lighter to me. The reader can feel anxious in the middle of such a story, but can also feel some ease and lightness. We all live in present tense, after all, and part of the promise of daily life is not knowing what tomorrow is going to bring. I think that's a great thing for fiction to make use of, not always, but sometimes.

Joann Swanson said...

What a fantastic dialogue. I was at first disheartened by this post because the novel I have out on sub right now is written in present tense, but I'm feeling much better after reading the comments. Like other proponents of present tense, as a reader I don't notice anymore. Sucked in is sucked in, no matter what stylistic choices the author has made. I feel a little queasy at the thought of someone passing me by for this reason alone, however (reader or editor). It does give me pause about my current WIP, which is also told in present tense. Thanks for the very thought-provoking post!

Horserider said...

I'm addicted to present tense, both reading and writing it. The first time I read a present tense novel (Hunger Games) it was a little jarring at first but once I got used to it I didn't look back.

Ebony McKenna. said...

I really enjoyed Hunger Games as well, and am keen to read the rest. It worked really well.

In good hands, it works. But then, in good hands, anything can work.

Anonymous said...

As one of the previous-posting Anons who dislikes reading in the present tense, let me assure you, it's nothing personal.

I'm sure Suzanne Collins is a fine writer. And I'm positive those of you who have written first-person works have done your best to make it readable.

It's just not something I enjoy. The implication thus far seems to be "If you can't read present tense, you're just not INTO it enough."

Maybe so. And I'm open minded enough to give a good book a shot. But it's not like I have a personal crusade against the tense.

I just agree that it's difficult to pull off well, and more often than not, a story - YA or Adult or any age - could be just as well served with past tense.

Kathryn Paterson said...

I wonder whether you think the same thing about third omniscient present? It seems the biggest problem with present first person is that it's too oppressive.

When I began my novel, I tried it different ways, but the third omniscient present was what came. So far not a single person who has read the novel has even said a word about it, so maybe it does work. They've had other problems with parts of the novel, but not that.

I think we have to write what voice tells our story and not worry so much about it. I guess my feeling is if that's all that gets between me and a book deal, then maybe it just wasn't meant for me to have that book deal. It saddens me, though, because I think of what great stories might be lost just because of prejudice towards a particular tense.

dining tables said...

I thought I will be the first commenter in this post. I was wrong. I am so surprised that there are too many people who already comment in this post. This only proves that this is an amazing post.

Judy Gasperini said...

I read this yesterday and wondered what books I've read that are present tense. Last night, I started reading a new book "Almost Home" by Pam Jenoff and OMG, it's present tense! It's keeping me on the edge, but I feel like I'm reading the prologue or something and it's going to change.

moonrat said...

It's been very interesting--and a little frustrating--to watch this comment stream unwind. Thank you to those who read my post the way I'd hoped--I was trying to say that present tense is EXTRAORDINARILY DIFFICULT TO EXECUTE, not that it was INHERENTLY WRONG or that I disliked it.

Katrina L. Lantz said...

I'm just beginning a new WIP that I want to be edgier/more modern than my last, and your post helped me to decide to drop the first person present tense attempt. Your points about suspense and tension are spot on, and that's not what THIS story is about.

However, you did also send my thoughts racing back to an old WIP (a sci-fi psychological thriller) that could benefit from an increase in tension!

In short, you opened my eyes to the uses and abuses of present tense. Thank you so much!

Soph K said...

I'm halfway through Hilary Mantel's 'Wolf Hall' and am enjoying the story a great deal but the present tense is so jarring! You hit the nail on the head with 'stressing' the reader out Moonie, every time I pick it up I feel I am fighting with the words just to extract the characters and plot. I really want to finish it but ARGH!

moonrat said...

Soph--that's where I'm at with Lisa See's SHANGHAI GIRLS right now (the inspiration of this post, actually). I love Lisa See. And it's frickin' driving me crazy to read!

error7zero said...

I have a huge reading list. If I pick up a book, written in present tense, I'm putting it down again. Yeah, how shallow. That's me.

swampthings said...

Great explanation, great article, great blog! Thanks!

Paulo Campos said...

I agree that's its very hard to do. I began working on a story several years ago that took place in the present tense. My intention was to create a jarring tone. I stopped writing the story, but not because I feel that it failed.

I'm not sure that it did. I needed to stop, because I felt the task was beyond my ability at that time but couldn't see finishing that story any other way.

It's waiting until either I feel I can pull off the present tense or see another way to achieve the effect I want.

A present tense book I didn't notice other commentators mention is Something Happened by Joseph Heller. One of my favorite present tense (suburban malaise) novels.

Thanks for an interesting post.

RBC said...

Hi Moonrat,
I'm a writer from India who's been struggling with the opening chapter of my fourth novel, a far future sci fi story told in (arrgh) the present tense. It's a tense I've always resolutely avoided, but I have to tell this one lie that because it's in the form of a journal and has to be from one person's perspective. But a journal can let you skip the boring bits and solves the problem of walking everywhere that you pointed out. As an ex-publisher's editor myself, i winced in sympathy while I read your post. A further problem we face in India: in most Indian languages the 'literary tense' is the present tense, so bad translators nearly always use it for their work. Drives you nuts.
But the implication is that the preferred tense for telling a story in any given literature is an accident of cultural/linguistic history. Hmmm.

moonrat said...

RBC--interesting point. I bet the same difficulty arises with Chinese to English translations, for the same reason...

Gay said...

I feel almost as strongly about writing in first person. There are exceptions and some good even excellent work in first person; but for the most part I think for long works, it should be avoided.

Alex said...

I do not understand why the simple switching of tenses forces the writer to use every single detail.

I am writing a novel through the eyes of an 11 year-old girl living i nthe circus, and find present tense very natural. I feel it adds something to the story that past tense cannot.

Do you feel there are any pros to present-tense writing? Any at all?

Dera Williams said...

Wow, thanks. You just confirmed what I have been thinking and wrestling with for years.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I read and write YA, and love present tense.

My wip was in past tense, but at the LA SCBWI conference, the professional critter told me to rewrite my novel in present tense. I tried it out and loved it.

Mary said...

I'm not a writer, but a reader who enjoys a good story. However, I do not even try to read stories written in the first person present tense...hate them! I've learned to look at the first page of a book and will put it back even if the blurb sounded promising. It all seems very affected to me...just a thought from a reader. I spoken with other folk who feel the same way.

JL said...

When you perpetuate myths about present tense and what can and cannot be done with it, you discourage developing writers from learning how to properly utilize this craft choice. This is mostly negative stereotyping. "I have read a lot of bad present tense, so therefore present tense is usually bad and/or inferior to past tense." It's not boring or stressful because it's present tense, it's boring or stressful because the writer doesn't know how to write present tense.

I'm also an editorial assistant, and when it is done well, present tense creates a sense of sensory immersion and immediacy.

And you absolutely CAN shift tense in a narrative! Your perspective character can recall events that have happened in the past while continuing to experience the present. Mastering tense is a vital part of the craft!