Monday, February 6, 2012

Why (not) tell the story in present tense?

I love narrating a story in present tense. There's something about it that really makes me go "ooh." The other day my awesome-editor-and-writer-friend Dario Ciriello called to say that he was considering taking his WIP and shifting it into the present tense. Out of that conversation came not only a discussion of what makes present tense interesting and challenging, but also an exchange of Facebook that ended with Gardner Dozois warning us that novels written in present tense might put editors off. I myself have heard some people say that they don't like reading stories in present tense.

So what's going on here? Should we write in present tense or not?

As does everything else, it depends on two things: 1. What the choice of present tense narration is doing for your story and 2. How you execute it. I'm going to talk about each of these two things below.

So let's get concrete here. Why would you want to use present tense? I actually fell into using it rather by accident in my story, "Let the Word Take Me."(Click to read it free.) I was writing the human point of view in past tense close third person narration (my standard at the time I started writing it), but when I switched to alien point of view, it just came out in first person present tense:

"I do not understand this prison. I have searched it, tested every surface with fingertip and claw, but learnt nothing. Is it the cell of Duro-mudi? - but no, for there is no barrier of thorns here, no green of leaves, and no flowing water. There is only a soft bed of I-know-not-what; a mirror-basin lying empty and useless while a wall of silver reflects my face; and a chair of knife-metal where my tormentors like to sit."(p.6)

When I think back on what I was trying to achieve, I think it was two things. I wanted my reader to be in my alien Allayo's head, listening to how she thought as she was doing it. And I wanted a sense of disconnection from the narration of the human character, David. What I think I also got was a feeling of being almost in a dream. I was very happy with this effect. But it's one of the effects of present tense that you have to watch out for.

In The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood begins her narration in the present tense. She creates this incredible feeling of dreamy reality with no forward motion - and the present tense contributes to this. There is a point in the story when she abruptly changes to past tense. I admit that, famous as this book is, it totally threw me when I hit that point. On the other hand, I stuck with it and realized that she'd done something very specific: when the book shifts to past tense, the sense of static, dreamy reality ends and the story suddenly has the feeling that it is moving forward. The protagonist is finally caring, and doing something to change her circumstances.

Just in case you think that dreaminess is the only thing you can do with present tense, believe me, it's not. My story "Cold Words" was all in present tense, and to my ear it doesn't sound dreamy at all:

"I scent human outside the door: our linguist, Parker. He never comes to the Ice Home while I attend Cold Council - he must bring important news! I bow to haunches, then excuse myself from Majesty's presence, quickly as I can without inviting snarls from the others. Parker stands waiting, his body showing agitated despite its covering clothes. I've told him many times that decorative cloth is most appropriately displayed on a wall, not dragged through mud and weather - but I won't chide now. I begin to fear for our project." (p.1)

"How" is the big question here. So let's talk just a bit about how to do present tense.

One major thing to watch out for is having your syntax be too uniform. If you're always doing subject-verb sentences people will start feeling like they're getting hit on the head. "I do" "I say" "I walk" etc. But you wouldn't do that in the past tense either, would you? You know already that having the same syntactic structure all the time reduces the sense of flow and makes things clunky. So you can avoid that for present tense just the way you do for past tense.

Another one is dialogue tags. Some readers are majorly bugged by seeing "I say" or "He says/she says" much less "I whisper" or "He shouts." If anything, err on the side of using fewer tags rather than more. On the other hand, don't tie your hands by restricting yourself so severely that you think you can't use them at all. Use them for clarity. And whenever you do that, use them in the present tense.

A third thing to watch for in present tense narration is what I call strict microchronology. This has to do with accepting the idea that you are experiencing the story as it is happening along with the character. If you are going to accept the premise that you are actually in the character's head right now as the story action is happening, you'll want to make sure things happen in the correct order. That is, your character will perceive something, then judge it, then react. Not the other way around. Your character will have no knowledge of the future, so don't reverse them. This might seem easy, but a lot of times we'll end up giving the reaction and then explaining what caused it. The closest you can get is when two things happen at once.

Here's something to keep in mind: present tense narration is not completely uniform. Each instance of the present tense may be a bit different depending on whether you're describing perception, action, or judgment, and upon which form of present tense you use. You can have "The sky is so blue today..." or "The door opens..." You can also have "I walk out the door" which feels very different from "I'm walking along...". Then there's "I have to do something" or "He must mean I should go by myself." Depending on your use of modal verbs, you can change the effect a lot. I think Allayo sounds dreamy because she is mostly observing her environment and musing about what is going on rather than acting. The material from The Handmaid's Tale is similar, because Offred is musing and observing, not acting. Rulii in "Cold Words," on the other hand, never uses the present progressive. Instead of saying "I am running" he will always, always say "I run." Instead of saying "Parker is looking embarrassed" he says "Parker shows embarrassed." You'll notice he does another alien-y thing which is that he uses his verbs differently. However, the entire effect is geared to have him be an entity of action, and to avoid the dreamy potential of present tense. Using "is" (having your character observe states) all the time will also tend to give you a static feeling. So if you don't want a static feeling, focus on modals that express needs (must, have to) rather than those that express states (is).

You can use present tense without having it be clunky. You can use present tense without having it be static. Doing those two things will go a long way toward making present tense work for your readers. I can't speak for the editors, of course. But if you can do this well and to specific effect, you'll be in much better shape with editors than if you don't.

It's something to think about.


  1. FWIW

    Present tense narration becomes popular among the literati on the translation of some breakthrough French novel whose name I forget. In French, evidently, literature was traditionally written in something called the historic past tense, and this author had - zut alors! - written it in the simple past tense. In order to get across the radical nature of this choice, the translator chose to present the English version in the present tense, as we already write in the simple past. Since all things French are hip and cool, this became fashionable.

    But of course even in English, story tellers would often recite their stories in the present: "So, three guys walk into a bar, and the first guy, he says...."

    I also recollect that in German it is typical to use the present tense in a past (or even future) sense. "Morgen, geh' ich nach Schule." (In the morning, I am going to school.) "Gestern, steht er am Strassenecke." (Yesterday, he is standing on the street-corner.) The German present tense is a lot like the English progressive tense.

    I just checked a small book of Gorky stories I have handy, and it seems Russian uses the imperfective aspect of the past tense. Or at least Gorky did. Imperfective aspect means the action is perceived as not-yet-completed and past tense places it in the past. So the overall effect is of something happening "right now" in the past. It's not quite the same as present perfect: "He has been standing."

    Gardner, if I was understanding him, sometimes says that the main problem with present tense in English is that it tends to draw attention to itself simply because it is unusual, so that the reader is paying attention to the verbiage and not to the story.

  2. Ha!Ha! Juliette, funny you should post this toiday because I'm still puzzling over it, and saw your post come up when I googled 'present tense novel'. I've now got 45k words in past tense and another 12k in present since I made the switch LOL. As things stand, present still sounds good.

    My search brought up one interesting item, a article ( ); among other things, the writer mentions Philip Pullman's complaint about young writers using the 'fashionable' present tense; and one Philip Henscher goes so far as to suggest that the Man Booker prize board take a stand on the issue. Since I'm neither a young writer, and I'm not trying for the Booker prize, and I **hate** Philip Pullman, I believe I'll trust my gut, while bearing in mind your sensible advice above.

    It seems, in short, a storm in a Literary teacup. There are plenty of novels published in present tense, and my search didn't turn up a bunch of agent blogs ranting about it or saying they won't look at Present Tense work. Oh, there's bound to be one or two... but in the end, it's really all about the story, isn't it? :)

  3. OFloinn, thanks for your thoughtful comment! I'm familiar with those tenses in French, but not the ones in German. I've heard that use of present tense in verbal English called "storytelling present" and it's certainly used very commonly to dramatize oral stories. I'm glad you know more about Gardner's opinion because I've never discussed his position on present tense in much detail. I agree it's best not to draw too much attention to what words are being used, and more to the story itself. I do think, however, that present tense can do some really cool things that past tense has a harder time with.

    Dario, thanks for commenting! Thanks for the link, and I'll check it out. I do think the story should come first, but that doesn't mean tense doesn't matter (and you'd probably agree). It's about finding which tense makes the story strongest.

  4. Juliette--agreed, and thanks :) Just to clarify, Gardner's comment--which I take very seriously, one ignores a multiple award-winning editor at one's peril--was that in his experience readers would complain when he published a story in present tense, and that they often thought it *pretentious*. Fair enough. So, yeah, there needs to be a good reason to use, it does need to be used with skill, and there's still teh chance it may alienate some.

    That said, since stories published in the truly odious, near-universally-hated SECOND PERSON get into print (I even saw some in Asimov's, during Gardner's tenure)... well, maybe sometimes it pays to take risks, as long as it suits the story.

  5. I think it's a function of draws-attention-to-itself-ishness. I had a hard time getting into one of John Barnes' novels because the present tense narration seemed an artifact; but after a while, I just didn't notice it any more. In a Nancy Kress short story -- I think it was "Dancing on Air," but I'm not sure -- the main story was simple past tense, but the parts that were from the dog's point of view were present tense. I thought that was rather effective, and "felt" right.

  6. Funny, I'm in love with present tense, but had one acquisitions editor say I did it all wrong in my historical fiction novel, while another said I did it right b/c he didn't notice past the first sentence or two that it was present tense. Writing in present tense for historical fiction is taking a pretty huge risk, but I'm hoping it's one that will pay off someday with a published book! Thanks for the breakdown on using it.

  7. Heather, thanks for your comment! I'm glad you liked the article. Tastes are definitely mixed on this one, and thanks for sharing your experience. Good luck with your projects!

  8. Thank you for writing about this, Juliette. I've found it's sometimes hard to find any information or discussion about present tense (which has, as you've discussed, its pros and cons). So many writers seem to think that present tense is, by its very nature, a horrible idea. So I was really happy to see a more thoughtful analysis.

  9. Amy, thanks for commenting! Another possible factor in reader reception of the present tense is the length of the work. It's now being used quite commonly in Young Adult literature.

  10. Oh, I know. It's much easier to talk about present tense with YA folks. But bring it up in SF/F circles and it's like you have lipstick smeared all over your front teeth! :)

  11. The Night Circus is also written in present tense, and has enjoyed quite a bit of success. I found it interesting, although the brief sections written in second person present tense are a bit disconcerting. Wasn't Bright Lights, Big City written in second person, present tense, as well?

  12. Just wanted to say that this is a great entry on present tense, and I give people the link whenever the question of whether and how to write in present tense comes up.