Present Tense: Breathlessly Waiting to Read About What’s Already Happened

Present TenseAs an editor, I’ve made no bones about my preference for past tense in both fiction and memoir writing. And I know I’m not alone. Yet there seems to be a movement toward writing in present tense, and there have been some passionate blogs written about the past versus present debate. In a blog titled “Does (or Did) Tense Matter?” D. Thomas Minton wrote:

“Stories in the present tense feel more urgent and immediate to me—I feel like I’m there with the characters, instead of listening to the story after-the-fact, while sitting in the cozy comfort of a coffee shop.  In contrast, the temporal distance that comes with past tense removes this immediacy, but past tense is more conducive to reflection, as if the narrator has had a chance to digest what has happened to him or her prior to telling me.”

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So maybe I prefer the reflective aspect of writing? Or perhaps I’m just an old dog who doesn’t want to learn new tricks—the author of The Singularity Sucks blog suggests it’s an age thing:

“Basically, young(ish) people are writing in the present tense, and the old guard are saying they shouldn’t do that.”

I just read a short story written in present tense that was posted by the author on her blog. It was a well-structured and compelling story . . . but I just couldn’t get past the fact that it was written entirely in the present tense. I found it off-putting to read about events that transpired over several day’s time, yet were written as though they were happening right now. The speed of the story was well crafted (it would be called a page-turner if it was a novel), yet I agree with Ava Jae’s comment:

“The idea that the narrator is actually standing right there in front of you narrating exactly what they’re doing right now is a hurdle that readers   must get over in order to enjoy the story. Obviously no one (sane) goes around announcing to some invisible audience everything that they’re doing as they do it—which for some readers is a fact that makes it rather difficult to enjoy novels written in first-person present tense.”

I’d extend that statement to memoir writing, too. I just find it off-putting to read about the past in the present tense. There is true skill in the ability to manipulate time as a writer that many of us just haven’t acquired. And, as Novel Writing puts it:

“Using first person or third person point of view in the past tense is ‘invisible’ to readers, because it is what they expect. Readers won’t even notice it, meaning they will be able to concentrate instead on what really matters: the story you are telling.”

Perhaps I’m just used to the past tense, but I think writing in the present tense is a difficult skill to master, and using it is often distracting to the reader. What do you think? Do you have a preference for past or present tense? If you write in present tense, why do feel it makes your story more compelling? Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Update May 2013: Check out these guest posts for other writers’ points of view: How I Used First Person and Present Tense to Wake Up My Story—Guest Blog by C. B. Wentworth, and Present Tense Draws the Reader into the Story—Guest Blog by JH Mae.


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16 thoughts on “Present Tense: Breathlessly Waiting to Read About What’s Already Happened”

  1. I write in both, and I think it should be used only when it works with the type of story you’re writing. If there’s an urgency to your tale, or if it would be more dramatic and tense to tell it in the present tense, I think it can work. I’m writing a short story now that is in the present tense, which I chose because the story covers only one scene, and it’s about a very personal experience of one character. It’s also going to be a bit frightening. I felt present tense would work much better for this piece than past.

    1. I agree–scary is scarier when it’s happening RIGHT NOW. Yours sounds like a scene that is perfect for the present tense. I’d love to read it when you are finished–perhaps we can discuss a possible guest post to continue this discussion in the future?

  2. I also grew up reading stories in the past tense and greatly prefer it to the present tense. Perhaps it’s just because I expect the past tense that the present tense bounces me out of the “willing suspension of disbelief” when I’m reading and makes me continuously aware that I’m actually reading a story rather than experiencing it. I have read stories and books written in the present tense that I’ve enjoyed, but for me the present tense is always a hurdle over which I must leap rather than a device that enhances my reading experience.

    1. When I’m aware that I’m reading instead of feeling immersed in the story, my enjoyment of that story just isn’t there. In fact, I often find myself “editing” in my mind as I’m reading–definitely not the way an author wants his or her story to be remembered! As I said, I think writing in the present tense is a difficult skill to master.

  3. I think it depends on the story, but I am also more comfortable with past tense for all the reasons you listed. I’m used to it and it seems to vanish, whereas present tense draws attention to itself, and it’s harder to ignore the technique and focus on what the story is saying.

    I think subconsciously past tense can help lend credibility to the narrator. People always seem to forget that the narrator is a character too, especially in third past, since that’s what most stories have been written in, but that’s another rant. If the events have already happened, the narrator knows more about what is happening, so especially for omniscient narrators, there’s more trust instinctively.

    1. Great point–the narrator is a character, whether the author chooses an overt or an omniscient POV. But I’m a bit confused–do you mean the reader is more trusting of the omniscient narrator in the past tense than in the present tense?

      1. Correct. Sorry if that was confusing, and I don’t mean it’s a conscious trust of the narrator. I did my thesis for school on narratology, and the thought is that the events have already happened and the narrator can know the outcome of all the plot lines, it makes it seem more informed.

  4. I love this discussion. I like to write in both tenses too. I also have read too many plays and like to do asides or narrated bits which or outside the present tense story. Thanks for these great viewpoints.

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