Tens(e)ion in a Novel

So I’ve been thinking (well, wondering…) a lot about the growing popularity in the use of present tense in novels – probably because we recently had this issue come up in a first page critique, but also because two members of my writing group are also using it in their historical novels (quite successfully I might add) – which has led to some puzzlement on my part. While there are certainly some benefits to using the present tense (see below), it isn’t something that flows naturally for many writers so I’ve been ruminating over its recent appeal.

On the plus side, present tense provides an immediacy to a scene that can ramp up dramatic tension. In many YA novels, it can also provide a deeper connection to the main character. Suzanne Colins did an amazing job of using the present tense to immerse readers in the world of Panem and Katniss Everdeen. However, it certainly can feel like an artifice in many other books – one that strains the flow and forces a writer to employ some pretty awkward sentences. In my writing group, I have questioned the use of present tense in some of my fellow writers’ work, not because it hasn’t been effective in the scenes I’ve reviewed, but because it seems like a difficult tense to sustain for a whole novel. In my own work, I’ve really only used the present tense for interior thoughts or flashbacks (maybe because I’m not skilled enough to use it full time!). Β When used judiciously, the present tense can help signal to the reader a transition in terms of time or narrative focus and it can certainly be used to create compellingly tense scenes. As with anything with writing, when the present tense is employed well a book can soar.Β That being said, the apparent popularity of writing in the present tense does seem a little…weird…So I thought I’d reach out to you, our fabulous TKZ community to provide insight and input.

So what do you all think/feel in general about novels written in the present tense? As writers, have you considered using it and if so, why? What benefits do you see to writing in the present tense? Does it feel natural to you for a whole novel?

Please note, I’m asking these questions, not by way of judgement, but out of general curiosity since I’ve recently seen many novels employing the present tense that I would have typically expected to be written in the past tense. A well written novel succeeds irrespective of the tense (or any other literary device) used – but it is intriguing to me that so many more writers seem to be choosing it as an option!

What say you all, TKZers?

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38 thoughts on “Tens(e)ion in a Novel

  1. I wrote a NaNo a few years ago using both present tense and different POV’s (P’sOV? πŸ™„)… a parallel story of three Southern brothers in three different theaters of the War Between the States… done chronologically… I found it a bit awkward at first, but soon found the characters “speaking” (channeling?) the action (or lack thereof) with more immediacy and emotion… the transition between the brothers happened at chapter breaks, and that was a bit dicey at first, but indicating the character by name in the chapter headings (in a way similar to the way Michael Shaara did in his historical novelization of the Battle of Gettysburg, _The Killer Angels_), allowed each brother to speak in his own voice…
    As to “appropriateness…” – I haven’t had another story “want” to be written in present tense (or so many POV), quite the way this one did, though I have considered it and explored it to confirm what the “boys in the basement” seem to be telling me… and most of the time, while it takes a page or two to get used to, if used appropriately, can make a yarn a page-turner (instead of a page-burner…)

  2. For reasons I can’t explain, I find present tense more distancing, especially in first person. It seems as though the character is watching him/herself from afar. Very few authors I’ve found can pull it off well enough so I stop noticing it. The scenes that take place in the past, where the author switches to past tense are always more comfortable for me to read. I probably shouldn’t say this, but if I’m looking at a new book by an author unknown to me, and it’s present tense, I set it aside and look for something else.

    • Present tense is tricky to pull off and if it becomes cumbersome I agree it is very distancing. I find if I’m continually noticing the book is in present tense then it isn’t working for me!

  3. I first noticed present tense in the legal thrillers of Steve Martini. It seemed to become a “thing” in the 90s for some commercial authors, as a way to appear more “literary.” For me, it always seemed like a gimmick. Even so, it didn’t hold me back if the story grabbed me, as Martini’s books usually did…but part of my writer’s (and writing teacher’s) mind was always on the technique.

  4. I’ve always found present tense tricky to pull off. I’ve used it in short fiction, and tried doing it in a novel, but reverted to past tense in the longer work. As a reader, when an author can pull it off, it gives the work a very powerful immediacy and pulls me in deeper to the narrative. However, I’ve read few novels in present tense that were able to do that. Usually, I become overly aware of the technique.

  5. I’ve read shorter works in present tense where it worked well, but it’s not my preferred tense in novels. The writing feels “off” to me when it’s in present tense.

  6. Present tense seems most prevalent in MG and YA, perhaps b/c it feels confessional, like a peek into the character’s private journal.

    It’s not my preference but I’ll read it if the story otherwise captures my interest. As mentioned, it often feels gimmicky. I’ve only tried it in short stories, no long works.

    As a barometer of success, I use The Hunger Games. After I read it, someone mentioned it was in present tense. I had to go back and verify, yes, it WAS present tense. I was so totally immersed in the story that I never noticed. That’s well done.

    • Agree- I didn’t even notice The Hunger Games was in present tense until after I finished it!! Suzanne Collins’ skill with using that tense was truly amazing. I do think for YA and MG if done well, it creates a wonderful character connection.

  7. I’m also not a fan of present tense, but it also doesn’t stop me if the story is good.

    The only other benefit that I can think of that no one’s mentioned, and which probably turns most present tense books into a gimmick, is snarkiness. In first person past tense, the narrator’s snark gets in the way because you’re aware that she’s looking back. In present tense, it’s like your best friend commenting while you two live the experience together.

    And I guess you can claim that present tense doesn’t guarantee that the MC won’t die, but I’ve never really found a compelling book where the MC dies at the end.

    • That’s an interesting point – because the narrative voice does change with present tense and maybe that creates a better connection with the reader, allowing the voice to feel more authentic (?)

  8. I’ve read a lot of first person in recent years, mainly in young adult and new adult, and it’s rare for it not to fail in immediacy. Weird, I know, because that’s what its strength should be. The writer is so busy writing NOW, NOW, NOW that they fall into the “she does this, then she does this, then she does this” trap. The writer fails to create a world around the character to react to. Action scenes are often a what-the-heck-is-happening disaster. Quiet scenes are worse because the mental monologues blur out the character’s real world. It’s not a tense I’d ever recommend to newer writers, and even more experienced writers fail at it.

    As an experiment, I asked one of my immediate-tense students to rewrite a page in third tense, put it aside for a bit, then read it. The flatness and failure of the 5 W’s surprised her. She decided to keep immediate-tense, but she paid a lot more attention to the world around her main character.

    • Interesting experiment! I do think you’ve identified one of the key problems (the now, now, now) as some present tense material I’ve looked at tends to fall into a blow-by-blow action trap in which the reader dogs every action the protagonist takes (which can really dilute the narrative arc of a story in too much ‘nowness’!).

    • That like the opposite of what I call first person telling. The writer assumes you already know where the narrator is, and starts waxing poetic about something in the setting.

  9. I find present tense in a novel too distracting. But, I haven’t read some of the ones you have mentioned here as well done, like Hunger Games. So, I conclude I just haven’t read the right novel yet.

    I also only use present tense in a limited way in my own writing, as has been mentioned. It might be fun to start a new story in present and see where it takes me. (I think one of my First Page Critiques was present tense…my character who was dead in the hotel closet.) And that page was definitely fun to write. πŸ™‚

    Off topic question: Several days ago I emailed TKZ and asked how I could change my email address to the one I’ve created for my domain. Never got an answer. Can I just start using it when I post comments, or do I have to change it somewhere else first?

    Thanks!

    • Deb, go ahead and use your new email to post comments. Makes no difference. You probably haven’t heard back because it’s a tedious task to change an email in the system. If you don’t want to receive post notifications with your old email, then unsubscribe and re-subscribe with the new address. Easy peasy.

      • Thanks, Sue…the cool thing is that my new domain email forwards to my gmail. So, it shouldn’t make any difference. I just want to get in the habit of using the new one… πŸ™‚

        Trying it out below…

  10. That’s a very interesting question, Clare. I’m troubled by the apparent “fad” of present tense being a default writing tool. It works occasionally, and sometimes extremely well — PRESUMED INNOCENT by Scott Turow comes immediately to mind — but there are a number of other instances I’ve encountered when it seems slapped on like Bondo. And it shows.

  11. Clare, this is very timely for me. I’m experimenting with my current WIP. The first chapter is first person, present tense. It introduces a colorful character who will appear off and on throughout the novel, always in first person present. However, the main story line (mystery) will be third person past.

    I am using this device as a means to keep my cozy mystery novel series fresh by having one or two spicey characters make an appearance in each novel going forward. I may not always use first person present for these characters, but I think it will work in this case.

    Has anybody else done this? Does it sound intriguing?

  12. Great post, Clare. Like many who have already commented, I am not excited about present tense, especially for a novel. Maybe, it’s because I have not been exposed to the right novel, but it seems to pull me out of the story and draw attention to itself.

    The only time I use it is in internal monologue, where it seems to give more determination to the characters’ thoughts, as if he’s trying to convince himself.

  13. To play devil’s advocate, how about reversing the question.

    What makes the past tense superior? Is it familiarity? Tradition? Conformity? Salability? Or something deeper and more meaningful.

    • Past tense was the most natural way for the early storytellers to create the illusion of reality, viz., that this tale actually happened (past tense). E.g., The Iliad. Maybe present tense moves us just a bit off that illusion.

  14. A few years back I wrote a 20K word piece in the first person present tense. It was the right tense for it. It communicated the immediacy and experiential nature that I wanted. After I let it simmer a bit and went back for a final pass it just seemed wrong. It was right, for the reasons mentioned above, but seemed wrong. It’s just not the way an audience is used to reading things today. So I changed the tense. Now when I look at it it still seems both right and wrong. To this day I’m no sure whether or not I should have changed the tense.

  15. My preference is for third person past tense and I wonder if that’s because that was what I grew up reading. Maybe the current generation of teenagers reading present tense in books like The Hunger Games will be more accepting of that style?

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