Present Tense Bursts into the Reading Room

 

I was in grade school when I first wondered why fiction was written in past tense.

I’ve read countless fiction books- virtually all in written in past tense- that were vivid, captivating, and magical. But I find reading past tense is invariably like reading about an explosion long after the detonation site has been cleared and repaved. The facts have been gathered and analyzed, and are a matter of public record. But in present tense the fuse is still burning . .

Will the bomb explode?

All other variables being equal, present tense can connect the reader to the narrator more intimately than past tense can. And if written skillfully, reading present tense is reading about something as IT’S HAPPENING.

Some people dislike present tense because it’s faddish and annoying, like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum while wearing a Hannah Montana outfit. And some people LIKE present tense because it IS a toddler throwing a temper tantrum while wearing a Hannah Montana outfit. It’s real and uncertain and in your face. Faddish? Charles Dickens, Jay McInerney, Margaret Atwood, Albert Camus, Tom Robbins, Nick Hornby, Chuck Palahniuk, Michael Cunningham, Andre Dubus III, James Frey, John Updike, and Audrey Niffenegger all wrote best-selling novels in the present tense. Annoying? That’s up to each reader.

I write fiction in present tense because I find it perpetually fresh. It may be irritating, but trust me, your eyeballs will toughen up and soon you won’t feel the urge to blink and squint so much. It’s inevitable. SHEBAM ! POW ! BLOP ! WIZZ !

 

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4 Comments

  1. It’s an interesting topic, really.
    I used to only write in past tense. Practically everything I read (back then) was written in the past tense, and it seemed most natural.
    Now, however, I’ve just written 70K words in present tense, and I must say I’ve enjoyed it. While I still like the “traditional” past tense, there is something interesting about the present. I like the fact that you can simply (at least more easily) get to use more tenses than if your point of departure is in the past.

    Reply
  2. Yes, there is something interesting about the present tense. Past tense may be “comfortable” to read, but present tense has a live nerve running through it. I believe a skillful writer can sheath that nerve so that it remains live, but not raw.

    Reply
  3. I’m relatively new to writing fiction and have never considered using present tense. You make a great point, though. I’m going to start playing with it a bit and see what shakes out. Thanks for your post. All the best.

    Reply
    • Yes, present tense is fun to play with, especially when you’re so used to reading in past tense. Thank you for visiting, and good luck with the pre-emptive strike food staining. 😉

      Reply

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