Real Novelists Don’t Use Present Tense (But I Do)

A lot of bigwig authors out there will tell you not to use present tense if you ever want to be taken seriously as a writer.

“It’s a fad,” they say.

“Takes you out of the story,” they claim.

“Too much TV,” they diagnose.

“Amateur,” they call it.

Apparently, a lot of people flat-out hate the present tense in novels, though their reasons for doing so seem less about the traits of the present tense itself and more about their expectations as readers. Some readers, like some roleplayers, want to immerse themselves in a world, a story or a character, and anything that shakes that up ruins the experience for them.

I empathize. It’s like when you just want some comfort food, but the person making dinner feels experimental. Sometimes, your taste buds simply aren’t prepared for something new.

I get that. What I don’t get is this attitude of, “It’s not what I expect, so it’s wrong.”

Uh, bullshit.

It’s amusing and frustrating to encounter people who despise novels that use the present tense. Every time it comes up, I think, “You don’t read many plays, do you?”

This is where I differ from people who defend the immediacy of the present tense by linking it to film and television. No, it’s not movies or TV it has more in common with. It has the most in common with theatre, which also means it has much in common with poetry.

What theatre borrows from poetry is the primacy of language. Poetry is not just normal speech. It’s thought, feeling and intention intensified. Even when it’s talking about something mundane, the very act of using language in a deliberate way draws attention to the sound and meaning of words.

This is a contrast to the oral storytelling history that eventually became contemporary fiction where things happened “once upon a time” or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” In this vein, it’s the story that matters. The words are there to get characters from Point A to Point B. The precise way you use them matters a lot less. Think about it. You can probably remember the events of a story more clearly than you can specific lines or combinations of words, the exception being those things that incorporate repetition (“Use the Force, Luke.”) or poetic elements such as meter and rhyme (“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden hair.”).

So, here is where I get to the real problem I think most people have with novels written in the present tense.

The issue with present tense is that it makes you pay attention to the language the writer uses. If that writer is careless about words, you’ll notice it even if you can’t consciously explain it or point to why.

The present tense is hard to write well if you’re not used to paying attention to language–and I mean really paying attention. Like worrying if this word or this phrase is the perfect one for this or that character’s perspective, if you’re being too clever when you use alliteration in one piece of dialogue or if your verbs are tepid and weak.

In other words, you have to approach language like a poet or dramatist, not like a novelist.

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