Posted by: Kerry Gans | June 28, 2010

Writing in the Present Tense

I just finished reading The Great God Pan by Donna Jo Napoli. It’s YA, based on the two Greek myths of Pan and Iphigenia. Napoli fills in a few of the gaps in the mythology with this engaging, inventive and lively book.

 

Pan tells it in first person, with a voice that grabs the reader immediately. The voice is so inviting that at first I didn’t even notice that the book is written in the present tense. Since I didn’t notice, Napoli obviously used this device skillfully, but it got me thinking about using present tense in novels. The next 3 YA books I read (Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries; Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak; and Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games) are all also written in present tense.

 

Present tense used to be taboo, but now it seems to be a trend. When is it most effective? Are there times when it absolutely should not be used?

 

Present tense gives immediacy to the action and the emotion. The reader lives the moment simultaneously with the protagonist. Hindsight and explanation don’t flavor the action. It is, in a way, a cleaner way to experience a story. And yet, so many readers and authors dislike its use. My husband says he hates present tense so much that he cannot read a book written in it—he never makes it past the first page or two. I asked him why he disliked it so much, and he said that perhaps it is because he looks at a book as a history, the events in it as something that already happened—it had to have already happened to be written down, and that chronological disconnect in logic bothers him.

 

Personally, it doesn’t bother me, as long as the story has grabbed me. Then, as now, I sometimes don’t even notice until I am well into the book, and too invested to stop reading. I also find that first person narratives lend themselves to present tense. My current WIP, The Oracle of Delphi, Kansas, is my first attempt at a first person narrative. When I began writing, I found myself slipping into the present tense quite frequently, even though I am writing it in past tense.

 

What are your thoughts on using present tense in novel?

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Responses

  1. I don’t know why, but present tense kicks me right out of a story.

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  2. Jump in and swim
    I don’t have a preference (at least one that I’m aware of) – I have always read a book by allowing the first few pages to adapt to the author’s voice. Then, if they maintain command over the POV, I’m fine. It’s that bit about “skillfully” that is killing me as a writer. I never had training in discerning when to use which tense, and I find that what is intuitive to me as a writer creates fits of disapproval in well trained editors. Sigh. And then there is that word “read” – since I write a lot about reading, I am always nervous about the fact that it’s the same spelling in past and present tense. Well, no one said it was easy. or should I say No one says it is easy?
    Jerry
    Memory Writers Network

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  3. If the writing is done well, it’s all about the story. I can hate a book for lots of reasons; tense is way down on the list. 😉

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