Writing Tense

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Nov 28 2011

I would love to hear your thoughts on tense in a novel. Recently, I’ve read quite a bit of criticism regarding writing in the present tense. If any of you receive a novel written in the present tense, what is your immediate reaction?

I struggle with this because I find it most natural and liberating to write in present tense. However, I don’t want to discourage agents right off the bat.

Frequently I hear from writers that they’ve been told by others that something can’t be done or agents won’t like something, and while that might be the case, what I’d rather writers told other writers was whether something was working or not working. See, anything can be done if it’s done well, but are people telling you agents won’t like this because it’s not working or are they coming from a place of fear, a place where they are regurgitating everything they’ve ever heard agents say to try to create the perfect formula for getting published?

Present tense is tough and while yes, it can be done, it’s not often done well. I find that a present tense story, as with first person, is sometimes easier for the author to write, “liberating” as you say, but doesn’t necessarily make for a good story to read. It doesn’t always allow the reader to immerse herself into the story as she would like.

So I think you need to worry less about what an agent might or might not think and worry more about how this is working for the story, not for you as the writer, but for the story.


24 responses to “Writing Tense”

  1. Thank you for this. Of course anything can be done, provided it's done well and carries the reader into the story rather making the journey of reading too much of a challenge.

  2. Avatar JeffO says:

    Great advice. I think advice authors give to others often comes across too much like 'don't do this, ever' and ends up being far more discouraging than it's probably meant.

  3. Avatar Julie Daines says:

    This is perfect! I agree with JeffO, no advice seems to be a blanket statement of do's and don'ts. The bottom line is, it has to be done well.

  4. Avatar ryan field says:

    I honestly don't like writing in the present tense. In fact, I hate it because I feel too confined. But I have done it and the stories and books that were published in the present tense have always surprised me, with regard to good sales. I always wonder if other writers experience this. It "seems" that readers do like the present tense, which in this case makes it hard for an author to trust his or her own judgment sometimes.

  5. Avatar Hart Johnson says:

    I think you've nailed it–first person and present tense are harder to do well, possibly because they are easier to do without thinking much about it. I find both harder to get past–they distract me from the book unless they are REALLY done well, but if they are (for instance, Hunger Games) it can suck you right in.

  6. The first book I wrote in present tense was my superlong Russian historical novel, which I started writing on 31 January 1993. I was inspired to use the present tense after reading Ida Vos's 'Hide and Seek.' It was like a revelation to me to discover a book could be written in the present tense. It made the action seem so much more gripping and immediate, as opposed to reading or writing in the past tense and knowing everything has already been resolved.

    Another of my family sagas (contemporary historical fiction) is also written in present tense, probably for much the same reason. My Atlantic City books are still in the past tense, though. I began writing them in 1991, when I thought you HAD to use past tense. It just seems right, since I've always written them in past tense.

  7. Avatar Thomas C. says:

    Good stuff. I do believe many things can be done that are the so-called "Taboo" of the industry. If this were not true, I think you would have many writers–great writers–creativity stifled; bearing all the charisma of an African Bullfrog. I spend my ten bucks because I like the story and it is clear and rings true in my head. Past or Present Tense.

  8. I wrote my novel Friend of the Devil in first person present tense, because it was the best way for the protagonist to tell the story. IT was work. The readers I got liked it just fine. My agent liked it until my editor didn't, which meant I lost both. Subsequent agents and editors hated it. I had to self publish on Kindle. Most months the royalties take care of my Starbucks bill for about a week. I still wouldn't do it any other way. My current fiction project is more conventional, but only because it's that kind of story. I'm sure the agents and editors will hate it just as much

  9. Amen to not listening to people regurgitate every last writing "rule" they've ever heard. Doing things differently (and doing them *well*) is how new doors get opened.

  10. Avatar i'm erin. says:

    I just find it so much easier to write in present tense, but my writing group hates it! ha ha. I say just do what you think will work.

  11. Avatar Elissa M says:

    The trick is, of course, to do it well, and that applies to anything you write no matter what tense or POV.

    If you do it well, you can break any "rule" you want.

    If your writing skills are still developing, you might follow all the standards and still not produce a work people want to read. Well, that can happen even if you're a brilliant writer, too.

    Bottom line, write what you want, the way you want. Whether it sells or not is out of your hands. Put in your best effort, finish it to the best of your ability, revise, and then move on to the next novel.

    It's the only way to stay sane.

  12. Avatar Mesmer7 says:

    I write my hypnotic audio stories in present tense. I do this because I want my listeners to experience the action as I describe it. But for regular fiction, I write in past tense. It really is easier to read.

  13. I read the first chapter of "The Hunger Games" and wondered, Is this in the first person present tense?? I found it fascinating to read phrases like, "Now I walk toward the woods.." or "I prop myself up on one elbow…"

    A very interesting POV! Not sure if I could pull it off, but it appears many authors do it successfully!

    Great post!


  14. Avatar Betty Bolte says:

    I find it hard to get into a story that is happening as I read it because I don't get the sense that there is a story (which is really telling about something that has already happened) so much as a travelogue of actions happening now. It's hard to feel like there is any known meaning to something which hasn't been completed yet — even though of course we all know that it is fiction. Perhaps it's my love of history that colors my view.

  15. I think it's important to learn the "rules" and learn them well. Then, I think it's important to break them. Try anything, and if it works, great! If not, try something else.

  16. Avatar Julie Nilson says:

    I've been reading a lot of sci-fi/fantasy YA lately, and it seems like a lot of the most recently published books in this genre are first-person, present tense.

  17. Avatar Anne-Marie says:

    I gave up reading "The Hypnotist" after 3 pages because the 3rd person present tense writing drove me up the wall. Looking at the online reviews of this international best-seller, I see people were divided into two extreme camps, but I mostly found it annoying and gave up. Not sure if it was the translation's fault, or whether the writing would have suffered the same fate in its native Swedish.

  18. Avatar Bonnie Dodge says:

    One of my novels is written in present tense. That is how I heard the story and every time I tried to write it in past tense, I got stopped. I think some stories call for present tense, and as a writer you have to trust the process to write the best story you can.

  19. I like present tense best when it's used as a framing device. Example: Patrick Rothfuss' THE NAME OF THE WIND, where the framing story is told in the present tense and the main story-within-the-story in past tense to differentiate them. It does lend a sense of immediacy to the framing story and a sense of history to the interior story that way. But I've certainly read enough present-tense novels to know it can be done well on its own, even if it would feel a bit unnatural for me to write one that way.

    (I did write a second-person present-tense story in middle school, once. THAT was strange!)

  20. Avatar wry wryter says:

    I know this sounds stupid but I don't like reading present tense because it makes me nervous…I keep waiting for a tense-error.

    Hum…tense-error, sounds like someone needs a massage.

  21. Avatar Unknown says:

    Your advice is well received Jessica, thank you. I'm a new author in search of a great agent like yourself, to representation my completed unpublished fiction manuscript and happen to have come across your question. I believe “present tense in a novel,” is the question. My own personal opinion on the subject is that, to take a phase from a great novelist by the name of Colin Wilson– if I may– “Once upon a time…” This is the correct starting point for any novel. Mr. Wilson said for once the storyteller has induced this feeling in himself, he has induced it in the reader. The storyteller must now visualize his vision with such clarity that he/she develops a feeling of actually being present in whatever he/she is describing. The storyteller should actually put himself into the scene that is being shared, to the point of actually seeing, smelling and feeling each description.
    I get the feeling that something you are reading is missing the proper, “time and space.” Whether the story is told in the past, present or future tense it should be reminiscent of that time. Your question suggests that, “Once upon time,” has been forgotten.

  22. Avatar Robena Grant says:

    The Hunger Games is a perfect example of first person present tense well-written. The story calls for that immediacy, that tension that grabs the reader by the neck and puts her in the middle of that strange world. It's a fast paced story and one that is hard to put down. I don't think it could have been written any other way.
    What Jesica said is right. Respect the story and the story will present to the author the one best way it should be told.

  23. Avatar Lisa says:

    This is one of those things I was struggling with too. I originally wrote my book in first person, present tense then read how this was some horrible "no-no" that turned agents off. So I rewrote in first person, past tense.

    After working with a freelance editor and seeing her comments at first past (and her telling me write with confidence), I rewrote the entire manuscript a third time. I believe the story is stronger in first person, present tense because the reader (hopefully) experiences the emotions as the character does. And (hopefully) the reader sees how the character's perspective and thinking shifts as story develops.

  24. Excellent response the question of present tense and first person narrative.