Writing Tips – Why I Avoid Writing in Present Tense

hgfudI don’t have a guest post today, so I am providing an opinion piece on writing in present tense.

An opinion piece? Yes, I decided to introduce it this way, because this is not a lesson on writing rules. It is a personal preference, though I will defend that preference.

So don’t skewer me. I already have enough holes in my head. 🙂

The use of present-tense verbs in young adult novels has become quite popular. The Hunger Games and Divergent are prime examples. When it comes to storytelling, I prefer past tense, because present tense has inherent limitations and contradictions, which I will explain in a moment.

I suspect that the main reason for the popularity of present tense is that it is a current fad, and many fads frequently have no rationality that can be explained. People get accustomed to fads and often assume them to be the norm without analysis of the fad’s inherent flaws.

Some people have tried to provide reasons for using present tense. They say that present tense gives a sense of immediacy and fast pace, but they don’t realize or will not admit that this immediacy and pace are counterfeit.

Bear in mind, I am not talking about using present tense in dialogue, such as, “Hey, Joe, I’m going to Fred’s house. Want to come?” People often speak in present tense with regard to what they are currently doing. This is natural. I am also not talking about present-tense essays or opinion pieces, such as this one. I am talking about storytelling narrative, the words that explain what is occurring in a story.

When people tell stories, they tell what has happened in the past. It is impossible for a storyteller to relate tales as they happen. They don’t have time to do so. In fact, in most cases it is impossible, and it is certainly unnatural.

“I step into the room.”

No, actually, at the present time you are telling me about stepping into the room, so how can you be stepping into the room at the exact moment you are telling me about it? No one tells their story while it is happening, unless the storyteller is carrying out a lifelong monologue.

“I draw my blade and slice through the monster.”

Really? You’re doing that right now, at this very moment? Then how can you tell me about it? I think you might be too busy to do so. So the immediacy is fake. It doesn’t ring true.

The same is true with third-person point of view.

“She runs to the door and pounds on it with a fist.”

Who is watching this happen to give readers a play-by-play account? Is the character never alone, always accompanied by this person with a microphone who provides moment-by-moment activity? With past tense, on the other hand, a storyteller can tell the reader what happened in the past, perhaps as he or she was told by the person to whom it happened.

Present tense also frequently causes writers to create unbelievable interior monologue. Here is an excerpt from Divergent:

“My older brother, Caleb, stands in the aisle, holding a railing above his head to keep himself steady. We don’t look alike. He has my father’s dark hair and hooked nose and my mother’s green eyes and dimpled cheeks.”

Is that what she is really thinking at the moment she looks at her brother? She sees him every day. Why at this moment is she thinking this? The answer is simple–for the convenience of the reader. In present tense, such a thought process at this particular time is highly improbable. This is a contrivance, a gimmick, and it is unrealistic. In past tense, however, the storyteller can add thoughts to establish the story, as in retrospect, which is far more natural.

Also, when it comes to intense action, the character can’t report anything beyond reflexive images. For example, here is a typical expression of first-person, present-tense action:

“I dash across the field and jump over a fallen log. A snarling beast leaps at me from a tree. I draw my sword, thrust the blade, and slice into his ribs. As blood pours from its wound, nausea boils in my stomach and makes me vomit.”

Truly realistic present-tense images and feelings would look more like this:

Run! Log! Jump! Whew! Made it. What’s that? A beast! Draw sword! Thrust! Yuck! Blood! It’s dead. I feel sick. Vomits.

Actually, some authors might be tempted to write something like this, but a great deal of communication is lost. In true present tense, the writer is unable to provide visuals beyond frenetic images, and he or she certainly has no time to report the actions. In reality, even this clipped monologue is impossible to express during intense action.

Storytelling is inherently past tense. Something happens, and we tell about it later, so we do so in past tense. This allows us to provide all of the senses, details, and ponderings after we have had a chance to reflect on the meaning of it all. Present tense cannot possibly do this, and a story told in present tense is a faulty representation of a tale.

Update because of confusion some readers have expressed:

I don’t think there is anything wrong with writing in 1st person. My post is not about a choice between 1st person or 3rd person. It’s about the tense, whether present or past. I enjoy writing 1st person past tense. In fact, my three favorite novels were written in 1st person past tense. It is present tense (either 1st or 3rd) that I don’t like.


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42 replies

  1. Do you feel the same about third-person present tense? Mary Amato wrote this way in her book Guitar Notes.

  2. I have actually found myself thinking a lot of this same stuff when I read those books, and other books that were written in present tense. I have a story that I am writing, and when I started writing I tried to write it in present tense and realized it was so unnatural that I changed it too past tense.

  3. Also, I realized as I was pressing the post comment button that should be to not too.

  4. I think I agree to the extent that I tend not to prefer books written in present tense. Though I think if a book is decent I will keep reading without noticing or caring much. Same goes for things written in first person, though I mind first person stories a lot less. :).

  5. Hm, good points there, Mr. Davis. I hadn’t thought of some of those flaws. I will say, though, that one plus to present tense is that in the case of something like The Hunger Games, it may have helped with the suspense. If it was in past tense, we’d know that Katniss lived to tell her story. (Not saying this to skewer you at all! 🙂 The flaws of present tense probably do outweigh any positives.)

    And I’m with Autumn: I tend to prefer past tense books, but if a present tense story is good enough to hold my attention, I end up putting that preference aside.

    • Tracey, I think the opposite is true. I don’t see how a first-person present-tense story could end with, “A bullet rips into my chest. I bleed. Everything turns black. I die.” This seems absurd. How can a person describe his own death in real time?

      With past tense, especially with third person POV, many focal characters die, so you don’t know if the character will live or die. Even with first person, past tense, I have seen stories that end with the last recollections of the POV character, and then a third-person POV epilogue is added by an editor who explains the character’s demise.

      So, not to be contrary, but it seems to me that with first-person present tense, the POV character must live, I suppose death can occur in third person present tense, but I think even then it would be clumsy.

      • I think it can be accomplished if a skilled author handles it right, there are exceptions to many things in writing after all. I see some authors use plot types/weird grammar/first person, etc. and it somehow works for the story because it is depicted as an interesting quirk of the author or is used as a storytelling tool rather than as something the author used to be part of a fad/to imitate a current popular story.

      • That could be, Autumn. I just haven’t yet seen a present-tense story that I enjoyed.

      • That’s true. I guess it could be written up to the final moments, and death would either be implied or, as you said, told from a different 3rd person POV.

        I just brought it up for the sake of discussion. 🙂 Your points make a lot of sense. I highly doubt I’ll ever write a book in present tense, and this post makes it even more unlikely.

  6. I definitely prefer books in past tense. I’ve read a couple books that are present tense, but I subconsciously change them to past tense in my head as I read. It feels very akward to read as it’s happening. However, some authors do add a couple paragraphs of present tense for effect , ex The Great Gatsby. I think that is ok, though it should still be done carefully and not frequently.

  7. I read an article a while back that mentioned the effects of first person present tense and the writer spoke about how it’s very intimate and very immediate to most people psychologically which can be a good thing and a pit fall. A good thing is that they can feel like they’re really there, and the bad thing is that if the book they’re reading is extremely graphic it can be way more damaging. I’m still a bit conflicted about it. I’ve considered it for some of my books since I feel like I tend to want to write present tense in interior monologue sometimes it seems. I see it as the person is recounting the story in their thoughts or something of the like. You made a lot of good points though, but I just still feel torn.

    Stori Tori’s Blog

    • As I noted, it is mostly a matter of personal preference. I don’t think it’s intimate or immediate at all. I find it terribly annoying and absurd. I suppose it’s a matter of suspending disbelief that someone can tell his or her own story while it is occurring. Since it is nonsensical to me, I can’t get past that.

      • I would have to agree, it would almost have to be like the journey books in the sword of truth series and you would have to be writing out your entire life, exactly as it was happening when it was happening, and if you were doing that, it would not be possible to do all the stuff that you were doing. I have read the many of those series, including the Hunger Games, the only way I can even get through them is that I have to change it to past tense in my head. Even if I were to tell you stuff that was going on in my life as it was happening, it still becomes past tense, and I would be focusing more on telling you that I would on what is going on. It makes a lot more sense in the past tense style because now I am telling you a story about what happened before.

  8. “Run! Log! Jump! Whew! Made it. What’s that? A beast! Draw sword! Thrust! Yuck! Blood! It’s dead. I feel sick. Vomits.”

    No wonder you shouldn’t write present tense. It makes you talk like William Shatner.

    Personally, I think this just reinforces why I don’t prefer to write first person. The POV character has to establish details of a world that that he or she is already familiar with and it seems hard to do that naturally, although you did establish that past tense would make it possible.

  9. I haven’t read any present-tense books myself [I don’t think], but I completely agree with present-tense being difficult to write. I finally decided to do past-tense because it was a lot easier to write and comprehend.

    The main thing I struggle with in writing is “showing” people what’s happening instead of “telling” them. Any tips for changing “telling” to “showing”?

  10. Personally, I think in third person past and tend to prefer reading it. I’ve seen first person present done really well, but for me the issue has more to do with the first person part of it: first person jars me out of any possibility this character could die and tends to work best for me when the narrator is an older version of the character (Katniss Everdeen, Harry Dresden). The present tense I tend to notice less, but I think as a reader I tend to instinctively change it to past without realizing it.

    Okay, there were older posts I wanted to comment on, and I need to read through the critiques of past Fridays….

  11. I think, that while you make good points, some people might prefer to writing in present tense. I normally write in past, but writing in present is a challenge and fun to see if you can keep it up. If anything, that would be the main reason for me to write in first person-just to see if I can and what it looks like, if it’s choppy or anything. Present tense, even though it might not make sense to you, could make sense for some people. When I write in present tense, I think of it as if it a movie were being watched by two people, one blind. The person who can see has memorized the movie, all the action and words (even though that probably won’t ever happen), and is telling what is happening not right after, but as the movie is playing. Then the blind person would be able to see a ‘picture’ of the action described, if the person who isn’t blind can describe well enough. That just makes sense to me. I don’t know if it does to anybody else. We all have our own opinions, however. The rest of the stuff that you said makes sense, though. Present tense can be really confusing, and I prefer to write in past, just because it flows. This is just my opinion.

    • I agree that some people like present tense. That’s why I called this a preference rather than a rule.

      Thank you for your input. 🙂

    • With your description of a seeing person describing a movie in detail to a blind person makes me think of an option that has become more common when watching Disney movies. A menu will pop-up and ask if you want the movie in “English, English Descriptive Video Service, or Spanish”. The “English Descriptive Video Service” option is exactly what you are describing.

      Have you tried to listen to a movie in that setting…? It’s weird. It’s like reading a book except with the actors’ voices and singing. The only thing different I noticed from your description was that the narrator was reading in PAST-tense instead of PRESENT-tense. So, it’s similar, yet different.
      Anyway there you go.

  12. Personally, I find it easier to write in present tense. My voice comes out better when I do that. It’s the same for my mom. Maybe it’s genetic. Is that even possible? Anyway, when it comes to reading, I generally don’t care. I once got halfway through a book before I realized that it was in present tense. Maybe it’s just the way my brain works? I agree that it’s a matter of preference.

  13. I’ve gotten used to present tense, to the point I barely notice it in first person. I think some writers can handle it better than others and make it less noticeable. (Now, I rarely remember which books were first person present tense.)
    In third person, I notice it a lot, and I don’t care for it. I still can’t make it through a present tense third person book without being annoyed. (If I rate the book, a star will probably get docked for third person present.)
    I prefer writing in past tense.

  14. I really disagree. I think that the art of story telling is in the fact that you are brought to the character. Of course it’s not going to be entirely realistic. Not one way of telling a story, be it 3rd or 1st person, is going to be completely accurate. The art of story telling is making the reader feel that he is the character. I can’t feel that I’m the character if I feel like a bird watching everything going on. I don’t want to be an outsider looking in on the action. I want to be the action. Feel everything that the character feels. I want to be the person. Be the hero. That’s what makes for good blood pumping action. You’re more grounded inside the character’s mind. You feel everything he does because you are that character. And the more grounded in the character you are, the more tension you get when you rack up the stakes.

    So I very much disagree that there’s anything wrong with writing in 1st person. No, it’s not going to be normal. But if it’s normal, why read it?

    • I don’t think there is anything wrong with writing in 1st person, My post is not about person whether 3rd or 1st person. It’s about the tense (present vs. past).

      For example, I wrote Dragons in our Midst in 3rd and Reapers in 1st person, but I wrote both in past tense.

      Feeling like you’re part of the story comes from how intimately you write point of view, and you can gain intimacy in either 3rd person or 1st person.

      So I am wondering why you say you disagree, because I wrote nothing against writing in 1st person. I think it’s fine to do that. In fact, I enjoy it.

  15. Hi Brian,

    I know this post is rather old, but I wished to at least poke my head in and ask a question regarding this specific entry.

    How exactly would you suggest breaking out of this habit? I have always written in the present tense due to it coming fairly naturally—Though as of late I have found this leading to me constantly rewriting things to make them sound more natural. I’ve found past tense writing more interesting to read, though have difficulty writing it. (I have also recently grown a hatred of “it”, as I have found myself using “it” far too much in my writing after writing one character who dislikes using contractions in their normal speaking style.. crap.)

    I have recently taken to writing world building documents for the setting I’m working on in the past tense, usually as a history piece written in-world or posed as someone telling it to the reader over a fire (though not with literal dialogue, but in the voice) , etc.. I have found it very natural feeling and enjoyable to read, but quite hard to write.

    Do you have any advice? Thank you if so.

    • I’m sorry for taking so long to respond. The blog did not notify me of your comment. My advice isn’t earth-shattering, just to practice, practice, practice. There are no shortcuts to writing well. I apologize for not having more advice to give.

      • Honestly, that’s good enough for for me. I’ve been making efforts in that direction since then and practice has helped well enough! Thanks for getting back to me, as I wasn’t really expecting a response!

  16. Hi! Late to the party, but I find that first person-present tense is quite valid. We accept it when we watch movies all the time. Unless the characters are telling us expressly what has happened in the past, we go on the journey with the character, experience what is happening with them as it’s happening. We automatically think in first person-present tense with those stories. Why’s it so hard to have that same frame of mind with books?

    It may be that it’s never really done well. “I do this and I do that” isn’t exactly thrilling literature. It does require far more of a skilled hand, to be done in such a way that you don’t really notice it.

    A book written in the present doesn’t have to stay there either. You can slip into the past at any time and go back there for as long as you’d like. We don’t have to know minute by minute action by action what the protagonist is doing which is where it gets a little weird for most. When used as a story telling device I could work as well. Less focus on the things going on, and more focus on what is happening, why it’s happening and who it’s happening to.

    Ultimately, it is a matter of preference, but I’ve read many, many, many garbage books written in past and other perspectives and tenses. It’s the author’s responsibility to craft a story so compelling, that tense or perspective is an afterthought.

    • I don’t see movies as being in present tense. They are videos of events that happened in the past. So, I don’t automatically think in first person present tense with those stories.

      You cannot relate a story while it is going on, so present-tense is not the natural form for storytelling. We tell events that have already happened, so past tense is natural.

      I have also read garbage books that are written in past tense, but I have yet to see one that effectively tells a story in present tense.

      In any case, thank you for your thoughtful contribution. 🙂

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