What’s wrong with Present Tense?

Recently I’ve been working on a short story to submit to this quarter’s Writers of the Future contest. The story is a gothic fantasy, set in an alternate world which is dominated by flintlock weapons as well as faerie, divine, and demonic magic. I’ve actually written two stories set in this world, and I’ve been working on an outline for a novel with the same setting.

Overall, I like it a lot. But there is a wrinkle: For whatever reason, when I write in this world, I want to write in Present Tense.

I don’t even understand why. Honestly, for whatever reason, I just like the “sound” of the Present Tense within this world. For example: “In the Clandestine Market, one can buy all manner of hidden things” sounds better to me in the context of this story and world than “In the Clandestine Market, one could buy all manner of hidden things.” I just don’t like that “d” on the end of “could” for some reason. Also, writing in the present tense allows me to avoid the use of the word “had” and situations where I have to write “had had” which just drives me insane.This is a personal problem. “Has had” sounds better to me than “had had.” Writing the same word twice in a row scratches my fore-brain.

In an effort to understand why I might prefer the present tense, I have recently read a number of blogs and articles attempting to balance the pros and cons of present tense, and one blog post by an editor with experience working on speculative fiction claiming that some science fiction and fantasy editors have an unwritten rule to reject anything written in present tense. 

Well then.

I’ll concede that past tense is more conventional, and that present tense narration is a fairly modern development in story telling, but I challenge some of the claims made about present tense in some of the blogs I’ve linked to:

In present tense, you can’t manipulate duration!

Yes you can. Why not? Time isn’t a rigid experience in our everyday lives. One moment might seem to stretch into an eternity while another slips by quicker than we’d like. There’s no reason why this sort of experience can’t be reflected in a present tense story, especially if that present tense story is solidly locked within the perspective of a character.

Similarly,

In present tense, you can’t manipulate order of events!

I don’t see the problem here. Yes, it’s weird to read something written in the present tense that technically took place before something else which is also written in the present tense, and writing a story like that would be really difficult, and if done poorly patently absurd. But the nice thing about using present tense as a base is that you can actually create layers of time within your story by using other tenses.

For example: “John walks to the bar. Every day, the same route. Yesterday he ate a sandwich, the day before that a bowl of chowder, but he always drinks a scotch and water. He had enjoyed beer, once. But after the war he needed something stronger. So he walks to the bar, every day, the same route. Today, he thinks, I’ll have a steak.”

The actual order of events in that little snippet is: 1) John enjoyed beer, then 2) came back from the war and switched to scotch. At some point 3) he started walking to this bar every day. 4) Two days ago he ate a bowl of chowder. 5) Yesterday he ate a sandwich. 6) Currently he is walking to the bar and planning on having a steak.

Maybe I am misunderstanding this argument against the present tense, but to me it just seems silly. Yes, a novel which uses present tense exclusively might be locked into pressing forward with a rigid chronology. But when you have present tense as the base-line of your story, you’re free to dip back into the past tenses and introduce preceding events in any order.

I will admit that one thing past tense allows you to do which the present tense prevents is tell the reader that something will happen after the current time in the story. You can do this in past tense given that your narration allows for such a glimpse into later events (i.e. the story is constructed as a retelling of a sequence of past events). But in strict third person limited (think Game of Thrones), past tense or present, you can’t do this anyway unless your characters can see the future.

Next,

In the present tense, the details become more important/you can’t skip anything!

Why? Again, I don’t understand this. It seems to be based on an idea that the present tense makes some sort of contract with the reader that because we’re talking about something happening right now, in this moment, I’m going to give you a plethora of details and take you through every mundane moment of these characters lives. But I don’t think such a contract exists.

First of all, in daily life (which, just so we’re clear, happens in the present tense) there are details of our worlds which go unnoticed all the time. There’s a whole lot of clutter on my desk right now, but I’m not pausing between thoughts to take inventory of it.

I am more sympathetic to the idea that in present tense it’s a bit strange to leap forward in time from one scene to the next without going through the connective tissue. After all, beginning the story in present tense creates an impression that what is happening now is important, and this can create the illusion that the continuous now will be important as well. That is, if now is important, what happens right after now should be important too, right?

Maybe? When I’m writing in present tense it doesn’t feel weird for me to throw down a “#” sign, hit enter a couple times and start a new scene after a temporal jump. I read “City of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennet a few weeks ago and I remember a multitude of such temporal jumps, and none of them bothered me. Both “City of Stairs” and “The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi change narrators from time to time, maintaining present tense all the while, and it didn’t bother me in the slightest while reading.

CityofStairs and WindupGirl

Two excellent speculative fiction novels written in the present tense. City of Stairs and The Windup Girl.

In the end, I’m still on the fence. I enjoy the sound of the present tense, and sometimes writing in it comes more naturally to me, but I also recognize that abiding by convention and sticking to past tense can make stories more accessible to a wider variety of readers.

What do you think? Is the present tense better than, worse than, or equivalent to the past tense? Am I missing something in my analysis of the points against present tense above? Are we all fools, and the only proper way to tell a story is in the second-person omniscient future tense? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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7 thoughts on “What’s wrong with Present Tense?

  1. I don’t think you have anything to fear about using the present tense in a short story. Plenty of stories currently being published in magazines such as Shimmer and Strange Horizons are written in the present tense. I can see how it could get wearing in a novel, though. The immediacy/intensity is heightened when a piece is in this tense, and in a novel the reader needs to take a break from the tension sometimes. A short story needs that intensity maintained. Personally, I like the slightly melancholic tone the present tense seems to lend writing.

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    • You’re right about short stories. I’m less concerned about using the present tense in those than in novels. The problem is that if I do write a novel (or a series of novels) in this world, I want the tense to be consistent between the shorts and the novels. As far as intensity being heightened in present tense, I’ve encountered that argument against its use in novels frequently. I don’t know how to dispute it other than to just say that I don’t experience the present tense as more intense than the past tense. City of Stairs was a pretty intense novel, but The Windup Girl was more meandering. It was brutal and depressing, but it had a much slower pace. I suppose this is the sort of thing that would vary from reader to reader.

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      • “I want the tense to be consistent between the shorts and the novels” As a reader, it wouldn’t bother me a jot if the tense were different between a short and a novel set in the same world.
        I haven’t read either of the novels you mention, so can’t comment. I find it hard to imagine how to meander in the present tense.

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  2. Excellent read, thank you. I appreciate your defense of the much-maligned present tense. Though I am a novice writer, it feels more comfortable for me. Thus far, at least.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. 1) I’m thrilled to hear you’re outlining a novel in this world. The complexity of your worldbuilding imagination warrants a series, let alone a novel.

    2) 2nd person omniscient future tense would be incredible for a story about predestination.

    3) Excellent thoughts on present tense. You brought up many questions that deserve to be asked, and it shows you take your writing seriously when you trust your instincts about how your writing feels rather than desperately trying to fit the norms.

    Liked by 1 person

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