Topics/Discussion

Present Tense in Books / The Up and the Down

Back in April I looked back on what my preferred point of view was, after rereading an old post I wrote about it. A few people commented on the use of present tense in books and how they disliked it. It was something I had seen mentioned before. This got me thinking on present tense. I took to Twitter which I’ll get back to in a bit.

When I used to write fan fiction and try to write my own stories I always used past tense. I never felt like I had a good handle on present tense to write it well. When I first started coming across present tense in books it was a bit jarring for that reason. However it didn’t seem to be seen as something off putting at that time so I got used to it. I also don’t feel like I read it as often.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with using present tense as an author. However you do have to realize that with present tense comes quite a few more difficulties than with past tense. And for us readers I thought it would be good to also realize what are the benefits and downfalls of present tense. Because the more I read about it the more I realized how it can influence how I feel about a story. Not because it is present tense but because of how it is used in a story.

The Up on Present Tense

One of the biggest ups of present tense is that it is like a movie. Present tense is close to a movie script as it uses a similair narration. It is entirely in the here and now. It creates a sense of immediacy.

Adding onto that is that present tense works great with fast paced and shorter stories. It draws you deeply into the here and now of what is happening. It helps to itensify the emotions the reader experiences because it feels more like you are in the story. For that reason, present tense works extremely well with an unreliable narrator. One only sees what your narrator sees and being in the moment limits the exposure to the reader into seeing that what the narrator shares is unreliable and untrue in places.

The Down on Present Tense

One of the downs of present tense is that for most people it is very in your face. Past tense is seen as invisible. This is because we are so used to this tense as we share things about our day and recount memories. Some seem to fear using present tense as it is seen as hated by readers. I’m not sure that is entirely true.

I asked on twitter if it was a reason to put down a book and 67% said no and 23% said it depends. Now this was with only 52 votes. Even so I do think that it counts for something. Certainly I don’t think author should be discouraged to use present tense for this reason.

Another reason why present tense might not be a good option is because there are less options. Your narration becomes very limited. A lot of things like jumping through time and into different character’s heads is not often an option to present tense. Time shifts are difficult to manage and become awkward for the reader because present tense is rooted in the here and now. A time jump then is jarring.

Examples of Books with Present Tense

Sidekick Squad by C.B. Lee / The Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler / The Sixth World by Rebecca Roanhorse / The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins / The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee / The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern / David Mogo, Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa / The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

13 thoughts on “Present Tense in Books / The Up and the Down

  1. I would have checked “depends” – if it is a young female first person narrator (especially within a paranormal storyline), describing herself (her looks or character) within the first few sentences, I’m not going to invest the time. But I might tolerate such a narrator in past tense.
    Every other point of view will get a fair chance.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Probably because I tend to prefer books with female main characters, I can’t remember coming across a young male first person narrator.
        And probably because in YA literature there is (in my perception) a wealth of bad authors writing such characters. I used to love Urban Fantasy, but I feel that many of these books follow a formular, especially in the low priced ebook market. Teenaged girl or young woman, deeply misunderstood, sees herself as unattractiv (turns out she’s beautiful…) and has some newly found powers that are indispensable in defeating the bad guy / saving the world / whatever else. I love a good internal struggle in my heroes and heroines, I like them ambiguous, but there has to be substance in it. As in real life I don’t suffer fools gladly. Stupid has to have a purpose in a novel besides creating artificial tension.
        Plus, I don’t feel that such characters are good role models for young girls. Growing up my preferred books were the novels by Heinlein (not the Juveniles). Say aout him what you will (and there is a lot to say about him), but considering the time period he wrote strong female leads.

        P.S.: I especially dislike romantic misunderstandings that could be solved easily if only the would be lovers would talk to each other…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not sure I have a preference between the two! If it’s a more action-focussed story or romance then first tense definitely works better as it’s more immediate. Past tense tends to flow better, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Present tense can really propel the story forward in a good way, so I think depending on what type of story it is, it works great. I just think it’s become over used and it’s a device that I see in lots of debut books, especially YA. I feel like beginning writers are drawn to it because it’s easier to get your story going.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Present tense is tricky for me. I wouldn’t say that I would put a book down specifically because of it, but I definitely find that I don’t like it as much. Sometimes I actually connect less with the characters in a present-tense novel, which feels counterintuitive. I can’t really say why this happens to me, it’s just something I’ve noticed. (Maybe it’s just the particular style of some of the books I’ve read in present tense? They seem to be told less lyrically and with more emphasis on action.) So, I wouldn’t call present tense a dealbreaker, but it’s definitely harder for a present-tense novel to win me over.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that I find it harder to connect with a character because you tend to be in the constant flow of action. I think there is less time to sit down and reflect.

      Like

  5. I think it’s true that present tense will shine a light on bad writing. After reading this I am thinking I must not really care about point of view that much because when I do read present tense it doesn’t jar me, although maybe it’s a bit annoying? I think the next time I read present tense I’m going to pay more attention to the way it makes me feel. 📚

    I love these posts. 👍✨

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I started searching for books with present tense I found a lot of older books that make go huh that was present tense so yeah it does depend on writing of the author. Now I am more focused on it because people mentioned it and I notice it right away.

      Liked by 1 person

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