Writing a novel or short story in the present tense can be exciting. It feels like everything is happening as you write the words. This is similar to what happens when you read a story written in the present tense.
But just because it's exciting and immediate doesn't mean it's right for every story. Once you understand the benefits and drawbacks of writing in the present tense, you can determine whether it's the right tense choice for your story.
- What defines the present tense in fiction.
- How to write in the present tense (with examples).
- Pros and cons of present tense writing.
Table of contents
- What is the Present Tense in Fiction?
- Understanding the Present Tense: The Four Tenses
- Present Tense Books to Read
- Benefits of Present Tense Writing
- Drawbacks of Present Tense Writing
- Tips for Writing in the Present Tense
- Writing in Present Tense: Conclusion
What is the Present Tense in Fiction?
The present tense is a type of grammatical tense used to explain events as though they're happening right now. While this is generally not the way people tell each other stories, it has become increasingly popular in fiction in recent years.
Here's an example of the present tense:
I'm waiting for the bus when I notice the man. Something about his body language bothers me. I have seen him before, but I can't remember where. Now I straighten as he approaches, as if making myself look bigger will force him to think twice if he means me harm. This is silly because I stand just a hair above five feet tall on my best day. The man passes me on the sidewalk, leaving me feeling a mixture of relief and self-recrimination. I've been prone to anxiety for years, but this is ridiculous.
There's a lot to talk about in that passage, but we'll get to it all as we go through this post. For now, just note the use of the present tense verbs, which are bolded above. Some are action verbs, while others (like “is”) are state-of-being verbs.
Understanding the Present Tense: The Four Tenses
Even if you aren't technically familiar with the present verb tense, chances are you know it when you see it. If you're like many writers, you have an instinctive understanding of both major tenses used in fiction writing: the present and the past. This simply comes from all the reading you've done over your life.
While this is a good place to start, it pays to develop a deeper understanding. After all, this is the best way (along with practice) to master the craft of writing. So let's get into it without delay!
There are four verb tenses in the present tense that every writer should be familiar with. These are simple present, present perfect, present progressive, and present perfect progressive. The two you'll be using most while writing present tense fiction are the simple present tense and the present progressive tense, so we'll start with those.
The Simple Present Tense
This is the simplest and most immediate form of the present tense. It's used to describe actions taking place now. This can be for single actions or habitual ones. Most of the passage above is written in simple present, but here are some specific examples:
Something about his body language bothers me.
Now I straighten as he approaches. . .
This is silly because I stand just a hair above five feet tall on my best day. The man passes me on the sidewalk. . .
All the action described above is happening in the story's present — your timeline anchor when writing in the present tense.
Now let's look at the next most common form of the present tense used in fiction.
The Present Progressive Tense
Sometimes called present continuous, this verb tense is used to describe action that is ongoing in the present tense. There are two examples of present progressive in the passage above:
I'm waiting for the bus . . .
. . . leaving me feeling a mixture of relief and self-recrimination.
The character is still waiting for the bus when she notices the man. It's an ongoing action. Same with the feeling she has after the man passes and she realizes she's not in danger.
The Present Perfect Tense
Present perfect is used to describe actions that have already been completed before the story's “now.” It can also describe habitual past actions. Here's the only example from the passage:
I have seen him before, but I can't remember where.
The character has seen him before, in the past, making this an action started and completed in the past.
The Present Perfect Progressive Tense
Sometimes called present perfect continuous, this tense is used to describe actions that were started in the past but continue in the literary present. Here's the only example from the passage:
I've been prone to anxiety for years, but this is ridiculous.
You can usually tell present perfect progressive by the use of “have” and “been” together. In this case, she started suffering from anxiety in the past (years ago) and is still suffering in the present. It's a continuous action.
Present Tense Books to Read
As I’m sure you already know, it’s beneficial to read books written in the present tense if you hope to write one yourself. There are a number of present-tense books you can read from various eras. Here are some of the most notable:
- Bleak House by Charles Dickens
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- Rabbit, Run by John Updike
- Dead Girls Can't Tell Secrets by Chelsea Ichaso
Benefits of Present Tense Writing
As mentioned above, the primary reason many authors use the present tense is for the sense of immediacy. It gives the story a cinematic feel that is hard to replicate when writing in the past tense.
It also happens that the present tense can provide for a more intimate relationship with the narrator and/or the POV character. This can be ideal if your plot uses an unreliable narrator to pack a twist at the end.
Finally, from a writing point of view, some authors find it simpler to write a present-tense story than a past-tense story. In the past tense, you have access to all twelve tenses in the English language. In the present tense, you really only use four, with an occasional past perfect tense thrown in during a flashback. This can make things simpler during the writing and editing process.
Drawbacks of Present Tense Writing
The factors that make present tense writing great for some stories serve to make it less than ideal for others. The present tense can lend a story that takes place over a short period a sense of immediacy. But it can make stories with longer timelines seem awkward or strained. After all, it's hard to jump around in time smoothly while writing in present tense.
The factors that can make present-tense writing ideal for stories with one or two point-of-view characters also limit its usefulness in stories with larger casts. Not only is it harder to delve naturally into a secondary character's background or motivations, but it can give the reader whiplash when you jump around from character to character in this kind of writing.
Finally, a considerable drawback of present-tense writing is that many readers don't like it. While it is slowly getting more popular, especially in YA novels, it's still not the preferred style of many readers. This is why it's crucially important to pay attention to the genre before opting for this tense.
Tips for Writing in the Present Tense
Now that we've covered the four primary tenses you'll use when writing a present tense novel, let's dive into some tips to help you decide whether present tense is ideal for your story.
Check Your Genre
If you plan to become a professional writer, then you'll likely want to write to market. By paying attention to what readers of your genre like, you can write something that will have wide reader appeal. This is a great way to give your book the best chance of success.
So before you decide on present or past tense, take a look at your genre and see what tense most other authors (especially ones you like) are using. Let this influence your decision.
Conversely, if you’re writing just for the pleasure of it, you won’t need to worry about wide reader appeal. There’s certainly nothing wrong with concentrating fully on writing the book you want to write.
Consider Characters and Timeline
While it's entirely possible to jump around from character to character and across time in a present-tense narrative, it's not easy to do well. Since this writing tense feels so immediate, it can be jarring to jump ahead a week or a day—even an hour.
This is why present-tense novels tend to stick with a small number of POV characters (often only one) and take place over a relatively short period of time. So if you have a wide cast of characters all in different places or times, then consider carefully writing in the present tense.
We covered the four primary tenses you'll use when writing a story in the present tense. When you move from one of these tenses to another, it's called a tense shift. This is not the same as a tense change.
When you change to a different tense—like from present to past—there needs to be a clear reason for it. If you're shifting briefly to simple past to relay a past event before coming back to the present moment, this is okay. It's just not a good idea to alternate between these two tenses for significant chunks of the book.
For example, think carefully before doing something like writing certain chapters in the present tense while writing others in past. It's possible to craft a great story doing this, but it's certainly not the norm and it's not easy.
Still Not Sure? Try Both!
If, after reading this far, you're still not sure whether to use past or present tense, consider writing a couple of chapters of your story in both. Once you're done, step away from them for a few days or a week (or a month!), and then come back and read them with fresh eyes. This should help you determine which tense is right for your story.
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Writing in Present Tense: Conclusion
Writing in the present tense takes some getting used to. After all, this is not the natural way we tell stories. But that doesn't mean you should discount it altogether. It's a tool to keep your writer's toolbox. And once you understand it well, you can take it out and use it with ease when you need it.
To get used to writing in the present tense, consider short stories. Not only does the present tense work well for short fiction, but it's a great way to practice. This can help you pay attention to the benefits and drawbacks of the present tense before tackling a full-length novel.
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