Should writers use the present tense?

The present tense is a controversial subject among writers. You’ll hear people who love it and people who vow never to read anything written with it. If you write present tense, however, you’re not keeping bad company. Haruki Murakami, John Updike, and Margaret Atwood have all written wonderfully in present tense. They’re not the only ones to utilize it to excellent effect. Here are a few examples of present tense books and what they use the tense to accomplish.

WaterForElephantsWater for Elephants by Sara Gruen

This book is narrated by an old man in a nursing home, and some of the chapters take place while he’s in the nursing home, while others are set in his colorful past as a circus veterinarian. Both timelines are told in the present tense.

Why is this effective? Well, the old man in the nursing home is living out his present life, but when these memories of his past come back to him, they return so vividly that the Depression era circus becomes his reality. The memories take him over entirely. They become his present, and this is communicated beautifully by the use of the present tense.

Dream-boyDream Boy by Jim Grimsley

This gem of a book is about two gay young men falling in love in the rural South, amidst intolerance and violence. As the title might suggest, the book has an almost ethereal, dream-like quality to it. The present tense is instrumental in creating this illusion that we’re wrapped in a dream, because dreams are always in the present. The moment a dream becomes past, it fades, it loses its power, it is forgotten.

The past tense lends a sort of weight to the events — “this happened” is more definitive then “this is happening.” To craft this delicate dream, Grimsley uses the present tense to keep us from getting complacent and believing this accounting of events to be the solid, objective truth.

FightclubcvrFight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Fight Club is a breathless, violent, exhilarating ride. To really drive home this intense feeling of urgency, Palahniuk uses the present tense. The sense that events are unfolding as we careen helplessly through them, rather than that we’re taking a journey that’s already happened, gives the novel an immediacy that matches the frenetic tone of the story.

My novels

I use the present tense for my novels Dark City and Dark Sky, which you can read about here. Initially, my use of the present tense was an intuitive choice, but after I learned how controversial the topic was, I thought a lot about why I did it and whether it was worth it.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I use the present tense because my novels are character driven, rather than plot driven, with an emphasis on the characters’ emotional journeys.

A plot driven book relies on events, and when it comes to relaying events, I feel the past and present tense can both be effective. Take this example:

I walk to the store.

I walked to the store.

Both sentences convey more or less the same meaning, albeit with a slightly different tone and feeling. But then consider the difference between these two sentences:

I love him.

I loved him.

The two sentences have very different meanings. In the present, the difference between “I loved him” and “I love him,” is clear, that “I loved him” in a present tense novel means that the love died at some point along the way. In the past tense, there’s no simple way to communicate the difference between a character thinking “I loved him in this current state” and “I loved him but then fell out of love.”

The other reason I prefer the present tense is that it’s more emotionally immersive. Emotions are fleeting, fickle things. The moment we stop feeling an emotion and it becomes past, it loses a lot of its power. The present tense keeps that emotion in the raw place where we first felt it, making it a powerful tool to craft an emotionally resonant book.

I’d argue this emotional potency is why the present tense is so popular among Young Adult writers and readers. Teenagers’ emotions are about as powerful as they come, and I think the present tense does a better job of capturing that intensity than past.

This is not to say that the past tense can’t be an effective tool, in fact most authors use it to wonderful effect. But the present tense can be just as powerful a tool. Which tense you should use depends on what kind of book you’re writing. If you really feel like present tense serves your book best, ignore the people who criticize it. If they’re refusing to read Fight Club because of the tense, they’re missing out. Same goes for your novel 🙂


Featured image by Sonja Longford [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons


2 thoughts on “Should writers use the present tense?

  1. lukewinters says:

    Interesting article Sarah, thanks for posting. I really struggle writing in the present tense though! There’s real art to it.

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