In Defense Of The Present Tense, And Other Happy Accidents

A quick head’s up: I have a throat so sore it feels like esophageal gnomes are stabbing my throatmeats with searing hot knives. So, if this post really derails, or is too short, or just stops somewhere in the middle, I probably couldn’t take it anymore and had to pour boiling kettle water into my mouth to kill those stabby fuckers.

All right. Time to focus. Get in the game, Wendig. Get in the game.

My most recent novel — the one that garnered representation — is written in the present tense.

It was an accident.

Well, okay, no — the writing of the entire book that way was not an accident. It’s not like I fell down the steps or dropped a plate and — boom! — a novel written in the present tense was miraculously and unintentionally born.

What happened was, I’d written three drafts of the novel before then.

Each draft was third person past tense, as are most novels.

Something didn’t sit right with those earlier drafts, but I couldn’t quite peg what it was.

I took some time away. Too much time. But, in the meantime, amongst other things, I worked on a number of scripts — screenplays are, of course, written in the present tense.

The day came that I decided to work on the novel again and put together a new draft, and I accidentally wrote a whole chapter (they’re short — under 2k, mostly) in the present tense.

And it was a revelation.

Okay, before that point I was skeptical of the present tense. You don’t see it very often, and conventional wisdom says it’s a big no-no, nuh-uh, no way, compadre. I guess there exists a feeling that past tense is used to tell stories because it’s reflective — you can’t tell a story until after it’s happened, and so the present tense lances this illusion. It sounds silly, but stuff like this matters — if the reader doesn’t respond to the color of the paper on which the story is printed, then he may put it down early, and may not recommend it to others. Tense can be a warning sign for some.

But, looking at the chapter written in present tense, man, I was into it. The story was meant to have a kind of urgency to it, a freaky “in-the-moment” quality where the threads of fate must be untangled even before they are spun, and past tense just wasn’t doing it.

Present tense tightened it. It put a firecracker in its ass. It made it run.

Actually, let’s talk about the merits offered by the present tense.

Cinematic

Some books are ponderous, and appropriately slower — they feature a lot of history or introspection. That’s not a bad thing. For many books, it’s a good thing. Present tense probably isn’t for those, but is rather best for stories that feel present, that you want to read like films. You read actions and events in the present tense — Bobby kicks down the door and stumbles through it, blinking as he gets a face full of white hot sunlight — and to me it reads like a movie playing out in your head. That’s pretty cool. I don’t like all my books to play out that way, but truth is, I find reading screenplays to be elegant, the stories framed in a simple, visual way. Writing a short story or a novel in this mode simulates that, to a degree.

Fast and Urgent

Similar — but different! — is the speed and urgency that the present tense gives the story. It’s like a race to the bathroom with a full bladder! No, no, wait, that sounds horrible. What it does is put the reader right alongside the characters. You’re all in this journey together. It hasn’t happened yet — it’s happening now. A story written in just such a way feels dangerous and uncertain. Anything can happen. Someone might die. Shit might explode. Throat gnomes might suddenly appear at 11:00PM at night while you’re sleeping and start chiseling away at your tonsils with hammers and axes, leaving those implements behind by 3AM to simply use their bare hands with the ragged claws and the befouled fingers and –

Ahem, sorry.

The point is, the story now feels fresh, the mysteries and events with uncertain outcomes, the characters always on the cusp rather than having already been. For me, writing in the present tense even had that sense of urgency — it felt exciting to write that way.

This makes it good for thrillers, mysteries, adventures, probably even horror. Other books that require a lot of explication and exposition will likely suffer from present tense, instead.

Unique Perspective

This one’s a double-edged sword — a story told in the present tense is unusual enough that it might warrant a shout-out in reviews, or it might even warrant someone to take that extra step to review your work having heard about the choice you’ve made as an author. This can reward you, or it can bite you in the ass. That said, if you’re looking for something to set the story apart, this is one way to do it. I don’t recommend it as the primary reason for using it — at that point, we’re talking about it being a gimmick, like being about to shoot milk out of your eye or being able to tie your genitals into pornographic “balloon” animals.

The Overall Challenge

The overall challenge is throat gnomes. They have invited friends. Hounds, elf-hounds, willing to scratch the earth that is my esophagus and see if they cannot find a treat deep within the pillowy tenderloin pockets of my tonsils. Little bastards, all of ‘em.

But, were you to identify an overall challenge in regards to writing fiction in the present tense — well, I’d say it’s overcoming the stigma that the present tense has.

The good news is, I think that stigma is lessening. You find more books written in present tense now than you used to, and as this post by Grammar Girl notes, many of them are good ones. Chuck Palahniuk? Dan Simmons? Seth Harwood? Audrey Niffenegger? (I’d also add: Charlie Huston.) These authors write books not only notable for their usage of present tense, but really excellent books written in the present tense. Point being, it can be done, and it can be done awesomely.

The bad news is, it’s still a stigma, and by choosing to go that route, you are putting up a “love it or hate it” flag.

Now, some will tell you that you can’t get an agent or a book deal with something written in the present tense. Obviously not true, given that many books have reached publication with present tense intact. (Moreover, I’ll remind you that I got myself an agent recently — same agent as the aforementioned Harwood — with a novel written in the present tense. … Of course, I say that, and I’ll probably get edits in the next couple days that tell me, “Oops! Present tense has gotta go!”)

Yes, it’s a choice. And yes, it’s a viable one. Every choice you make in a novel is one that could potentially threaten readership — whether you choose to write a science-fiction novel or a book with a female, non-white protagonist, every choice in the writing process is one capable of both turning off a reader and turning on a new reader. Best you can do is to ignore the concern over trends, be aware of dangers, and then write the best damn book you can with your choices firmly in place.

And now, I go to spray the throat gnomes in their many eyes with Chloraseptic. Wish me luck.

9 comments

  • I’ve been noticing more works are being done in present. From what I’ve read about the history of writing (alright, it’s one book by Orson Scott Card; sue me) tense and style change, evolve, and rescind over time. It’s possible present tense is making a strong comeback, along with disco and apothecaries.

    That being said, it is still not my cup of tea. I still prefer my third person past limited, and I find it really difficult to write in anything else. I can enjoy present tense if the subject matter is compelling, but it has to fit with the feel and I will say I am looking forward to seeing what you did with it.

    With all that said, some tenses just don’t work. My wife is convinced she can write an entire work in second person – she did this with a character history once and ever since has been infatuated with the style.

  • Something similar happened to me with the novel I’ve spent over a decade developing. It’s hit full manuscript-in-search-of-representation a few times, but the most recent change reminds me of your struggle.

    First came the gender change. In junior high the protagonist had been male. This had the problems of me being too close to him. So, switch his Y chromosome to X and hey presto, distance and character depth. The story went in a different direction and was an overall good change. I’d kept it in first person perspective, however, and interspersed it with breaks to a third person omniscient perspective which didn’t work.

    I didn’t know it didn’t work at the time. It was only after another failed attempt to get much attention for the work that I was told that the third person bits broke the flow too much. That, along with inspiration for something to make the work a little less pedestrian and more speculative, helped the novel move into it’s current form, which while still a work in progress, feels much more like the kind of thing people will want to pick up and read.

    At least, I hope so.

  • You and me need to stop this agreeing thing. This is exactly why I wrote Whitechapel in the present tense — to give it that sense of immediacy and mystery. If it happened to you, you can predict certain things (like the narrator surviving). If it’s in the present, though, anything’s game.

  • Some people do it well, some don’t. Palahniuk is a great example. But I think then you get sold as a formula writer. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with that.

    My problem seems to be that I can’t wrap my head around how it’s all in the present, since I don’t read at the exact same chronological pace the narrative is happening in. Three-hundred pages of “now,” doesn’t work for me. First-person gets me good in short fiction though.

  • Totally agree, some things just scream for 1st person. Had it happen to me in a short story or two that just weren’t working until I switched.

    Biggest obstacle for writers is that it’s hard to do. When done well awesome, when not done well…eek~! :P

  • (For the record, this post is more about present tense than first person — both are interesting choices, but I think “present tense” comes with more inherent risk than first-person. Of course, doing both can be pretty cool. You want to be really balls-out, go “second person present tense.” I mean, wow.)

    Ultimately, present tense relies on the writer to write a kickin’ book.

    On the one hand, this is like with any choice made — I don’t like fantasy so much, but a good fantasy novel is a good novel, regardless of my opinions of the genre.

    Present tense can be like that (you may not like it, but if it’s done well, ala Charlie Huston, then good is good).

    Unfortunately, with something like fantasy, you’ll get people who buy it Just Because it’s in that genre. Doesn’t matter if it’s good or not.

    Present tense doesn’t have adoring fans. At least, I don’t think.

    I’d love to see a secret cult of present tense proselytes.

    They are always Doing.

    They are never Recollecting.

    All right. Soup calls.

    — c.

  • First person present tense is my absolute favourite way to write. I blame that mostly on MMO-based roleplaying, because I was all about the third person past tense before that. However, I disagree with you saying it’s not really designed for introspection; that’s exactly what I use it for.

    For me, it’s hard to show something in third person. It always ends up coming off more as telling. In first person past tense it’s almost the same, just with the hes and shes replaced with Is. When I write in first person present tense, though, it comes off less as someone telling the story and more of being inside the character’s head. It’s hard to explain (or at least, I suck at explaining it), but I actually think a less connected perspective is better for action-oriented stories, whereas introspection benefits from a personal, in-the-moment view of things. I can relate more to that sort of view since I’m not an omniscient ball that views everything five minutes after it happens. (Not to say there’s anything wrong with people who are.)

    That said, I think your take on it is very interesting. I agree that it puts you alongside the characters, I just disagree on the outcome — but it all depends on how you write and what you’re writing.

  • Chuck, thanks for writing this. Working in the present tense through a book length ms. is kind of fun. Otherwise I cannot explain my behavior although I didn’t think of it as a gimmick so much as a way to tell the story, which, oddly enough, contains a lot of introspection without stopping the character in his tracks.

  • I think the anti-present-tense sentiment is like many other “writing rules.” Which is to say, they really ought to be called writing *guidelines*. They usually exist because it tends to be harder to write well if you don’t follow them—but that doesn’t mean you can’t break them to fantastic effect, or that they don’t have incredibly valuable uses. I think such guidelines are important to take into consideration when writing, and also important to throw out when the need arises.

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