05 November 2018

Present Tense Tension

by Steve Liskow

One of my beta readers returned a manuscript yesterday and commented that she liked the way present tense carried the story along.

I grew up listening to baseball games on the radio, and the play-by-play was always in present tense. All the announcers were great story-tellers, putting you on the mound, in the batter's box, racing for the fence after that fly ball. You became part of the game. That's why so many of us grew up wanting to be Willie Mays, Yogi Berra or Al Kaline.

But today, many editors loathe present tense. At least one publisher I know says "Absolutely no present tense" on their website guidelines, and I've seen the same warning on a few magazine sites. I've never understood why.

Present tense is nothing new. Charles Dickens used it for portions of Bleak House, one of my favorite novels. Other writers have used it off and on, just as some people experiment with point of view or stream of consciousness or some other technique.

If we're telling a story, we can assume that it's over so past tense is natural and logical. Past tense adds distance if you're discussing a particularly disturbing event because it implies that the narrator survived to tell about it. Everything is over and it's safe again.

But present tense became more common after World War II. Salinger opens The Catcher in the Rye with Holden Caulfield talking to us (his therapist) before he moves into past to tell his story. Kesey's first words in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are "They're out there." Both Salinger and Kesey trace their literary lineage straight back to Huckleberry Finn, which starts by addressing the reader in present tense: "You don't know me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain..." Twain even manages BSP right out of the gate.

By the 1970s, the style choice was fairly common. Pynchon opens Gravity's Rainbow with "A screaming comes across the sky."

All my early unpublished work was in past tense. Then I read Don Winslow's California Fire and Life, still one of my favorite crime novels--in present tense. Winslow consistently uses present tense, and while you may or may not like his characters or plots, the tense is never a problem. He made me consider that choice seriously for the first time.

My first published novel, Who Wrote the Book of Death? is in present tense. I started writing The Whammer Jammers in past tense and it bogged down after about 50 pages. Then I realized it was sports, like those baseball games when I was a kid. As soon as I changed to present tense, the story took off and I finished a 300-page first draft in five weeks.

Regardless of editorial bias, the present tense has advantages. First, it's more immediate. Not only does the action happen before the reader's eyes, it makes him participate. I generally use what used to be called third person detached POV, and it helps me share the character's reactions and responses, too. It's easy to add sensory detail without calling attention to it, which helps deepen character, too.

Three different readers (all good writers, all female) tell me that the most disturbing scene I've ever written is in The Whammer Jammers. The scene involves Annie Rogers being raped by the abusive boyfriend against whom she has a restraining order, and it got the book rejected by at least one agent (She told me her reader stopped at that scene). The scene had to be horrible to change the trajectory of the plot, and present tense accomplishes that. It means that since the event isn't "over" yet, it could get even worse. I only remember one other scene nearly that bad, and it's in past tense (Shoobie confronting the killer in Dark Gonna Catch Me Here), which seems to soften it a little.

I write the Connecticut novels (Zach Barnes, Trash & Byrne) in present tense because that's how and where I started them. The early drafts of the Detroit books used past tense, and I decided to keep them that way to help me separate them from the Barnes stories. That helped when I was writing or revising two or even three books at once. Now it's not an issue, but I find that I'm used to plotting the Guthrie books in past tense except for Megan Traine's scenes. Meg lives in the moment, so sometimes her scenes work better in present tense.

I'm currently plotting the next Woody Guthrie book, which doesn't even have a title yet. The list of characters grows and shrinks daily, too. I know one pivotal scene that will occur around the middle of the book, though, and it's ugly and brutal. It's also necessary. It will take the book into darker places than I usually go, but it already feels right. The good news is that the Detroit books are in past tense, and that adds a little buffer zone.

Hold that thought…


  1. I prefer present tense. As you said – it is more immediate. I hesitate to use it in my historical novels, but I use it in my mysteries. I am also grown more partial to first person point of view. the combination of present tense and first person gives me so much freedom with the story.

  2. O'Neil, I'm currently reading an advance copy (for a review) of a Swedish historical mystery set in 1793, and it uses present tense very well. It enables the writer to include some historical detail and sensory description without being heavy-handed, and I'm enjoying it a lot. It's the first book by this writer, and he may have a long career ahead of him if this book keeps up at the same level for another 300 pages.

  3. Ah present tense. I am one of those who cannot read it. Here is why: It defies logic. If the story is happening *right now*, how did it get written on the page(my keyboard has gone french and I can`t get the question mark!!) Apparently, 60% of readers have this problem. Our brains get thrown out of the story when we read a present tense word. It reads as a mistake.
    I`m sad that I can`t read it. I know I`m missing some good stories. But it`s not really a question of choice. I`m simply thrown out of the story every paragraph. Publishers know there are a lot of people like me, and so some of them don`t want to see their potential audience reduced. (I heard this from a big five editor.)

  4. I'm with Melodie on this one. Besides defying logic as to how it's getting written on the page, present tense also defies the way people actually talk - we may say, "I'm going to the store now," but we never describe an entire day or even an entire incident (including a rape) to anyone else in the present tense. Sorry.

  5. Great topic. FOr me, present tense is an obstacle. If you write in present tense you have to be that much better to keep me reading.

    I used it once, in "The Center of the Universe," which appeared in Seattle Noir. I had several reasons. The main character was somewhat reality-challenged, and I thought present tense worked well for that. Also, there were long flashbacks and leaping into past tense for them seemed to make them stand out better.

  6. I've never written a story in present tense, but I find I sometimes write blogs or Facebook posts in present tense. To me, present tense feels very colloquial, and it reminds me of growing up in New York and talking to friends. Example: So I'm standing on line at Boston Market and the guy in front me says to the lady behind the counter, "You're out of dark meat?" And I look at my friend and go, "Out of dark meat? How can they be out of dark meat chicken at lunchtime? This is a freaking chicken restaurant. It's all they serve." And she says ...

    If it's done well, I don't mind present tense. If it's done well, I could go half a book without even realizing the book is in present tense. But as Mel said, some people have a big problem with it and won't read such stories. Why limit your audience? I know you said some scenes work better for you in present tense than past tense--that the tension comes through better. I'm surprised you can't get that shock and horror in past tense, too. But of course, to each his own.

  7. Hi Melodie, Eve, & Barb. I know what you mean. I'm not quite at the point of being unable to read a story in present tense & I don't think I've ever written one. My pet peeve is when people say "I'm like" & switch tenses when speaking, as in, "I was waiting in line at the deli. Eventually, my number was called and I asked for half a pound of pastrami. The man said they were sold out of pastrami, and I'm like, ehhhhh? And so I asked for half a pound of chicken salad ..."

    The present-tense bit following "and I'm like" is always something unintelligible. This doesn't come up very often in writing, but if it ever does I'll holler about it some more. 😵

  8. Interesting reactions here. I wonder how many people who "can't" or "won't" read present tense narration watch films or attend plays, two other narrative forms that use present tense. Does the visual mode of perception make a difference? But reading is visual, too, although I have a reading problem identified as AUDITORY subvocalization. Maybe that's a factor. I don't know. And, again, those play-by-play sports announcers...

    I just looked through my published short stories. Only two of them are in present tense BUT one was Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard Award and the other was an Edgar finalist. So was the novel that was a finalist for the Shamus.

    Barb's example is perfect. Urban working class dialect often uses present tense. Again, since we receive it in auditory mode instead of reading it (visual), maybe that makes a difference.

    Am I limiting my audience by choosing to write some stories in present tense, or is the audience limiting its choices of reading material by choosing not to read present tense?

  9. I'm with the women on this. I tend to find present tense distracting.

    Barb's conversation cracked me up. I could hear those nasal vowels and stubby consonants all the way here.

    For instance, I'm thinking of a famous author of about 15 years ago. I spent the first hundred pages getting used to present tense. After that, my ear became attuned, but still…

    That said, I like your sports analogy and I can see (hear) that working. Maybe it's the quality of the writer. Perhaps in the right hands, present tense works so smoothly I don't notice it.

    I experimented with flashbacks written in present tense. That is, the main body present-day action was written in past tense and flashbacks were written in present tense (as if reliving the moment). Counter-intuitively, it worked.

    Thanks for visiting this topic, Steve, and givubg an idea how others think.

  10. Steve, I'm afraid I'm another who doesn't like present tense. I've finally become accustomed to it enough that I can read stories and novels written that way, but I usually don't enjoy them as much. I think Leigh said it best: I find it distracting. And I've never written a story in present tense. (If I did, I fear I would constantly "lapse" back into the once-upon-a-time past tense that I'm so comfortable with.)

    Great discussion!!

  11. As a reader, I'm turned off by the present tense in fiction. To me, it's the writer calling attention to his or herself, distracting the reader from the story. I don't read fiction written in the present tense.


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