Present Tense

I’ve been on a present tense jag for a while now.

I wrote the first draft of my WWII zombie novel in past tense, with third-person limited POVs shifting between the three main characters. One of my beta readers’ first suggestions was, “Have you considered present tense? And what about first-person POVs?”

At first I was reluctant to try, because switching the tense and person meant that I would have to make changes to every single sentence.

But I was sold fairly quickly. I agree with the now-traditional wisdom that present tense feels more immediate and up close, and it works well for my zombie novel, which is often (as one might rightly assume) claustrophobic and action oriented.

But I like present tense for other reasons, too. As nerdy as it sounds, I like that present tense is usually shorter than past tense on the page, and past tense is always shorter than past perfect. I seem to write a lot of memories and flashbacks (often just a sentence to give emotional or plot context), so being able to use past tense for those instead of past perfect simplifies my sentences. Plus I get to feel good for trimming back my word count.

The first time I noticed present tense in a novel was when I read Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in a literary criticism class in college. Chabon’s novel is self-consciously literary (in a good way; it’s still one of my favorite contemporary novels), and I remember thinking, as a young student who wanted to be a novelist, that Chabon’s use of present tense was part of what made his novel stylish and poignant, like his almost-but-not-quite-over-the-top metaphors and his well-thought-out, darkly humorous uses of alternate history.

More recently, my sister and I wrote the first draft of our pirate novel in present tense. And right now I’m editing my portal fantasy novel, and part of that process is converting the manuscript from past to present tense. Maybe I’m overthinking the significance of tense, but when I was rereading the manuscript in preparation for editing it, the past tense felt stodgy to me. It read like one of those Brönte novels (or The Life of Pi, or The Name of the Wind; pick your reference) where as a reader I knew the narrator was telling me the story retrospectively. All the events had already happened, and the story is the narrator’s best remembrance of what happened, not the events themselves. In contrast, present tense feels more like the immediate thoughts and reactions of the characters. The suspense is higher for me, because the characters don’t know what happened yet either.

In my Maggie manuscript, for instance, it’s the difference between, “She couldn’t remember if she had heard of Jon since—if he had had any part in that future with momentum,” and “She can’t remember if she’s heard Jon’s name since then—if he played any part in that better future.

So maybe it’s a subtle difference, not a huge difference. But it is a difference.

One thought on “Present Tense

  1. Joel, for devotional writing at Words of Hope, we work with both present and past tense. I still go back and forth, and sometimes a mixture is used and still sounds natural. I’m still working on understanding the dynamics at play. But here’s the style advice I have on our style sheet for now:

    Tenses for verbs of saying: “Sometimes the question of tense arises with verbs of saying used with quotations. In most cases, logic and the context will dictate the tense. When in doubt, the best rule is this: An author spoke or wrote the work in the past, but the work itself speaks to us in the present” (CWMS, s.v. “Quotations,” plus examples that follow). Allow author flexibility on this point, however, and let the euphony of well-written prose flow naturally.

    Solomon said, “Remember your creator in the days of your youth” (Eccl. 12:1).
    As Ecclesiastes says, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (12:1).

    However, when the author and work are cited, tense should be present: “In his commentary, Such-and-such theologian says, ‘The problem is this, that, and the other thing.'”


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