Most fiction authors write in the past tense. They tell readers what happened. This is as if the author says, “I see the events in my mind, and I’m writing about what I saw.” Very few fictional books are written in the present tense.
One reason for this is that writing in the present tense provides serious challenges to the author: maintaining perspective, introducing prior events, and filtering the stream of consciousness.
Below, we discuss these challenges and provide an example of present-tense writing done well.
1. Maintaining Perspective: Well-written scenes have only one perspective. As readers, our focus is on one character, and the scene is described through that character’s experiences. Usually, the focus will be on the protagonist. We perceive the scene through that character. However, that scene can be described again from another character’s experience. This is possible because the scene is written in the past tense. We already know that it has happened.
When writing in the present tense, the events have an immediacy that makes this difficult. We read about what is happening at the moment, not about what already happened. This limits the author’s ability to show events from multiple perspectives because when the perspective shifts, the events already occurred. As such, when the perspective changes, the author continues to show what is now happening but through a different perspective. The author keeps the readers in the “now.” This can be a powerful tool for keeping the reader engaged in the story, but it is difficult to accomplish.
2. Introducing Prior Events: Events do happen prior to the current experience, and describing them in a present-tense story requires a shift to the past tense. However, the author may need to include those events to help the reader understand the present experience or to provide the motivation for a character’s actions and thoughts. This is difficult to accomplish. The author must make these time shifts smoothly, without losing the present-tense perspective and without making the reader wonder when the event is taking place. The author has to separate present and past tense without damaging the readers’ engagement in the present tense events.
3. Filtering the Stream of Consciousness: The human brain is always thinking, which means that the character on whom we are focused is having many thoughts. Some may be repetitions, some may be revisions of prior thoughts, and some may be off topic completely. Some will be new and relevant to the experience the character is having.
The challenge to the author is identifying the thoughts that are relevant and necessary to the story without creating gaps in the character’s consciousness. Shifting between a description of thoughts to description of physical activities and environment will help, but as with introducing prior events, this can be difficult. While we are reading the character’s thoughts and feelings in the present tense, other actions and events are occurring. Thus, when the author “leaves the character’s mind” and returns to the “real world,” he cannot go back to describe what has happened in the meantime. So the second part of this challenge is to ensure that the reader doesn’t miss critical events.
An Example of Present Tense Fiction: Robert Silverberg, winner of multiple Nebula and Hugo awards, uses the present tense very effectively in Starborne. This is the story of 50 people traveling across the universe through “nospace” to find a new planetary home. Obviously, it is science fiction.
Here’s a quip from the book that addresses the second and third challenges:
“The year-captain wonders whether everyone aboard, one by one, is about to undergo some maddening transformation for the worse. Already Noelle is losing the ability to communicate with her sister on Earth; the blunt and straightforward Sieglinde has unsettlingly chosen to challenge the reliability of the theorems that she herself helped to write; and now the easygoing and irreverent Heinz is tiresomely eager to explain the year-captain’s own responsibilities to him. What next? What next, he wonders.”
Science fiction may not be your preferred genre, but this novel is worth reading if you intend to write in the present tense and are unsure about how to do it well. Find it in a bookstore, sit in a chair, and read the first couple chapters, at least. Study how Silverberg resolves the three challenges noted above.
Also, many of the comments below provide great examples of books in the present tense.
We have a variety of editorial services for authors that will help you prepare your manuscript, but reading Starborne will give you a good start.
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