Breaking the Rules: Using Present Tense in Fiction

In my copy of the 1922 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, she says “…a first rule for behavior in society is: ‘Try to do and say those things only which will be agreeable to others.'” So, I wonder if I’ll be ruffling any feathers when I publish this post on writing a novel in present tense?

I know. Throw “present tense” in the midst of a discussion on fiction and you beg for trouble, maybe even set the stage for a form rejection.

But hear me out.

My first writing teacher, Ariel Gore, reminded us one day that a good memoir reads like fiction and great fiction can read like a memoir. The art of the narrative is critical in both genres.

Writers of creative nonfiction often use fiction techniques. And, once in a while, a technique for writing memoir crosses over into fiction. I first considered how the practice of writing memoir can influence a work of fiction in a post I wrote on Stanley Kunitz, Memoir and Fiction. When I flipped open my June issue of The Writer and read an article by Mimi Schwartz on using present tense in memoir, I wondered again about transferable techniques.

I punched out the first draft of my current novel-in-progress during NaNoWriMo two years ago.  In thirty days, I wrote a little over 50,000 words of a story that unfolded in present tense. At the time, I was very much a novice writer and didn’t consider the rule that fiction is usually written in past tense. I didn’t consider anything. I was hunched over a keyboard chasing down a character and her tale before she got away. In the end, I was thrilled at having written a full story, even in its most raw stage.

In between the first draft and a serious rewrite, I read a novel that is written in present tense. I barely made it through the novel; each chapter sounded like a running commentary. So, when I sat down to study and rework chapter one of my WIP, I weighed my options: keep the story as is – in present tense – and risk losing the reader after the first few pages, or rework the story into past tense.

As an emerging writer, I wanted to learn my craft (and earn my way) by following the rules first; I could break them later. So, I changed the tense of the story. Each time I re-read my new version of chapter one, though, something pulled at the back of my throat. My gut twisted. My head was telling me to go one way, but the story insisted I go another.

Isn’t that just how it works sometimes? The story has a mind of it’s own, and I am simply a conductor. I couldn’t ignore the pull to return to present tense.

Here’s where Mimi Schwartz’s article (“The special power of present tense”) comes in. Schwartz mentions a few specific ways that present tense can strengthen memoir.

“For creative nonfiction writers, the act of discovery is what makes the genre so appealing.”

When reading a story written in present tense, the audience experiences the immediacy of the character’s own discoveries, adding to the suspense of the story.

Schwartz also says that using present tense can highlight the main character’s “[changes] over time.” Sure, you can do this with past tense as well, but Schwartz emphasizes her point by sharing her own experience when she used it her memoir Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village:

“…[T]he village and the villagers kept drawing me back, literally and figuratively, into their living rooms and kitchens, as I tried to uncover why these people mattered to me in New Jersey, 70 years later. And the present tense let the reader come along; we walk together in my father’s old world, trying to figure it out.”

Writing fiction in present tense can be a stylistic choice that taps into the readers senses and emotion on a deeper level.

There’s still a part of me that worries I’m biting off more than can chew, being so green and all, but I like a challenge. And I also like to listen to the way the story wants to be told. That means, my choice to stick with present tense must be a stylistic move and not a way of avoiding a major restructuring of a draft. Throughout the whole rewriting process, I must make each word, phrase, and passage count.

What are your experiences with present tense? Have you written a short story or a novel that cried out for it? Or, have you read a novel that used it successfully?

*****

Schwartz, Mimi. “The special power of present tense.” The Writer. June 2010: 26-27. Print.

Post, Emily. Etiquette. United States of America: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1922. p.  Print.

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11 responses to “Breaking the Rules: Using Present Tense in Fiction

  1. Poetry is often written in present tense, so it seems that prose could benefit from that here-and-now excitement. I wish you well. Don’t stop until you accomplish the task.

  2. If it feels right for the story, you should just go with it. I think present tense often “demands” attention, so if it’s written well, that’s definitely a good thing. Good luck!

  3. Christi, I’m writing the 1st draft of my historical in present–because I WANT to add to the immediacy. I’m loving it–past tense feels weird/wrong when I try it out. A lot of YA is written in present–including a historical I just read called Bug Boy by Eric Luper.

    I just started a YA that I would call definitely edgy, and it took me a minute to figure out what was feeling awkward in my brain–it’s written in past, which was a surprise. It only took me a few minutes to slip into the voice, but still…

  4. I write in present tense also, pretty much without thinking about it. My background originally is in theater, and that may be part of it. Also nobody ever told me that I “had” to write any particular way–it’s only recently I realized, much the way you did, that I’ve been “naughty” in some sense. (Yay, naughtiness!)

    I do think you have to be careful about giving too much play-by-play when you use present tense. It can, as you note, start to sound like sports commentary or something, especially in an action scene. But there’s risks with anything. That’s what rewrites are for.

    Any editor or agent who would form reject you based solely on that factor is, I think, not one you want anyway.

  5. I wrote my novel in past tense and then went back and completely re-wrote it in present tense. I wanted the reader to feel in the moment. That they won’t know if it will end well or badly. With past tense your reader knows everything will be okay cause it’s already happened.

  6. Thanks everyone, for your comments! It’s great to hear about each of your experiences.

    Maybe we’re all a bunch of rule breakers, but the reasons you all mention for sticking with present tense certainly give me more confidence 🙂

  7. Christi, I have just begun a new YA project in present tense, so this is a timely post! Your story seems to be telling you what to do.

    You’ve given me some good cautions as I proceed (I hadn’t really thought of the potential mine fields involved.) Thank you.

  8. For a super-successful user of the present tense in his many novels, read the German author Hans Fallada. His last novel, recently published in a new translation, and doing very well on the American market, is “Everyone dies alone”, now given the title, “Alone in Berlin.” It would be difficult to find a more brilliant example of present-tense writing, over hundreds of pages.

  9. Lisa, glad my post was helpful. I can’t wait to hear how your experience pans out.

    And, Dorothy, thanks for visiting and mentioning Hans Fallada. I’ll have to check out his work.

  10. Although this s written some time ago, it is timely in relevance to what I am wrestling with right now.
    I will be rereading this and letting it soak in to the tension I am feeling as I struggle to decide–really decide–what tense to choose.

    One question–is it possible to use both tenses within a memoir? I understand the problematic nature of going back and forth too often, but is it possible to write in present tense to engage the reader during a memory of importance and return to past tense to offer reflection?

    • Diane,
      I’m glad you stopped by. My thoughts are that, in writing, anything is possible. Sure, there are standards and general rules we all follow. But, creativity and experience is the nature of writing. I think it’s possible to write a memoir using both tenses. The key is to do it successfully, so that the reader isn’t experiencing whiplash. I’m sure there are memoirs out there that use both tenses in smooth transition throughout, but I can’t think of any examples right now.

      I would suggest thinking through your decision, almost making a pros and cons list. Would using present tense move the story along and at the same time offer the reader perspective on character development? Because, even though we’re talking memoir, your story still must have some sort of arc or purpose of being (change, growth, new perspective).

      My other suggestion would be to write the story the way you want to write it now — follow your gut. You can always go back during revisions and change the tense.

      Hope that helps!

      PS. If you like what you read here, I hope you’ll consider popping over to my new website: http://christicraig.com. While this site will stay live, all my old articles from Writing Under Pressure have been migrated to christicraig.com, and all-things-new will generate from there.

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