Writing Is A Bad Habit: A Clear and Present (Tense) Danger!

I’ll be frank, folks.  I’m not a fan at all of the present tense, at least for the purposes of fiction.  That’s not to say that there can’t be a good piece of literature written in the present tense … it’s certainly possible … but it requires just the right premise to come off correctly and, in my opinion, works best for short stretches or, obviously, appropriately used in dialogue.  So, with my own personal preferences put out there, let me then bring up the actual topic of this article, which is hopefully wiped clean of my own prejudices.

The point is that, if you do decide to extensively use the present tense in your works, be extremely careful to use it correctly.  The clear and present danger I see on a regular basis in the books I review among those who use the present tense is a strange and unflinching need to write every clause, every sentence, every verb in the present tense.  The problem with this should be glaringly obvious: even in a present tense piece, if the narrative speaks of future or past events relative to the time frame of the narrative, you still need to use the appropriate tense to have it make sense.

If you have a sentence that says ‘Bob goes to the store like he goes to the store last Saturday’, that is obviously wrong, right?  Yet, I often see this sort of mistake done repeatedly in present-tense books so it’s a pitfall I feel I should spread the word about to those writers who use present-tense.  Working in the present is a challenge, I won’t deny it, and its nature of each sentence living in the ‘now’ can make for difficulties in tense agreement.  This is the most basic manifestation of that challenge and writers need to stay vigilant for it.

There are a variety of other challenges that present themselves for present-tense writers.  The other one that I would say I have encountered the most is lack of continuity control, especially in a present-tense piece that shifts points of view.  When you have a narrative that is continually set in the now, there is a certain extra edge of precision that comes up.  You need to constantly keep in mind the exact order of operation of events so that you can keep up the proper tense usage moment by moment, as well as ensure that, for each sentence, your narrative doesn’t lose track of what has happened when.

Think of it as each action in the narrative as a tick of the clock.  The next sentence or action is the next tick.  In a past-tense narrative, you have a bit of ambiguity on your side, as all actions take place in the past.  If you do make an error in order, it’s less likely to be noticed as you are less likely to make tense mistakes.  In the present-tense, it’s easy to make a slip up and it’s far easier to be noticed.  It can even cause an unintended chain-reaction of continuity flaws as you make one tense error, miss the mistake, and take it as the new continuity of action.  Again, this can happen with all tense of narrative, but it is easier to make that mistake in present-tense narratives with their added complexity.

So, if you want to write your works in the present tense, be extra careful as you work.  Be ever vigilant for tense agreement and continuity snarls or they will confuse and turn off your readers!  Until next time, good luck and good writing!

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2 comments

  1. Present tense: ick. It does nothing to help me “identify” with a character, nor to feel any sense of “immediacy.” It just calls attention to itself. To me, the proper place for present tense is stage directions in a script. In fact, I more than slightly suspect that some present-tense writers are angling for the sale of TV or movie rights, especially when most of the book is dialogue, and the story leaps through a multitude of very short “chapters” that are more like scenes. (“Hey, look, this one’s almost a screenplay, already! Let’s buy it!”)

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