Grammar Points: Present Tense

What, you were expecting some lovey-dovey treatise on Valentine’s Day? Perish the thought.

Those who have gotten comments from me probably think I hate the present tense in narrative writing. I swear I don’t. Writing in the present can be very effective, if and when it’s used correctly. Simply, I respect its power.

Any reading experience involves a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, that feeling of the story being more real than just words on the page. Errors, whether typo, grammatical, or continuity, detract from this, serving as reminders that the story isn’t real but the wordcraft of some human, fallible writer.

Stories in the past tense feel like you’re given access to a chronicle of events that took place. Writing in the present tense gives a greater sense of being in the story by being in the moment. Done correctly this actually heightens the suspension of disbelief, bringing the reader acutely into the flow of events. However, and herein lies the danger, errors in verb tense once you’ve established the present as reality completely break the spell. The fall out of the narrative is thus a farther tumble and more pointedly felt.

By all means, write that story in the present tense if you like. Realize though that there’s good reason why most books, almost all the classics really are written in the past tense(and please, chime in if you know a literary great written in present tense, cause we’re all about edification and worldview expansion here at ficly). The tense is simply less forgiving. If you’re going to do it, you have to get it right and stick to it.

Happy ficlying, and good luck, whatever tense you choose.

6 comments Posted 2011-02-14 Author: THX 0477


  • Elizabeth Gallenberg

    Neal Stephenson writes in present tense, and is amazing. [grin] On the short fiction side, Kij Johnson’s fantastic “26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss.” (Read it, seriously; it is a jewel.)

    I do agree more care must be taken when using present tense, mainly because it’s relatively uncommon, so it’s a little harder for readers to get into the story and any slip that breaks the spell kicks them out that much faster.

    I forget now where I read that we often shift into present tense when verbally telling stories, e.g., “So of course I went to his office to talk to him. And he’s sitting there drinking coffee like nothing happened, and he goes, ‘Is something wrong?’ and I think, ‘What kind of question is that?’” I think this shift can be used to great effect in a story to get the immediacy of present tense plus the benefit of being able to set things up with backstory/explanation (which is veeeeeerrry hard to pull off in first-person present) or foreshadow an ending.

    Tense + person = I can natter on all day!

  • THX 0477

    Natter away, Elizabeth. That’s what the blog is for. And thanks for pointing out an author worth reading.

  • Cally Beck

    The other problem with present tense, particularly for longer works, is that it can be hard sometimes to decide where the narrator stands in relation (chronologically) to each word/paragraph/etc. My suspension of disbelief can’t handle the idea that the narrator is simultaneously narrating and, say, in a first person story particularly, punching a guy. You also have to work out what the narrator knows at any given time in the story, etc. Just working out the internal consistencies of a present tense piece is often difficult for me, completely aside from the grammatical considerations.

  • Eckhouse

    Present tense can become relentless over longer narratives. One exemplary exception is Tom Robbins’ “Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas,” my personal primer on how to write in the moment.

  • Jae

    I am currently writing an ongoing series in the present tense, the latest of which can be found here: along with two prequels.

    Feel free to stop by and critique.

  • JayDee

    Ironically enough I’ve seen a little trick in stories told in the traditional past tense, where the author writes flashbacks in the present tense.

    If it’s done in the right way, the present tense seems to convey a sense of dreaminess and disconnection that makes me think of someone recounting a vivid memory in an almost trance-like state.

    Short stories in the present tense are awesome. But I would think it would be tiring to maintain it over the course of a longer work.