T is for Tense: Past and Present Verbs in Fiction

I’ve been noticing more and more books being written in present tense lately. This post is really just my thoughts and questions on the subject. I’d love it to spur dialogue among my readers because I want to know what you think.

I first read a book written in present tense about two years ago. It was historical fiction and jumped back and forth between the past and the present. If that wasn’t confusing enough, the sections in present time were written in past tense and the historical parts were written in present tense. (Because that’s logical, right?) While that was very confusing, I have enjoyed several books written in present tense, such as the Hunger Games series, Divergent by Veronica Roth, and Alyson Noel’s Immortals series.

But I try as I may, I can’t get myself to like present tense writing. I’ve read that it’s supposed to convey a greater sense of immediacy and put you more fully in the center of the action. For me, it’s distracting. I find it stilted and unnatural. I actually have to make myself ignore it, as opposed to being able to read books written in past tense without thinking. Maybe it’s just my traditional schooling (I can see the nuns passing out at the very idea).

I can’t get myself to write in present tense either.  I’ve tried and it’s just not an organic thing for me. (If you don’t believe me, read my post on Samhain.) Granted, I write historical fiction, so writing in the past tense only makes sense, but you get my point.

Does anyone know where this trend came from or why it seems to be growing? I’ve read theories that blame reality TV and social media, but there’s got to be more to it than that. When did traditional past tense writing become not good enough? Do you think it’s just a fad or is this evidence of the evolution of writing? Do you have an opinion on the past vs. present verb debate? What do like better when you read? How do you write? I’d love to hear from you!

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12 thoughts on “T is for Tense: Past and Present Verbs in Fiction

  1. I don’t know – I write both, and sometimes it’s hard to decide which tense is better. I once changed a draft from past to present, and it changed the “feel” quite a lot. At the moment I’m still sitting on it, trying to decide which way to go.

    I like present tense when it’s written in the first person. Third person present tense is a bit odd, I think.

  2. Pingback: Everything Old is New Again « Through the Mists of Time

  3. I write in past tense. The only way I’d consider present tense was if I was writing a heavy action story where the pace was going to be through the roof. And I’m not sure I could do it even then! Old habits die hard!

    I find that I adjust to present tense in others’ books (like The Hunger Games, or Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig) but it always takes me a chapter or two to get into the mode. Past tense just feels so much more natural to me. People have been telling stories for thousands of years, and they are usually told in past tense. I think maybe I’m just hardwired that way.

  4. Reblogged this on Cassandra Page and commented:
    I was debating a day or two ago whether to write the next book in first or third person, and the subject of present or past tense came up in chatting to folks on Twitter. I was going to blog about it, but the gorgeous Nicole has more-or-less summarised my thoughts, so I’m going to be lazy and reblog her post. 😉 (Also, she just got an agent for her historical novel on Guinevere, so you should check out her blog anyway!)
    I’ve always written in past tense. The only way I’d consider present tense was if I was writing a heavy action story where the pace was going to be through the roof. And I’m not sure I could do it even then! Old habits die hard.
    I find that I adjust to present tense in others’ books (like “The Hunger Games”, or “Blackbirds” by Chuck Wendig) but it always takes me a chapter or two to get into the mode. Past tense just feels so much more natural to me. People have been telling stories for thousands of years, and they are usually told in past tense. I think maybe I’m just hardwired that way.

  5. I think it is a matter of choice, and sometimes one of style. Until recently, I wrote everything in past 3rd person. Then I started a paranormal thriller. And stallled. And stalled. On the first chapter no less. It simply wasn’t working. I was re-reading Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series, and I thought, why not try first person present? It was a scary thought. I’d never written in that style, and I’ve seen a lot of first person present hate. But I gave it a try and the book came alive. I finished it two months later, and it had been sitting around as an abandoned incomplete 1st chapter for almost 2 years. Certainly first person present has gotten more popular lately, but it’s been around for a long time. I can certainly understand where it might work for my contemporary thriller, and you can’t imaging using it for your historical romance. That makes sense to me.

    • Hi Julianne,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad writing in first-person worked for you – it shows one shouldn’t be afraid to try new things. Good luck with your writing.

  6. I have wondered about that myself. Honestly, first person present tense throws me off a little bit. I prefer writing third person past tense personally. I did find out something interesting though in Latin. Apparently Romans used present tense far more than in present tense is used in English, so so much for tradition. Romans also always read out loud even to themselves (and therefore used sound devices that sound ridiculous and unnatural in English translation), so that might have been a contribution.
    Those are just thoughts, though

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