Present Tensions, or It’s All Happening Now

When the 2010 Man Booker shortlist was announced in the UK, the Daily Telegraph ran this headline: “Philip Pullman and Philip Hensher criticise Booker Prize for including present tense novels.” In fact, what Pullman said, as he explained in an article in the Guardian, was that “the use of the present tense in fiction had been getting more and more common, and [he] didn’t like it.”

Pullman’s article drew sympathetic responses from many readers who shared his dislike of novels written entirely in the present tense. In the interests of full disclosure, I confess that often I too experience an involuntary feeling of resistance when I confront a novel written in the present tense.

What is it about novels written in the present tense that makes some people so irate?

And why is it that for many people, the past tense is the default tense of the novel? What does the tense of a novel tell us? And why in the past few years have we seen such a proliferation of young adult novels written in the present tense?

In the middle of last summer, in the middle of Fargo, North Dakota, in the middle of an oil crisis, in the middle of six lanes of pickup trucks, SUVs, 4x4s, semis, and minivans, all busy idling, I understood.

This is about not connecting yesterday with tomorrow, I thought. It’s about “it’s all happening now.” About looking neither backward nor forward. It’s about being in an adolescent’s head—a head of hyperbole in which “ruin my life forever” and “worst hair in the history of the world” (say) are statements about Now and only Now.

But writing in the present tense is also a political, even an ideological choice—just as writing in the past tense is a political choice. For many years, virtually every novel was written in the past tense. It was, in a way, how the author, through the narrator, asserted authority: I am a historian, even if of a fictional universe. This is how it happened, the author declares:

The trouble started the day Howard came home from school to find the Goon sitting in the kitchen.

—Diana Wynne Jones, Archer’s Goon, 1984

On the morning of his fourteenth birthday, Pepper had been awake for fully two minutes before realizing it was the day he must die.

—Geraldine McCaughrean, The Death-Defying Pepper Roux, 2009

It was seven o’clock of a very warm evening in the Seeonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day’s rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips.

—Rudyard Kipling, “Mowgli’s Brothers” in The Jungle Book, 1894

These lines don’t invite us to respond, “Oh yeah? It did? Sez who?” There’s nothing provisional about them—they state the day, the age, the very hour. They establish a world; they make a claim. The narrator may be reliable or unreliable, but in either case, he or she is making a statement about something that has happened, and in a voice of authority.

But the past tense does much more than that. The very past-ness of the story acknowledges that the story has been shaped. The past tense shows the narrator, perhaps even the author, quietly admitting responsibility for the way the story is told, admitting that it’s a product of looking back and seeing the threads of cause-and-effect. It’s a silent declaration on the author’s part: this is an act of interpretation, of art, with what I see as the meaningful bits included in the story. In a sense, the past tense is the author acknowledging that to write is to take a stand, to come up with a reading. To put this and that together: to discern cause and consequence.

Of course the story in the present tense is also shaped, but the present tense hides that influence. It doesn’t admit to the determining hand of the writer or narrator, so readily available in the interpretation in retrospect. We don’t have the past-tense assurance that the narrator has made sense of what’s happening, nor the tacit acknowledgment that some bits are included, some left out, and what is mentioned is fundamental to someone’s interpretation of the story, of turning it into a meaningful idea. In this way the present tense is a layer of concealment over the writer’s influence on the way the story is told, and on the fact that to tell it, the writer has taken a stand. The present tense is reportage or live drama: every present tense verb is a step into nothing, into a tale that must make itself up from moment to moment. A Tweet, perhaps. A Facebook comment. Or even reality TV—happening right before your
very eyes.

No wonder, then, that Suzanne Collins uses the present tense in the enormously popular The Hunger Games (2008)—because Collins’s first-person narrator, Katniss, is fighting for her life in a deadly, Survivor-inspired game show. Everything happens now: suspense, fear, breathlessness, nasty, nasty violence, and an intensely pitched uncertainty about the outcome.

As if in a last-ditch effort, Peeta raises his fingers, dripping with blood from his leg, up to Cato’s arm. Instead of trying to wrestle his way free, his forefinger veers off and makes a deliberate X on the back of Cato’s hand. Cato realizes what it means exactly one second after I do. I can tell by the way the smile drops from his lips. But it’s one second too late because, by that time, my arrow is piercing his hand. He cries out and reflexively releases Peeta who slams back against him. For a horrible moment, I think they’re both going over. I dive forward just catching hold of Peeta as Cato loses his footing on the blood-slick horn and plummets to the ground.

Here the present tense gives us one movement after another—raises, veers, makes an X, realizes, cries out, releases, slams back, dives forward, catches hold, loses footing, plummets to the ground. Action after action builds the suspense: will our narrator survive to the next paragraph? The reader is mesmerized: it’s all happening in front of our eyes!

Collins is a canny, effective writer; she enfolds simultaneous action and split seconds into her narrator’s perceptions, intensifying the nowness of it all, the life-or-deathness of it all. Captive to the motion of the moment, walled into the arena in which televised Katniss fights for survival, we are transfixed in the present. Ironically, Collins provides us with the very kind of entertainment she is trying to critique: we have become enraptured viewers of a reality show, and are pumped with triumphant, sickened relief when the other guy falls to his death.

And like viewers of a reality show, we aren’t being shown that the fix is in. We hear Katniss’s eloquent, simultaneous reporting; we see through her eyes. In the immediacy of her account, Collins doesn’t tip the shaping hand of the story-maker—narrator or author—but instead intensifies the Now through dramatic enactment in the present tense. Is there a moment after this moment? Nothing about the words promises one.

It’s that difference, partly, that makes present-tense naysayers irate. Whatever the pretense of your fiction, acknowledge your part in it! Tip your hand; remind your reader that this is artful invention, not reportage! Don’t compose your story as a momentary blip followed by another momentary blip; pretend that it will last until the present is past!

After all, the present is so fleeting that it barely exists (and really, the pretense that a girl like Katniss has the leisure to compose her story so eloquently under the circumstances is laughable). The present is over in less than the time it takes to read a word. It has no duration, but it does ensure that the story will always be happening now: no young adult reader will be able to pick up the story and say, “It happened long ago; it’s irrelevant.”

It’s the video aspect of The Hunger Games that clues us into the proliferation of present tense novels, I think. For the present tense is the tense of Twitter and Facebook; but even more it reflects the experience of video culture. With present tense verbs, video culture finds its way into the written text. If every second of a film or YouTube clip can happen again and again in front of our eyes in real time, perhaps we have given up the notion of pastness as well as the notion of conclusion. Re-viewing makes the past present, after all, and the scrolling motion of film that used to accentuate the brevity of the time (now you see it; now it’s over) now allows us to stop the image and live in an endless present. The present is the tense of motion but, ironically, it’s also the tense of arrested motion, of stasis:

The rest of us link our arms for warmth and let our feet lick at the sandy bottom. We’re like a band of floating nomads.

—Libba Bray, A Great and Terrible Beauty, 2003

I turn away from the railing. I cannot stand this any longer.

—Veronica Roth, Divergent, 2011

maura: i am isaac, will.
me: don’t be stupid. he’s a guy.
maura: no, he’s not. he’s a profile. i made him up.
me: yeah, right.
maura: i did.

no. no no no no no no no no no no no no no.

me: what?

no please no what no no please no fuck no NO.

maura: isaac doesn’t exist. he’s never existed.
me: you can’t—
maura: you’re so caught.

—John Green and David Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, 2010

The verb drops out and there it is: the eternal present. The tense of live drama, enactment, improv, adolescent nowness, being stuck in traffic, and lifting a foot to step forth into a future that may or may not exist.

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Deirdre Baker About Deirdre Baker

Deirdre F. Baker, a reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine and the Toronto Star, teaches children’s literature at the University of Toronto. The author of Becca
at Sea (Groundwood), she is currently at work on a sequel—written in the
past tense.

Comments

  1. What an insightful, thoughtful essay. Thank you!

  2. This is an interesting take on present-tense narration, and you’ve brought up some positives that I hope will change my mind. I also have an “involuntary feeling of resistance” when I open a book to find present tense. For me, there is a paradox that I never get quite comfortable enough with it over the course of the book to actually feel the moment, which is what the author very much wants me to do. I think it has something to do with the fact that I’m a writer, so I’m hyper-aware of how, as you mentioned, the eloquence and completeness and level-headedness (and sometimes running analysis) of the narrator’s tale are impossible to craft “in real time.” First-person present has this compounding problem that when people tell stories about themselves in real life, they always tell them in the past, unless they use the historical present, which I find feels somehow inaccurate, and inelegant for a reason I can’t put my finger on. I also notice that historical present is almost impossible to sustain in ordinary running conversation, certainly not for the equivalent verbal length of a 300-400-page story! For me, first person narration is so immediate on its own that adding present tense is like turning it into a sledge hammer. I would dearly like to see a past-tense HUNGER GAMES, to see whether it gains or loses from the change.

  3. I tend to prefer past tense, largely for the reasons discussed here. I also suspect that present tense establishes some sense that the narrator isn’t really focusing on telling the story because he or she is busy participating in it. In a story like The Hunger Games, though, I think the use of present tense makes some sense if the author chooses to use first-person; we’re not supposed to feel assured that the narrator lived/lives/will live to tell the tale.

  4. Wonderful essay — thank you. I know that for me figuring out what tense a story will be told in is one of the most difficult things about writing.

  5. Sheila Welch says:

    Thanks for this excellent essay. When I read a novel in present tense, I have a few moments of resistance but find that I adjust quickly and hardly notice the tense after the first few pages.
    I remember reading a novel by Rumer Godden when I was a teenager in which the “past” portions of the story were in present tense and the “present” portions in past tense. It worked very well. I don’t usually write in present tense but found myself drawn to it while working on a middle-grade novel that contains a lot of flashbacks. I wanted the present to feel uncertain and very much as if it were happening now. But I am not sure I’ll use it again any time soon.

  6. The first first present tense novel I read was A Great and Terribly Beauty years ago. At first it was strange, but now I’m so used to it it doesn’t faze me anymore. I mean, most YA books I pick up now are in first person present, and I have noticed it’s a trend, but it seems to be a popular one because it’s only gained in popularity since the first time I read it years ago, and hasn’t really petered off since then. Plus, I admit to writing in first person present. I started writing in third person past, but readers have told me my writing is so emotional and immediate and that it only makes sense for me to write in first person present, and ends up working better for me that way. I’m just not any other kind of writer!

  7. I once gave a quite negative seminar on present tense, and used to much prefer writing in past tense. But then I started writing for teens, and , you’re right, it seems to fit that genre so well, especially when it’s “dark”.

  8. I felt very self-conscious, to start with, writing in the present tense, but it seemed natural when I came to write my first YA book, for all the reasons you mention. A big influence on this style of writing for me was not video, however, but war reporting and ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ on the BBC’s Radio 4. Just how many news and magazine articles begin this way now: ‘I am sitting in an oversize chair at a trendy hotel, waiting to interview …’? YA writers are not the only people to use this voice, and not the first.

  9. Really great food for thought, thank you!

  10. William Flesch says:

    I think that one major issue is first vs. third person narrative. The past tense narratives you quote are all third person; the present tense ones are first person. Third person present tense is a style of free indirect discourse. I think first person present tense is actually a variation on third person present tense, and so, paradoxically, a very tight version of free indirect discourse, so tight that it often looks like direct discourse.

    First person present tense narrative is tricky, since it’s really hard to stay in the perceptual present all the time, as she pretends to do. Even the passage you quote wavers: “exactly one second after I do”; “for a horrible moment.” Retrospect sneaks in, and Collins is sometimes not enough in control of that fact (though I otherwise love The Hunger Games).

  11. I’m really enjoying the design and layout of your website. It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes
    it much more pleasant for me to come here and visit more often.
    Did you hire out a designer to create your theme? Outstanding work!

  12. thanks for pointing me to this essay, Deirdre! You have articulated much that I have been unable to say – showing some of my reasons for my deep dislike of this choice of narrative voice, but also showing why it sometimes works so well. Thank you.

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