No Tense Like the Present

I don’t know if it’s my penchant for once-upon-a-time fairy tale retellings, but when I pick up a book, I expect it to be narrated in past tense. Recently, though, it seems like more and more YA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbooks are being told in present tense. I’m not quite sure why this is a trend, but I find the more frequent use of present tense interesting and occasionally annoying (I write this completely aware of the irony that I am writing this post in the present tense).

I remember clearly the first time I noticed a story was being narrated in present tense–I honestly don’t remember the book or even quite when in my life this was, but I found the narration clunky and distracting, and I put the book down after a chapter or less. Looking back, I’m not sure if the writing was bad or clunky at all, or if I was just completely put off by the present tense. Now that I have encountered many more books that use present tense, I usually find it easier to ignore the tense and fall into the story, but not always. After all, past tense is something of a common language in English narrative writing, and it’s not like an author can’t convey that something is happening now even while using past tense. september_girlsFor example, Sam in Bennett Madison’s September Girls (2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults) describes his current whereabouts using past tense: “I had decided to take a walk, and now I was alone at the edge of the water as it came and went” (p. 22).

When I thought about writing a Hub post on this topic, I decided to speculate about reasons why an author might choose to use the present tense instead of the past. This seemed like a good way to try to appreciate this writing technique better. Here are some possibilities I’ve come up with:

  1. Writing in the present tense makes the action and descriptions of a book seem more immediate. the hunger games book coverI’ve noticed present tense in many of the more action-packed dystopian trilogies, and it does seem to bring the action to life. First to come to mind is, of course, The Hunger Games trilogy (2009 Best Books for Young Adults and the Ultimate YA Bookshelf, among many others), which was also the first set of books where I didn’t find the use of present tense bothersome for enjoying the story. I think Suzanne Collins also may have used present tense in this series to make the readers feel more like TV viewers, given the importance of TV to the plot–present tense reads more like a screenplay, after all. However, the Divergent series (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults), the Matched trilogy (2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults), and Relic, the first in a dystopian series by Heather Terrell, all use present tense, too. Plague in the Mirror, by Deborah Noyes, and The Wicked and the Just, by J. Anderson Coats (2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults), are both books with historical settings, and in these the present tense helps make the descriptions of these settings even more vivid.
  2. Alternatively, the present tense can give a section a more lyrical, ethereal sense. In September Girls, the “ordinary” first person narrative which is told by protagonist Sam is in past tense, but interludes between the chapters which are told by “the Girls” are in present tense. These interludes have the feel of prose poetry and they seem outside of regular time.  song_of_the_sparrowSimilarly, Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell is a novel in verse that retells Arthurian legend of the Lady of Shalott, and the present tense adds to the lyricism.
  3. Using present tense for just a section of a book helps set that section apart. E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars (nominee for Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers) uses present tense for some of the narration and past tense for some of it, in this case because Cadence shifts between what’s going on (or what she says is going on) in her current life, and flashbacks to the past. The shift in tense helps the reader keep track, as much as possible, of what part of the story she is telling. As mentioned before, September Girls also uses two different tenses, and it helps set the two kinds of narration apart.Isla and the Happily Ever After
  4. Present tense is the new way to tell a story? In spite of all this speculation, I don’t know that authors are actually using the present tense for these particular reasons. And there are plenty of other YA books that are using present tense, and the situations above don’t necessarily seem to apply. For example, Anna and the French Kiss (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults) and Isla and the Happily Ever After, both by Stephanie Perkins, are realistic fiction told in present tense, and I can’t think of how the present tense itself enhances these stories. Maybe it’s just a new way of thinking about narration?

I’d love to hear other thoughts about this: Why do you think authors choose to narrate in the present tense? Do you find it distracting? Do you think some authors use it better than others? Is this the new way to write a story? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

-Libby Gorman, currently reading Renegade Magic by Stephanie Burgis

7 thoughts on “No Tense Like the Present”

  1. I also really dislike (hate) the use of the present tense in books. It used to be more in books for very young readers. It made the action more real to them, I always thought. But then, one learned to reader better and you moved to the understood past tense which the reader read as present.
    It is logically past since if the narrator didn’t live through the event, she would hardly be finishing the story.
    I have heard that it confuses some younger people now. It reminds me of looking at a e-book site a few years ago and finding the directions for writers not to use ‘;’ as they found they confused the readers.
    I wanted to cry.
    I think the trend will be toward the use of the present more and more with the influence of heavy internet use and text.
    I also expect standardized spelling to disappear. Of course, I’m not twenty so this may just be annoyance that comes from getting older.

    1. sorry–one learned to READ better and one moved …. Typing in a coffee shop is defeating me this morning. Another sign of age.

    2. Thanks for your experiences, Page–I’m glad I’m not the only occasional curmudgeon in our bunch! :-)

  2. I have noticed that the “historic present,” commonly used by scholars discussing history (“Queen Victoria is 32” “Germany is busily re-arming”) is now being matched by the “present future” (“The next episode is next Wednesday”). Einstein is alleged to have said that time exists to stop everything happening at once. If Queen Victoria is 32 and the next episode is next week, isn’t everything happening at once?

    I have also noticed that no books are really all in the present, because they have to refer to a time before whatever that “present” is and then it becomes really confusing. (“Simon is coming down the hill. He lost his job yesterday.” If Simon is coming down the hill on Wednesday June 15th 1911, he lost his job on June 14th of that year–two tenses in the same sentence referring to the past.)

    Thanks for an interesting piece on a really annoying phenomenon.

    1. I haven’t thought about the historic present since learning about French tenses long ago…thanks for the reminder! It’s somewhat comforting to realize the flux of different tenses isn’t just a YA lit phenomenon.

  3. Actually, I *like* stories written in the present tense and have come to prefer them, so I welcome this trend wholeheartedly.

    For books with a lot of action or suspense, the present tense only amps up the tension and excitement and edge-of-my-seatness. For other genres, it makes the story feel more immediate and, well, intimate. I, the reader, am experiencing the events of the story along with the narrator rather than being told about what happened after they happened (Imagine the difference between simply hearing about some awesome event after the fact or actually going out and participating. Kind of like that). Neither of us knows what’s going to happen until it does.

    What’s more, past tense can sometimes fall victim to the “and then, and then, and then” syndrome.

    But you know what? We’re all entitled to our own tastes and opinions, so it’s all good :) Long as we keep on reading what we love to read.

    1. Hooray! It’s good to hear from someone who likes reading in the present tense. I never thought about it making the experience more intimate, so that’s a good reason to add to the list! Thanks, Alissa!

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