Present Tense Books
Should you write your novel in present tense?
Today's topic is verb tense.
This episode is a little unusual because I usually deal with topics that can be widely applied to fiction and non-fiction writing, but recently I was on a plane reading Seth Harwood's crime novel Jack Wakes Up, and I was struck by the fact that it was written in the present tense. That present tense writing really stood out the whole time I was reading the book and got me thinking about how people use tense in writing.
Fiction writing is way outside my area of expertise, but I believe it's interesting enough to be worth discussing, and I welcome your comments if you want to add to the discussion.
As an aside, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says that it's acceptable to use the word way as an adverb, as I did when I said fiction was way outside my area of expertise. But you shouldn't use it that way in formal situations (1).
What Are the Basic Tenses?
Back to tense.
First here are some examples of simple tense so we're all on the same page:
Present tense is when you write as if things are happening right now. For example, the first sentence of Jack Wakes Up is Jack walks into a diner just south of Japantown.
Past tense is when you write as if things happened in the past. If you rewrite that first sentence in the past tense, you get Jack WALKED into a diner just south of Japantown.
Those are the basics, but there are many other tenses such as progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive.
Major English Verb Tenses
verb (+ s/es for third person)
Jack is walking
am/is/are + present participle
Jack has walked (doesn't sound like present to me?)
has/have + past participle
Present perfect progressive
Jack has been walking
has/have been + present participle
verb + d/ed/t (except for irregular verbs)
Jack was walking
was/were + past participle
Jack had walked
had + past participle
Past perfect progressive
Jack had been walking
had been + present participle
Jack will walk
Jack is going to walk
will + verb
am/is/are going to + verb
Jack will be walking
Jack is going to be walking
will be + present participle
am/is/are going to be + present participle
Jack will have walked
Jack is going to have walked
will have + past participle
am/is/are going to have + past participle
Future perfect progressive
Jack will have been walking
Jack is going to have been walking
will have been + present participle
am/is/are going to have been + present participle
Why Use Present Tense?
Now, in my experience, most books are written in past tense, as if the story has already happened and the narrator is telling you about it after the fact. John Updike's novel Rabbit, Run, published in 1959, is sometimes thought to be the first novel written in the present tense (2), but Updike credits two other writers as coming before him: Damon Runyon and Joyce Cary. Nevertheless, I found Updike's comments about his state of mind when he was choosing the present tense to be illuminating. I've heard people complain that present tense novels sound like screen directions, and for me, it IS easier to imagine the sentence Jack walks into a diner just south of Japantown as the opening sentence of a screenplay than as the first sentence in a novel. And here's what Updike had to say about Rabbit, Run back in 1990:
It was subtitled, in my conception of it, ''A Movie''; I imagined the opening scene as something that would happen behind credits, and I saw the present tense of the book as corresponding to the present tense in which we experience the cinema (3).
I read that and thought, "Ah, ha! He thought of it as screen direction too."
I was so intrigued by this idea of writing a novel in the present tense that I interviewed Seth Harwood a few days ago to learn more about his reasoning for doing it and learned that other people had also told him that it seemed like a screenplay. But his background is in writing short stories, and he tells me that short stories are more commonly written in the present tense, so it wasn't a big leap for him to write a novel that way. Also, because his book is a crime novel, writing it in the present tense allows the reader to unfold the mystery at the same time as the main character. When Jack is surprised, we're surprised at the same time.
Reading a novel requires the reader to suspend disbelief to some degree to get wrapped up in a story we know isn't true, and a present tense novel can require an extra suspension of disbelief to accept the idea that events are unfolding right now.
I was also reminded by one of my Twitter friends that another book I recently read was written in the present tense: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I found the use of present tense in that novel less distracting, I imagine because the entire novel is written in such an unusual way. That book is about a time traveler and tells the story from the perspective of two different people, and there is a lot of jumping around in time.
Anyway, my take away from reading about verb tense in novels and from talking with Seth Harwood is that some people think writing in the present tense is modern and other people think it is trendy and annoying. It's kind of a risky move if you're trying to get your first novel published, but it didn't stop Seth. He got his book published. And although I did find the present tense in his book distracting, I still enjoyed the story. It had a lot of action and was a great book to read on the plane.
Also, If you go to Seth's webpage—sethharwood.com—you'll find a recording of our interview, in which we actually talk about tense and person.That's all. Thanks for listening.
A Sampling of Books Written in the Present Tense
- Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
- House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
- Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
- Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
- Ilium by Dan Simmons (some parts)
- Olympos by Dan Simmons (some parts)
- Rabbit, Run by John Updike
- Line of Vision by David Ellis
- The Sound of My Voice by Ron Butlin (also in second person)
- Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins (also in second person)
- The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker [This one was recommended by a Twitter friend, but I couldn't independently confirm that it's in the present tense. Anyone?]
1. way. Dictionary.com. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. (accessed: March 13, 2008).
2. Wikipedia contributors, "Rabbit, Run," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed March 14, 2008).
3. Updike, J. "Why Rabbit Had to Go," The New York Times, August 5, 1990. (accessed March 13, 2008).