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Make it now: the rise of the present tense in fiction (2015) (theguardian.com)
41 points by benbreen 5 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 44 comments

Some people have pretty strong opinions about this but in casual conversation you’ll naturally use either past tense or present tense to tell stories set in the past.

Try and explain the rules for when to use past tense and you’ll find that those rules are a difficult to formulate or articulate.

The weird thing is that apparently, using present tense is something that new writers gravitate towards. Kind of like how new composers and musicians gravitating towards modes and chord progressions.

the novel is a different medium than casual conversation, it has proven to be much more sophisticated. For example, you can have multiple narrators, diagetic and non diagetic. Etc.

If we expect novels to mimic nothing more than casual conversation, we lose a whole depth of creativity. While us readers lose sense making tools.

I believe new writers are gravitated towards present tense mainly because their cultural world is in present tense. I bet they are exposed to twitts, blogs, films, TV, etc much more than to novels.

So I believe they adopt the style of these media, because of naturalization via immersion. Even in the article, most answers of writers to why present tense, are 'it just happened' and then rationalized.

For me, it is another proof of the "medium is the message" theory. I believe we are losing thought technology.

You know what will really lose us a whole depth of creativity?

Prescribing that novels should only be written in a particular manner.

Yes, when there’s a new way of doing things, we can’t think everyone will shift to that. It’s very often that the distribution shifts somewhat. Let’s say we introduce a new color (haha), and it rises in popularity, then we shouldn’t be fearing that everyone is going to adopt the new color as their favorite. The distribution is changing.

We should really recognize that individuals have valid feelings and thoughts for whatever they gravitate towards.

So, present tense, let’s do it I’m interested! However, we won’t lose the past tense.

That's a pretty harsh interpretation of what I said. (And very far from intended)

I often think of Yeats' lines from Adam's Curse:

I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe; Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

* I believe there are exceptions, but in general writing should feel like casual conversation. The author can do all kinds of tricks while making it feel like casual conversation, but if they deviate from the feel of spontaneity, they should have good reasons to do so.

Fiction often isn't supposed to be either framed as a retelling of stuff that's already happened or set in the past (often it's set in the future, but explicit use of the future tense is rare). Sometimes it even switches between current period story narration and background/flashbacks though I'm struggling to think of an example that does this really well primarily through tense shifts.

And casual conversation often retells anecdotes in the present tense even when explicitly over a past of time 'so eventually they stop, and I think to myself' because it's sounds more dynamic. Which is probably part of its appeal to new writers. That and it being common in writing that is popular or esteemed now, and absent from old literature of the nineteenth century, much like repetitive chord progressions with modal harmony and the odd chromatic passing tone on top...

Maybe in 100 years time writing in the future tense will be commonplace and microtonality will be the starting point for new composers.

First person present tense is on the rise, but third person present tense? One solid example I know of is the Nobel prize winner Olga Tokarczuk's "Books of Jacob". And even there it is justified from the very prologue as everything there is POV of a person who dies or falls into a comatose trance, be it real or magical, I don't want to spoil you.

That's a good point, the best argument that the OP gives for present tense is that it removes the idea of there being an invisible narrator who is physically removed from these events and characters, which feels true for first-person present tense, but third-person present tense feels like a voyeur who watches but never engages, which doesn't feel like any interesting distinction from the typical third-person past tense narrator.

(The reason why I like third-person past tense is that I like to imagine that I as a reader am not just reading the book for myself, but reciting the book to someone else as a form of active storytelling. I don't find the "invisible future narrator" to be a problem because to me, that's me! But maybe that's just, er, me.)

I don't buy any of this - for myself at least. Tense (mis)used like this is like talking about the colour of the paper - "we used green for this section because it shows they're in a meadow".

Reading is far too high-level an interpretation to be affected by tenses except where the tense is part of the story.

When I read I don't see words, it's much more like a cinema playing in my head, and I'm watching. It's a process of filtering (discarding), synthesising and reconstructing. You might as well play with font size or typeface - it won't make a whit of difference to me in the end because it's low level stuff that gets discarded.

It's also something that beginning writers fall into... I run a creative writing site that is for groups of authors to write collective branching fiction together. It's like choose-your-own-adventure but with a slightly more literary focus, where choices are about character and plot choices, rather than just like dungeon exploration. As part of that we encourage third-person past tense, but it's interesting how frequent it is that a new author will come in write their first couple of chapters in present tense - even if the chapters they are following up on are in past tense.

It was something that I got preoccupied with when I was writing a lot back in middle/high school. I tended towards past-tense, but I noticed that a lot of young adult novels were first-person present, e.g. Hunger Games.

But surely in CYA-type narrative, present tense is as much of an orthodoxy your guidelines are challenging as past tense in regular fiction?

Would be interested to see the site if you're happy to share though.

What is the site? What kind of software do you use for that?

It's called storysprawl, the site is private now and has been off-and-on dormant and active for the last 25 years. More active now because of COVID. We've got around 1000 chapters written across 20-30 stories. It started out perl/gdbm, then php/mysql. More recently it has a smattering of react thrown in (particularly for graphically mapping the stories) and I'm rewriting the backend in scala/play. The tech has generally tracked my career I guess. :)

It’s one of the things my college professors pointed out to me, my mixing of tenses. I don’t (didn’t) know enough to remedy it.

Any resources?

Get an editor?

Nothing short of feedback is going to fix problems like this, in my experience. There are grammar analysis tools but they are only so good.

I read a book where the author I generally liked (Phil Rickman, I really recommend December https://www.amazon.co.uk/December-Phil-Rickman-Standalone/dp...) used past tense but for a new book switched to present. It really jarred and I had to make several restarts before I got into it, and that only happened because my brain learned to discard the tense (edit: several retries over a period of days; it wasn't quick).

I guess the theory is it makes it more dynamic, now-ish. In fact it just seems a trivial affectation that ultimately adds nothing.

For some variety, how about fiction written in the second person - as in "You Are In a Maze of Twisty Little Passages ..."

One such novel is Halting State by Charles Stross [0], which appropriately enough includes a cyber crime that takes place in a MMORPG setting.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halting_State

A surge in the popularity of present tense also accompanied literary modernism a century ago. I'm a little disappointed that the author didn't draw any comparisons or contrasts.

At the least, the title suggests that this parallel was in the author's head. "Make it now" is a riff on Ezra Pound's maxim "make it new".

I’m not a particular fan of this, but there is a long tradition of the historical present tense (correct me if this article is talking about something different). I don’t know the details of its development but I first encountered it in Latin class, so it was at least being used with the Romans

For an interesting mix of tenses, I suggest "The Vegetarian" by Han Kang. It has two chapters in the past tense and one in the present tense, all by different narrators.

I always thought that was an important standout feature of Snow Crash, which iirc did it by accident because it was originally going to be a comic book and present tense is common in comics.

As a native speaker of a language which doesn't strictly use tense, I don't see why some languages are so strict about it. It's obvious from the context.

Can you elaborate? I can't wrap my mind around the idea of not having tense.

Are you saying that "I walk" and "I walked" are the same? How about "I'm walking" vs "I've walked"?


> Tenseless languages can and do refer to time, but they do so using lexical items such as adverbs or verbs, or by using combinations of aspect, and mood, and words that establish time reference

The earliest I saw this was in Neal Stephenson’s earlier work and I found the style to be really interesting and engaging.

I was taught to always write present tense for this reason. There's stories that consistently use past tense?

Almost all English language fiction is written in past tense...

Doesn't mean they're right. When did that happen? I had 3 classes on this, and they stressed use of present tense for writing regardless of use along with some other guidelines.

I picked up the style after seeing Suzanne Collins use it so wonderfully in the Hunger Games.

Now I write this way almost exclusively for all my books.

...this isn’t normal? All the fiction I read has always been present tense.

It's very common in YA, but was extremely rare a decade ago.

I don’t read any YA. It’s mostly classic sci-fi, and some detective stories and occasional political thriller here and there. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention, but the only time I recall past tense stories is when a character is describing something that happened off-scene. Narration is always present tense.

I can think of a handful of exceptions where the whole story itself is narrated from the perspective of someone telling a story, but those are notable exceptions for having a weird narrative gimmick (e.g. the excellent but dated Icehenge is written in the past tense because it consists of personal diary entries).

This comment is blowing my mind. Please name some other books you’ve read. It would be astonishing if you’d somehow avoided the most common tense in literature your whole life!

Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, etc., almost exclusively wrote in the past tense. Did you mean a past tense framing device instead?

Yes, I thought the article (which I only skimmed) was talking about framing devices. That's what "the story is told in past tense" means to me. I guess I don't really pay attention to tense, because I just opened a Clarke on my bedside table, and the verbs are past tense. Thanks for the correction.

This reminds me of how I go through a lot of trouble to pick a seat in a movie theater, but after it’s over and if I really enjoyed it, I couldn’t tell you if I sat in the front or off to the side.

Good storytelling just pulls you in. Our brain fills in the rest.

I’m the opposite. I can’t recall a single example of a novel I have read in the present tense.

Go ahead. Try it out.

Use present tense in email.

Crisp as a haiku.

Most of my emails / are already present-tense -- / so nothing would change.

(Pedantic note: of course neither of these is actually a haiku, which means more than just 5-7-5 syllable count. I did manage a kinda-sorta-kireji, though.)

Makes me think I should start writing in future tense to get ahead of the game.

This will have made me think that I should have started writing in future perfect tense to have gotten even further ahead of the game.

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