Do You Like Stories Told in Present Tense?

Yes or no?

Personally: no.

Not even a little, really.

This isn’t to say I won’t read a book if it’s narrated in present tense.  Indeed, I’ve never purposely avoided reading one for that reason, and two of my favourite YA series – Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy and Beth Revis’s Across the Universe trilogy – are written in present tense.

But it’s definitely not my favourite style or writing.  I definitely need to brace myself before diving into a story told in this way.  I certainly have no plans to write my own present tense story anytime soon.

What’s the problem?

In my post about first-person narration, I explained how I’m not the type of reader who strongly identifies with characters: I don’t envision myself in their place, living their stories as they unfold and having each reversal that befalls the characters befall me right along with them.

Rather, I perceive characters as more like friends recounting a past experience with myself a passive listener.  I do share all the various emotions the story is meant to stimulate in me, but in my head, I see the characters acting out the events rather than re-casting myself as a player in the story.

And yet, when a story is told in present tense, it’s seeking to have me do just that – to encourage the reader to become the narrator, and experience the story in real-time.

Present tense seems to have become very popular over the last ten years.  The first book I ever encountered it in was the chick-lit bestseller Confessions of a Shopaholic.

Present tense remains popular among the chick-lit genre, as well as YA, paranormal (both for adults and youth), and, I believe, some mysteries.  By definition, all the aforementioned genres are characterized by fast-moving plots, smart-talking protagonists, and quite often, first-person narration as well.

It’s fairly impossible to interpret a present tense, first-person narrator in the way I like to read.  It’s true that people do recount experiences in present tense, e.g.:

  • When directly questioned about their present actions (“I’m just arriving now.”)
  • When reporting on actions that are noteworthy (“I’m a superhero in disguise.”; “You should see this: he’s tearin’ up the dance floor!)
  • When relating a high-drama past experience (“So I say to him, ‘Say that to my face!’  And he’s all like, ‘’Which of the two would you prefer, you lying snake?’”).

But people don’t tend to speak in present tense for long – certainly not a novel-length, blow-by-blow telling of what they’re doing as they do it.

After all, who’d want to listen to that?

Actually, many people would.

The rise of social MEdia

I bet that a year’s worth of someone’s collective social media postings would equal the length of a short novel.

Reading those countless, real-time status updates of all our the people we’re following online has inured us to stories told in present tense.

And if this is what we’re used to in our day-to-day, it’s no surprise at all that art is now imitating life.

I recently participated in a webinar by social media expert and former editor, Kristen Lamb, in which she an interesting comment about readers and characters and intimacy:

“Readers are spoiled for intimacy,” she said, “due to social media.”

I’m going to make a wild generalization based on my admittedly limited observations of Twitter and speculate the some of the most active users of social media among the writing community are writers of chick-lit, YA, and paranormal.

Yet, to me, present tense still sounds artificial and gimmicky.

Maybe it’s because I’m not on Facebook – because I don’t spend as much time on Twitter as I keep hearing and telling myself that I should.

Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert and don’t like to talk a lot about myself, nor listen to others talk a lot about themselves, especially if it’s in a loud, over-stimulating manner.

But that’s just me.

Do you like stories in present tense?

(Image source #1 and #2)

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8 thoughts on “Do You Like Stories Told in Present Tense?

  1. Great topic, and one I’ve been wrestling with recently. I’ve been working on a short narrative essay (~2000 words) and began with present tense before preceding to switching it to past tense. But it just didn’t work. I don’t know if it’s an issue of my own skill, but the piece seemed like it required the immediacy that comes with present tense. (It’s primarily reflective/observational) I almost wish I didn’t have to do it that way though 😦

    Query: Is your problem with present tense an issue of too much? Personally, I can see it wear on me if it’s a full length novel.

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    • I think my problem with present tense is that, conceptually, it doesn’t make sense to me. How can a person really tell a complete story as it’s happening? By definition, a story is a set of events in which a character overcomes conflict and grows and changes. Can a person truly grow and change in real time, without the benefit of time and distance for personal reflection? Present tense stories, to me, feel like news casts – a very shallow treatment of what’s happening, but lacking the deeper analysis of why it matters.

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  2. No I don’t like present tense stories. It makes it harder for me as the reader to get interested in invested in the characters. Reading present tense narration makes me feel like I am not really reading a book, but watching some sort of weird literary reality show.

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    • I find it difficult to get invested in the characters as well. I find that the immediacy of present tense precludes the story being told in a deeper, more reflective manner where the characters show strong personal growth, which are the types of stories I like best.

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  3. This is a wishy washy answer, but it depends on the story and the writer. I’ve read some present-tense novels that were grating and pretentious, and others that felt natural (Nick Hornby springs to mind as someone who writes present tense in an unobtrusive, natural voice). The setting is important, too. An epic historical saga set in the wild west would probably not work in present tense the same way a chic lit novel does.

    I almost always write in past tense, but I do have one lengthy short story I wrote in present tense, and, other than a couple of format slips that I later corrected, it didn’t feel weird or awkward. I’ve gotten good feedback on that story, so it works fo rme on at least some level.

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    • I haven’t read Nick Hornby, so maybe I should give him a try someday when I’m feeling more tolerant of present tense.

      As I was saying to Isaac below, present tense just doesn’t make sense to me conceptually because I feel the whole point of a story is for the protagonist to change and grow, and I don’t believe change and growth can occur effectively in real time. But maybe what I really need to do is try writing it myself. With my luck, I’d end up loving it (I used to despite first-person and now that’s how my novel-in-progress is narrated).

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  4. It’s really challenging to write a present-tense first person POV story. According to my Creative Writing prof, that kind of style is usually most effective in suspense-thriller kind of stories and could only look good if and only if it’s handled well.

    as for chick-lit and YAL, i still prefer past tense first person (cause umm well, i just love internal monologues!) 🙂

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    • It’s probably challenging because it’s a rather unnatural way to tell a story. I personally haven’t read any books written that way that I thought wouldn’t have been just as good written in past tense. But I don’t read suspense/thrillers, so maybe I’m missing out.

      I like internal monologues too. 😉

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