Word Nerdery: The Things that Are Happening Now; The Rise of Present Tense in Fiction Writing

For many years, writing in past tense has been standard. Authors would tell a story about something that happened in the past, whether distantly or recently. People rode horses. They fired guns. They danced. They sang. This was so normal as to be very nearly ubiquitous, so common in fact that I rarely saw another method taught, even in my various English classes. However, in the last few years or so, it seems that many of the books I pick up to read are written in the present tense narrative style. Many of these are in the Young Adult, Fantasy, or Romance genres, but I see more and more present tense narration styles across all different genres.

(For the purposes of this article, I am going to refer to present tense and past tense, despite the fact that the official names for these tenses in English are actually quite different. See below on the twelve tenses.)

The thing is, this narration style was (and probably still is) quite divisive. Established readers who were familiar with the past tense style were suddenly faced with everything being told in active present tense. They sing. They dance. They ride horses. Stylistically, it’s not a massive change; things that were being done in the distant or recent past are now being done, well, now. But for someone so used to everything the way it was, such a shift is jarring.

Trade books that suddenly adopted this style were seen as selling out, pandering to the younger audience, using language that was difficult to understand and improperly written. And, yes, many of the books that use this style are directed towards a younger audience, but that doesn’t mean it is improper or difficult to understand, only different.

The first book I recall reading that was written in this style was Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games. The book was so much in the main character’s head, and everything was happening so quickly, so intensely, that present tense absolutely made sense. Stylistically, it brought the action right in front of the reader instead of potentially distancing them. Things were happening right now. There was no distance, no separation of time. The book, if you’ll recall, did quite well. Why? Because it hit, and it hit hard. 

Did some of that have to do with the narration style? 

Possibly. (Though I am not aware of scientific studies to this effect.)

These days, a lot of the books I read are written by independent, self-published authors. They’re often quite good, and wide-ranging in genre. Many of them are also written in present tense. Possibly because of the far reaching influence of The Hunger Games and others like it, but also possibly because the narration style is very much in your face, happening right this moment.

Grammatically speaking, it is slightly easier to write in present tense. Everything is very active, and things that did happen in the past can be easily differentiated by a tense change, rather than switching from the simple past (past tense for grammar nerds) to the continuous past. For example:

She looked around. (This is the simple past.) Everything was as it had been two days ago. (Continuous past into past perfect.) 


She looks around. (Present simple.) Everything is as it was two days ago. (Present simple to simple past.)

Given that there are twelve (yes, twelve!) tenses in English, using a more simplified version makes writing a whole lot easier. (English is an annoyingly complicated language just in regards to word usage, spelling, and word order, without bringing twelve tenses into the mix. For those of you trying to learn this language, I do apologise. Even native speakers have a difficult time.) If writing in present tense is so much easier than dealing with the complexities of the past tense, then it makes sense for authors to use the style.

There will, I think, still always be a place for the past tense books. I, myself, write in past tense, partly because I grew up reading eighteenth century English literature, which is exclusively written in that style, and partly because I am so used to it now. Some readers have preferences for what tense they read, whether the action is in the now, or not. (Just as some readers prefer first person or third person point of view, which is a topic for an entirely different article. I digress.) 

Personally, I will read everything, regardless of what tense it’s written in. (Okay, no. I have no intention of reading a book written entirely in future tense. That might be my limit.) Most of the time, I don’t even note what tense is being used until halfway through a book when I actually start looking at the words instead of reading the story. 

Some people will claim that present tense is only for genres such as Romance, Young Adult, Fantasy and the like, that is to say, books that are “not serious.” (To people who think YA or Romance is not serious, I see you haven’t actually read any for quite a while. I’d be happy to recommend some titles!) I believe that any genre can be written in any style; it is dependent on how the author wishes to tell the story.

Present tense, past tense, either way, a good story is a good story. But, alas, much like the Oxford Comma debate, I have a feeling that the divide between past and present is going to remain wide. Unless, of course, you add time travel into the mix. Then, all tenses are going to fly out the window and we’ll be left wondering why there are suddenly dinosaurs in the back garden.

Frankly, I’d be more worried about dinosaurs than tenses.