Present-tense novels

I was experimenting with writing my next novel in the present tense. For a while it went well. The present tense felt more immediate, a little fresher, and was appropriate to the story I was trying to tell.

But gradually I began to feel constricted. The present tense seemed to work well for describing scenes as they were happening, but not for filling in the gaps between the scenes. My novel was becoming a slightly repetitive series of mini-stories with no clear link between them. I found it difficult to step back and give a broader sweep. The attempts to do so felt forced and clunky.

Another thing I noticed was that I was describing every little thing that happened in more detail than usual. When we’re talking about things in the past, we naturally skip over some things and spend more time on others. Time is stretched and distorted, and it feels natural because we are used to describing things that way. When I’m writing in the present tense, on the other hand, jumping ahead within a scene feels odd. Time in the present tense moves at a fairly steady, plodding pace, and unfortunately my present tense novel was moving at that same steady, plodding pace. I was describing every cup of tea, every step that every character took to and from the kitchen.

It was a very boring novel.

So I switched to past tense, and suddenly everything began to flow along nicely. I could easily jump around and tell the reader only what mattered. I could control the pace and tell the story in what felt to me to be a more natural way. I began to approach my writing each morning with eagerness rather than dread.

My experience with present-tense narrative, then, was quite short-lived. That’s not to say it’s a bad idea, of course, but I know that it didn’t work for this novel. I have used it successfully in short stories, and can see it being useful in small segments of a novel. But I won’t be trying to write a whole novel in present tense again any time soon.

And as I thought about it more, I couldn’t think of many good novels I’ve read that have used the present tense throughout. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey would be one, and the present tense definitely worked well there, but I’m stuck for any others. What about you? Have you read any good present-tense novels? Have you written one yourself? Let me know.

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There are 8 comments

  1. I think The Hunger Games is present tense first person. I’ve heard it was very good, but I haven’t read it. Every novel is different. I’ve never written present tense or first person. I find it distracting and difficult to write. One day I might try…

  2. It’s interesting, these different restraints and opportunities that one tense offers over another. I tend to play around with them to see what is going to suit best, in the same way I play around with point of view (switching from first person to third intimate). With Snowing and Greening, I switched entire drafts backwards and forwards a number of times because I enjoyed the way this process forced me to pare the writing back to what mattered – it made it easier for me to see what really needed to be there. That one remained in present tense – it became clear that it had to be – while Number Two has to be told in past tense.

    I hope you enjoy your US trip.

  3. I’m currently finishing up a novel (my first), and in the first draft my narration was all in past tense. It simply didn’t work, felt too clunky and contrived. It might have worked without the large amount of interior monologues and flashbacks that need to be set apart better from the novel’s present. So here I am, redoing it all in present. It’s working much better, but it’s an amazing challenge.

    As for a good novel in present tense, J.M. Coeztee’s Disgrace is one of the more fantastic that I’ve read.

  4. Thanks for the suggestions – will have to look up Hunger Games, Snowing and Greening and Disgrace. Perhaps more books to be added to my now-immense “to be read” pile 🙂

    Paul, I’m interested in how you switched back and forth between tenses. Did that involve simply changing “s” ending to “ed” and so forth, or did you find that you had to re-write the whole thing? When I was changing the tense from present to past, I found that I had to make quite extensive changes. Can’t imagine then switching back to present again!! Just curious what your experience of it was.

    A.B. Fuss, thanks for the perspective too – the complete opposite of mine! That’s why I like to hear about other people’s experiences. To me, it’s present tense that in general seems more clunky and contrived – the events of the novel, after all, are not actually happening right now as the writer writes or the reader reads. Books are, by definition, about past events, so I think that’s why past tense usually feels right to me. But it’s great to hear your take on it!

  5. After seeing a first person present tense crime novel last night, i toyed with the idea of switching my third person novel in progress to present tense. I google searched today and your reasoning on problems with present tense (including more the logical need for more plodding, moment-to-moment minutia and difficulty in short time transitions ) is so cogent I just decided not to switch,

    BTW, A Million Little Pieces was not a novel but an alleged memoir of true events that turned out to be filled with bogus passages. The original version was an novel he could not sell to a publisher.

    1. I’m glad my post was useful! You’re right about A Million Little Pieces, of course. I suppose because so much of it turned out to be fictional, I think of it as a novel, but it was indeed a memoir. Thanks for stopping by and commenting – I’d forgotten about this post, and it’s always good to reread old ones!

  6. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union uses present tense almost exclusively (bar some flashbacks), riffing off old Hammet and Chandler detective novels, and it’s a near-masterpiece.

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