is or was?

In the past few years, it feels like the use of present tense has exploded in stories. And it brings a sense of immediacy, urgency, and action to the story. It allows for deeper POV and identification with the protagonist. It is great if you have an unreliable narrator (which might be a different post!), or if you want to convey a filmlike quality to the story. Fast-paced action works in this tense!

But it can also be harder to read and edit.

Using the present tense can allow for too many little details into the story. The protagonist is seeing everything and the author often feels the need to add in the moments that would be elided and skipped when written in the past. Telling information can become difficult, and transitions in place and time are harder. It can be harder to keep different character POV distinct.

As an editor, I’ll need to pay close attention because authors can often slip into the past tense by accident—and habit—so it means keeping a careful eye. It’s also additional work to prune the story and keep the focus on what needs to be told.

And there are some readers who simply refuse to read in the present (yes, even for The Hunger Games, or Ulysses, or such!). They dislike it intensely, and so a minority of readers will be turned away for that reason.

I’ve seen some authors mix the two by having one character in snippets in present, or using a dual time frame plot. That can work—but please, it shouldn’t become a gimmick!

For some authors, the present tense is a deliberate choice that serves the needs of the story and characters and develops into a compelling read. Sadly, though, I often see authors—particularly newer authors—choose it without realizing the ramifications. The story can begin to sprawl, be inconsistent in the usage, and lose the energy and focus that is the best part of present tense. And, as with first person, if the reader doesn’t like the main character, the use of present tense can actually end up repelling the reader.

So I encourage authors to understand why that present would be best for their story and then carefully develop the story and pay attention to their techniques!

How do you feel as a reader? As an author?

Happy reading!