Why Present Tense? by Norm Brown

I try to exercise on my stationary bike for 30 minutes three times each week. It’s a goal I often struggle to achieve. It’s not so much the “no pain, no gain” aspect of the exercise that causes me problems. Pedaling’s really not that strenuous. The main complaint I have against such regular exercise is the mindless boredom. It’s a motivational problem. So, I chose the stationary bike because it frees up my hands to hold a book. Reading a good mystery novel makes the time pass quickly and relatively painlessly.

This past Monday, I needed to find a new book so I wouldn’t have an excuse to skip my afternoon stint on the bike. Lately I’ve been having pretty good luck buying and downloading books to read on my Kindle. So, I logged onto Amazon to search through the bestseller lists. As I browsed through the titles and reviews, I decided I was in the mood for a story with a little atmosphere, set in either an unusual location or a long ago time. A murder mystery by an English author caught my attention. The protagonist is an archaeologist who lives on the edge of the Saltmarsh near Norfolk in Great Britain, the site of real excavations of mysterious mummified bodies from the Iron Age in Europe. I read a few of the online reviews to see what readers thought about the author and her book. I quickly discovered a repeating theme in the opinions. Readers seemed to like the setting and main character, but several were put off by the fact that it was written in present tense. One reviewer even said that he wouldn’t have bought the book if he had read the sample on Amazon first.

I went ahead and downloaded the book. I’ve been reading it and regularly pedaling for a couple of days now. I find that I am enjoying the atmosphere and the rather surly protagonist is a hoot, but there is something about the present tense style that does bother me. I’m not sure why exactly. Maybe it’s just not what I’m used to reading. To me, telling a story usually involves describing something that happened or could have happened. It doesn’t have to start with “once upon a time,” but I do seem to expect past tense verbs. Present tense makes me think more of someone telling a joke. You know, like, “This kangaroo hops into a bar and …”

With the current novel, I’m getting used to the style and have continued reading, but it leaves me wondering why the author made that choice. I remember reading an opinion somewhere that present tense can be used to add “immediacy” to the story. The reader feels like the action is happening right then. I guess I can see that reasoning, but in this particular story it doesn’t seem to really accomplish that. In fact specific past dates (1998 and 1999) are mentioned in the plot. To me the present tense narrative just feels slightly awkward and meandering. And “she says” somehow tends to jump out at me more than “she said.” Other than that, I can’t seem to put my finger on exactly why this style of story-telling doesn’t work as well as past tense for me. Judging by the numerous complaints among the book’s reviewers, I don’t seem to be alone in this.

There may well be certain circumstances where making things happen in current time is more appropriate than describing past events. Any thoughts?

Norm Brown is the author of the suspense novel Carpet Ride, published by Secondwind Publishing, LLC.

8 Comments

Filed under books, fiction, Norm Brown, writing

8 responses to “Why Present Tense? by Norm Brown

  1. I don’t like reading text written in the present tense. I feel like I’m in a bar and someone’s giving me a brief recount of something that just happened to them. “So she says to me…” But for a whole book? Really? Can you imagine a stage play where everyone talks in the present tense about things that happened to them? Makes my head hurt. This style seems popular lately and I have tried, I really have. I wanted to read some science fictions books that everyone raves about but only got through a few pages before giving it up. If you want some very good British mysteries, I can suggest a whole bunch of them to you, look at my Goodreads page.

  2. Norm: I’m not sure why writers are advised to write in past tense, third person. Many years ago I read a retelling of the Arthurian legend that was written in present tense and I loved it; although it took some getting used to.

    When I wrote my novella, Chaotic Theory, I wrote it in present tense. My reasoning was that the story takes place more than two hundred years into the future, so I wanted to stay away from past tense, give the story a sense of immediacy.

    I think readers struggle with present tense narratives simply because it’s not often used and so it can come across as stilted, like the language used by writers a couple hundred years ago. Still, I have no problem with it, if it’s done properly and with a purpose, and not used merely as a gimmick.

  3. Norm, I understand what you are saying, but before you decide not to read present tense again, try Hank Phillippi Ryan’s books. She is a master at present tense, in my humble opinion. Men and women both have lauded her talent.

    • Coco, the style won’t stop me from reading any book I’m interested in for other reasons. As I mentioned, I’ve adjusted to it in the current mystery and am reading on. It is well written. As J Conrad said above, it just takes some getting used to.

  4. Stream of consciousness kind of thing, first person present. It’s got to be difficult to handle/sustain. I’ve written first person, but never first person present. As you say, “this kangaroo walks into a bar…”

  5. Present tense is awkward because it goes against logic. By the time you say, “this kangaroo hops into a bar,” he’s already hopped into the bar and ordering a kangaroo cocktail, and so in reality, you can never have present tense. Like Mickey, it makes my head hurt.

    (Oh, the things one learns via Google! There really is a kangaroo cocktail — a vodka martini.)

  6. I like the immediacy of present tense, but it is about impossible to maintain for a whole book. I haven’t read Ryan, Coco. Some not very well written books jump between past and present and that gets distracting. Keep pedaling, Norm!

  7. I’ve read some books where I really felt it worked. Now, if only I could remember the past and name them.

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