Present Tense Writing: A Refresher

Fry from Futurama

So, I realized that I haven’t really mentioned that I’m a present tense author for a while on this blog.  The way I realized this was by getting a few messages about ‘typos’ that turned out to be present tense.  I routinely run into people who mistake my present tense style for being horribly unedited.  Now, there could be typos in there because I’m human and those who help me edit are human too.  Yet, I’ve found that there’s a 50/50 shot at it being a misunderstanding.  There’s also the fact that Amazon can screw with the format of a book after it’s uploaded.  I remember comparing one of my books to the file I uploaded and I found rearranged and missing words.  Anyway, I’m not here to talk about that stuff since I can only do so much with the tech.

Long ago, I wondered why present tense throws people off so badly and then I stumbled onto a possible answer.  Stick with me on a story and theory here. Back when Beginning of a Hero came out, my friends had picked it up to read.  Now, one of my high school friends and his wife were listening to an audiobook of The Hunger Games (another present tense book) before getting to my book.  My friend’s wife had never read my stuff before and she said something was off.  His response when she explained was ‘That’s just how Charlie writes’ and he had no blips on his radar.  The reason was because he’d been reading my stuff in high school since we did a lot of English projects together.  So, hearing present tense was fine, but reading it was awkward.  That is unless you’ve been exposed to both and can transition without a problem.  Kind of strange, right?

Not really if you think about it.  We talk in real time, so we’re used to hearing present tense directed at us.  Meanwhile, writing is primarily past tense.  Why?  Because it was originally created to preserve history and pass it down the generations.  Fiction came after non-fiction, so the early stories must have been written to mimic history and then gradually get more and more diverse from reality.  This would have required that early fiction authors write about their fake events as if they already happened.  There was never a purpose to writing present tense and the use of past tense ended up becoming the norm and more natural way of reading.  Simply because it was what people learned on.  Think about it. All of the classics we read throughout school are past tense.  We don’t realize that we’re conditioning ourselves to be more comfortable with past tense than present tense.  When we do run into the latter, it’s jarring and many can mistake it for poor writing or an unedited work instead of a difference in style.

Again, this is just my theory from experience and thought.  It doesn’t even connect to why I write in present tense.  Way back in high school, I always mixed up my tenses even in mid-sentence.  My English teacher sat me down and explained that I had to pick one or the other in order to get taken seriously.  I ended up picking and running with present tense since I wrote with the images in my head acting in real time.  Honestly, I didn’t even know present tense was frowned upon until after I released my first book in 2013.  That means I’d already been doing present tense for 17 years, so it was locked in.  I’ve tried to change stuff to past tense once or twice, but it doesn’t feel natural.  Guess I conditioned myself on that one too.

Anyway, that’s basically a long reminder of me being a present tense author and throwing some thoughts about it out there.  I’m never really sure what else to say, but I have to talk about it from time to time.  Definitely makes my author journey harder than it would be with past tense, especially since flashbacks and exposition to explain the history of a place doesn’t really work.  Not like I expected this gig to be easy though . . . Okay, I didn’t think tense would be a battle.  It’s an oops that I’m willing to live with.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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16 Responses to Present Tense Writing: A Refresher

  1. I tinker with all the tools. I feel like it helps me grow. My last big leap was a second person point of view that worked well in small doses. Maybe you should try some micros in past tense just to get the experience. Then you can use whichever one seems to fit the story best. Reminds me, I should write a brand new second person anthem and use it for some free days on The Enhanced League.

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  2. Your theory as to why people struggle to accept present tense seems logical. I hadn’t really thought about it before. I generally write in past tense, but could write in present tense if I wanted to. I just feel more comfortable with the past tense writing style. That’s what’s most important at the end of the day though: that you pick a style you’re comfortable with, and stick with it throughout the entire story.

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  3. twixie13 says:

    The reasoning for why past tense is so prevalent makes perfect sense. I tend to work in both past and present tense, and even then, I can go either 3rd person or 1st. The 1st person/present tense combo is what I usually use in my books. It’s just what feels right for my stuff.

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  4. L. Marie says:

    I love present tense. When I first tried to write in present tense, I felt thrown off. But after awhile, I got into the groove. I’m not surprised by present tense books, because so many young adult novels were written in present tense.

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  5. Actually, you’ve inspired me to try present tense. I now write all of my short stories in it, as I find it adds immediacy, and all of my novels in past tense. So, thanks for the inspiration 🙂

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  6. caminodetim says:

    My first book has been a memoir – reflections on my life while walking the Camino in Spain. Some very tense stories, if you will excuse the pun, so it has seemed absolutely natural to talk in the present. I think it has really brought the story alive. Thanks for the discussion.

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    • Great point. Memoirs do feel like a genre that would benefit from present tense. Even thought they’re about past events, bringing them to the audience as they’re happening could really help make them relatable. Glad you enjoyed the discussion.

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  7. This can be almost as fraught as first person vs. third person.

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