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Writing

How to Write a Novel in the Present Tense: Pros and Cons of Present Tense

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 5 min read

From Charles Dickens’ nineteenth century work Bleak House to modern classics like the Divergent series, the English language is full of great novels written in the present tense. If you are working on your first book or first novel, writing in the present tense can be a great way to hook readers and create suspense. Choosing between different verb tenses is one of the most important decisions you can make when writing the first draft of a fiction novel or short story; the present tense can give your writing an unmatched sense of immediacy.

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How to Write in Present Tense: Understanding the 4 Present Tenses

When writing in the present tense, you’ll alternate between simple present, present perfect, present progressive, and present perfect progressive forms of the verb you’ve chosen. Here are examples of each tense:

  1. Simple present tense: “Simple” is the word we use to describe the most familiar tenses, which describe the occurrence of events in relation to the current time period. For example, “Sam makes a sandwich.”
  2. Present perfect tense: Perfect tenses are used to describe complete actions (as opposed to ongoing actions) at different time periods. For example, “Sam has made a sandwich.”
  3. Present progressive tense: Progressive tenses describe ongoing action. For example, “Sam is making a sandwich.”
  4. Present perfect progressive tense: Perfect progressive tense describes actions that have been ongoing. For example, “Sam has been making a sandwich.”

4 Advantages of Writing in Present Tense

Writing in the present tense can add a sense of urgency and narrative simplicity to your work, which is one of the reasons it has become so commonplace. A good example of a successful novel written in the present tense is the young adult series The Hunger Games, in which we experience the events of the story through the first person POV of our protagonist Katniss Everdeen. Here are some advantages to writing in the present tense:

  1. It creates a sense of immediacy: Writing in the present tense makes it feel as though the events of the novel are happening in real time. This can help the reader feel an immediate connection to a first person narrator, since we witness the life events and emotional transformations of the POV character as they happen. The sense of immediacy inherent in a present-tense narrative can be particularly effective when writing fiction in the thriller genre, helping the reader feel close to the action of every plot twist.
  2. It intensifies the effect of an unreliable narrator. An unreliable narrator is an untrustworthy storyteller who withholds information or misleads the reader, casting doubt on the narrative as a whole. The use of the present tense combined with a first person perspective draws us inside a character’s head, allowing us to witness the character’s thoughts and stream of consciousness perspective. First person present tense can therefore intensify the effect of an unreliable narrator, since the reader feels close to the action and is locked into the character’s point of view. When they are revealed to be unreliable, the effect is all the more jarring.
  3. It simplifies tense. Stories told in the present tense generally rely on two main verb tenses: the simple present tense and the present progressive tense. Occasionally the author will use the simple past tense—typically when describing flashbacks or past events—or the simple future tense—when describing future events or a character’s aspirations. For the most part, however, the use of present tense eliminates the need to alternate between different tenses and use complex verb forms like past progressive, future perfect, or past perfect. The result is a simple, streamlined narrative.
  4. It makes your book feel more like a movie. One advantage to writing present tense novels is that makes the work feel more cinematic. Screenplays are written as present tense stories. Some authors use present tense to mimic the immediacy and suspense of a movie, creating the illusion that the events of the story are unfolding in the present moment. John Updike credits the influence of movies on his decision to write Rabbit, Run in the present tense, as he hoped to emulate the narrative voice normally found in cinema.
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3 Disadvantages of Writing in Present Tense

Writing in the present tense can be effective in certain situations, but other narratives may call for the use of other tenses. Here are some of the drawbacks to writing in the present tense:

  1. It restricts your ability to move through time. Writing in the first person present or third-person present is an effective way to create a narrative that feels as though it’s happening in the present. However, writing in present tense can make it harder to artfully shift to past or future events, resulting in a narrative linearity that some authors find claustrophobic. Whether you’re writing in the third person or first person POV, you may find that you need to use past tense verbs in order to describe events that happened in the past.
  2. It encourages the inclusion of banal details. Whether it’s in first person, second person, or third person POV, the present tense encourages writers to describe events as they happen. The downside to this can be an overreliance on boring or superfluous details, since it feels more naturalistic to include the step-by-step actions of your characters when writing in present tense. Writing in past tense tends to encourage more judicious editing, which can help eliminate non-essential details.
  3. It reduces dramatic tension. A good story is filled with suspense. In literary fiction, sometimes that suspense comes from knowing how past or future events will affect different characters. A narrative written in past tense, for instance, may be able to derive tension from the narrator or speaker’s knowledge that something bad is about to happen—since they’re looking back on events that occurred in the past—while still withholding the specifics from the audience until the right moment. Creative writing that takes place solely in the present time frame is limited to creating tension out of the events currently happening.

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