Why write in present tense?

Why write in present tense?

Present tense is hardly new:

  • Virgil’s The Aeneid (29-19 BC)
  • Édouard Dujardin in Les lauriers sont coupés (1887)
  • The Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1852-3)
  • Jane Eyre contains chunks of present tense
  • Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
  • Nathalie Sarraute (A French practitioner of the nouveau roman, a type of French novel that appeared in the 1950s)
  • Various William Faulkner stories e.g. Light In August (1932)
  • The Rabbit novels by John Updike (1960s)
  • One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)
  • Surfacing by Margaret Atwood (1972)
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

Writers don’t always share a reason for writing a story in present tense, and the success of their work has little/nothing to do with how cognizant they are of their reasons for writing in it. Here’s William Faulkner, who didn’t seem to know why he switched to present tense for Light In August:

INTERVIEWER: Most people are very struck by your change in style in Light In August. For example, you use the present tense to tell the story, rather than the past. Did you mean something by that or were you just using a new form for dramatic import–?

WILLIAM FAULKNER: No, that just seemed to me the best way to tell the story. It wasn’t a deliberate change of style. I don’t know anything about style. I think a writer with a lot pushing inside him to get out hasn’t got time to bother with style. If he just likes to write and hasn’t got anything urging him, then he can become a stylist, but the ones with a great deal pushing to get out don’t have time to be anything but clumsy, like Balzac, for instance.

from a William Faulkner interview at the University of Virginia

Still, some contemporary readers can’t stand fiction written in present tense. Author Philip Pullman goes on semi-regular ranty-old man tirades against it.

I don’t care how many people enjoy it, fiction in the present tense is an ABDICATION OF NARRATIVE RESPONSIBILITY. I resent having to re-calibrate my entire attitude to time whenever I open a novel in the present tense. Away with them!

Twitter, August 2022

When critic and author Lucy Atkins tweeted back that she had “abandoned present tense” after using it in her first two books, Pullman replied, “Well, I like your books so you can do what you like.”

Atkins tried it out then moved away, explaining that she chose present tense “because of some idea that it makes things *seem* more immediate/good. I discovered this to be nonsense: most books in present tense would be better if in past tense. Some exceptions, but not many.”

Someone else pointed out that despite professing to despise present tense, Philip Pullman makes use of it in his own work:

This is Limehouse, and here is the child who is going to disappear.

He is called Tony Makarios. His mother thinks he’s nine years old, but she has a poor memory that the drink has rotted; he might be eight, or ten. His surname is Greek, but like his age, that is a guess on his mother’s part, because he looks more Chinese than Greek, and there’s Irish and Skraeling and Lascar in him from his mother’s side, too. Tony’s not very bright, but he has a sort of clumsy tenderness that sometimes prompts him to give his mother a rough hug and plant a sticky kiss on her cheeks.

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

Pullman replied: “It signified a time out of the stream of the narrative, an event that was repeated a number of times. I did something similar in a book called ‘The Tin Princess’. In those cases, the present tense was expressive: it said something about the story.”

The complex truth: No lengthy work of fiction is written in entirely past or entirely in present tense. Even The Past Tense is a complex combination of simple past, past perfect, and present perfect. We learn these verb forms as toddlers and there they lodge in a part of the brain which becomes automatic. Authors — alongside all native speakers — weave in and out of backstory and flashbacks, gliding with ease back into the present world of the story.

As the tweet thread wears on, Pullman says: “When we experience things we don’t narrate them while we’re doing it.” In which case, I believe he’s expressing a preference for autofiction, which isn’t a verb tense at all. He eventually claims to speak only for himself and his own reading preferences, which, after a reaching international celebrity and influence, is a total cop out. Pet peeves are contagious, especially when issued from on high.

Other reasons I’ve heard for dislike of the present tense:

  1. There’s no reason to break the convention of past tense because, whether a story is told in present or past, accomplished writers can achieve immediacy and make readers feel immersed in the story. It’s not about tense, it’s about controlling narrative distance (e.g. close third person, omniscient etc.) If writers hope to immerse a reader simply by changing the tense from past to present, they’re putting sticky tape on a volcano.
  2. Writers shouldn’t pander to readers brought up on contemporary middle grade and young adult fiction, known to feature many present tense works (e.g. The Hunger Games.) Ergo, a new crop of young readers are unable to cope with anything else. Make the young’uns read past tense, which is the natural and unmarked tense! Unless readers are exposed to it, they’ll never get used to it.
  3. Present tense feels artificial. Of course for a story to have happened it must have taken place in the past, even if we know it never happened (because it is fiction).
  4. Writers with MFAs seem to love it, and literary fiction getting all the accolades are disproportionately written in present tense, so basically it’s the tense of try-hards now. If you want to sound fancy and expensively educated, write in present tense. I despise such people, and I therefore despise any fashionable tense.

If a proportion of readers think this about the present tense, why does it proliferate in contemporary fiction?

There must be good reasons, right?

Carlton Alfred Smith – Recalling the Past 1888

A NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY

How to describe time in the part of a story that’s not flashback — the past closest to the present? I am yet to happen across succinct phrasing. So far, I’m stuck with ‘the present of the story’s diegesis‘. This has nothing to do with whether a work is written in past or present tense, and everything to do with which part of a story we designate ‘takes place in the present temporality for the characters’.

Even M.H. Abrams, who wrote the undergrad literature student bible, manages to dodge it:

In many narratives, usually in a way not explicitly noted by the reader, … narration moves from the narrator, by whom the events are told in the past tense (e.g., then and there), to a character in the narration, for whom the action is present (e.g., here and now).

A Glossary of Literary Terms, M.H. Abrams, 7th edition (under Grammar of Narration)

YES, ABRAMS, and what do we call that section of ‘the action’ which ‘is present’, as it is experienced by the characters within a scene?

(Perhaps an expert in narratology will enlighten me. Will update this post when I finally come across it.)

THE INTERCONNECTED REASONS FOR PRESENT TENSE IN CONTEMPORARY FICTION

  1. Present tense requires fewer words. There’s no longer any need for complicated verb phrases such as the past participle when switching to flashback: “They had been at the shops when…”
  2. A style which requires fewer words is a perfect fit for the minimalist style more generally, which is why writers who choose present tense often drop speech marks and commas as well.
  3. Why the minimalist style, though? Because it is now fashionable to let readers interpret scenes for themselves without a dissonant narrator stepping in to interpret the situation on a reader’s behalf. At the other end of that spectrum we have The Mark Twain Wink, which feels very 20th century. Note that tentpole examples of ‘winking’ writers wrote for a dual audience of adults and children (A.A. Milne and E.B. White). The wink engaged the adults. Contemporary fiction for adults assumes adults are the readers, and can make up their own minds about a given scenario. This is of course a magic trick, because authors very adeptly guide what we see and don’t see. However, they are no longer permitted to be so overt about it. Readers feel infantilized when offered obvious authorial guidance.

OTHER EFFECTS OF PRESENT TENSE FICTION

IMMEDIACY

When the main story is written in present tense and flashbacks in past, this affords a strong, clear distinction between what’s happening now and what happened before now.

In past-tense stories, flashbacks really do feel, to characters, like the past. To characters. But because the entire work is written in past tense, all of it, flashbacks and otherwise, feel like past events to readers.

So when writers say, “The present tense keeps readers closer to the characters”, they mean readers are right there with characters in time. When a story is written in past tense, readers are temporally separated from characters.

THEMES OF CAUSE AND EFFECT

Some stories ask audiences to consider: Why do people turn out the way they do? Damnation Plots are especially good at this (in opposition to the far more common Redemption Plot) because they remind us all that people don’t just snap. Bad behaviour doesn’t issue forth out of nowhere. We are who we are because behaviours are biopsychosocial.

This is a fairly modern idea. People used to think people were biobiobio. (Bad blood.) The biobiobio idea dies hard. Queer communities have pushed back hard against conversion therapies with the Born This Way argument, but researchers understand the reality of humans is far more complicated than that.

So it should be for writers.

Present tense is good for exploring the biological, psychological and socially constructed factors which go into making a person who they are.

This is because present tense doesn’t prioritise one life event over another. If the writer is telling a story over a character’s lifetime, say, a childhood experience feels as important as another scene which happens at the age of 40. The choice to write in present tense may be mechanistic. But it can also be thematic. If writers intend to explore themes around how the past affects someone’s present, then present tense narration can be a good thematic choice.

PRESENT TENSE AND POSTMODERNISM

Present tense narration may be especially well-suited to Postmodern works:

  1. Postmodern plot shapes tend to take readers back and forth in time. Time is frequently non-linear. Works written in past tense are already drawing a distinction between the present experience of the reader and the past tense of the story.
  2. In postmodern works, audiences become accomplices. This is a very general statement, but if audiences are to become accomplices, they need the sense of being right there with the characters. Hence the reason for letting them share the same present tense.
  3. A postmodern work may offer no sense of closure. When writing in past tense, there is an implied sense of closure. The story has already happened; it’s done and dusted.

CASE STUDY: SALLY ROONEY

Sally Rooney’s Normal People is a fantastic example of present tense fiction. Here she is, explaining present tense stylistic choices in her own words:

In terms of why I write in present tense, I was using a lot of flashbacks and it’s a lot easier if you’re putting the flashbacks in past tense. Then you can put the main body of your narrative in present tense and flow between them is really easy. If I had written it all in past tense, then I would’ve had to seed the flashback thing, like, past participle. And that gets really ugly and complicated to read after just a few sentences. So honestly it was a very mechanistic decision. It wasn’t particularly, like, creative. It’s just like, ‘Here’s what I want to have happened between these characters. And here’s how I want to present what has happened. Now, how can I make the individual sentences as smooth and unobtrusive as I can? For me, the answer to that was: Put it in present tense, have the flashbacks take place in the past, don’t use any speech marks, don’t use things like italics and stuff like that. Insofar as possible, just present the text plainly to the reader. And that felt like the right way to tell the story I wanted to tell. They’re just minor stylistic choices, but I guess they spoke to what I was trying to do, which was to make myself, my own presence as the author, as unobtrusive as I could and just allow the story of the characters to be dominant in the text, if that makes sense.

Sally Rooney in interview with Kishani Widyaratna, London Review, answering an audience question about why she wrote Normal People in present tense.

Now let’s take a passage from her novel to see exactly what she means by the switch from present tense to flashbacks. Rooney is so adept at this you really have to make a study of the work to even notice a change in tense.

The first few pages, analysed below, are free to view on the Kobo website.

EXAMPLE ONE: MAKING USE OF SIDE-SHADOWING

Starting from the beginning of the book, the first shift in tense happens on page three.

[Connell] feels his ears get hot. She‘s probably just being glib and not suggestive, but if she is being suggestive it’s only to degrade him by association, since she is considered an object of disgust. She wears ugly thick-soled flat shoes and doesn’t put make-up on her face. People have said she doesn’t shave her legs or anything. Connell once heard that she spilled chocolate ice-cream on herself in the school lunchroom, and she went to the girls’ bathrooms and took her blouse off to wash it in the sink. That‘s a popular story about her, everyone has heard it. If she wanted, she could make a big show of saying hello to Connell in school. See you this afternoon, she could say, in front of everyone. Undoubtedly it would put him in an awkward position, which is the kind of thing she usually seems to enjoy. But she has never done it.

Normal People

Notice how Rooney gently switches us from present tense to a past event in the story using the present perfect verb construction: ‘People have said‘. The phrase Connell once heard‘ marks the next switch, from present perfect to simple past. Because Connell only heard the story once, it is over. No ‘present perfect’, just ‘simple past’.

The following sentence brings us back into the present: ‘That’s a popular story about her‘.

The paragraph ends with an excellent example of side-shadowing. Connell imagines what Marianne might do, in a hypothetical alternative universe. For side-shadowing, writers make use of the verbs could, should and would. Side-shadowing does not occupy any place in the present, past or future of a story because it never actually happens. It’s hypothetical, a thought-experiment, a dream, and here it offers readers insight into Connell’s greatest fear (being humiliated by Marianne).

EXAMPLE TWO: THE PAST PERFECT FOR MINOR FLASHBACKS

The next flashback happens on page five.

What if, at some level above or below his perception, he does actually desire [his creepy Economics teacher]? He doesn’t even really know what desire is supposed to feel like. Any time he has had sex in real life, he has found it so stressful as to be largely unpleasant, leading him to suspect that there’s something wrong with him, that he’s unable to be intimate with women, that he’s somehow developmentally impaired. He lies there afterwards and thinks: I hated that so much that I feel sick. Is that just the way he is? Is the nausea he feels when Miss Neary leans over his desk actually his way of experiencing a sexual thrill? How would he know?

Normal People

Note that this is another example of Connell mulling over the hypothetical (‘What if…’), showing his capacity for reflection, juxtaposed against his laconic exterior.

The flashback is not a singular event in the past, but an overall description of something that happened a number of times, and which infects his present experience, right now talking to Marianne.

Once again, the switch from present to past event (in the story) isn’t as simple as present tense to simple past verb forms. Rooney is making use of the present perfect: ‘Any time he has had sex… he has found…’ The verb ‘has‘ is present tense. English uses the present perfect for something which started in the past and continues in the present.

EXAMPLE THREE: SWITCHING BETWEEN THE PRESENT TENSE AND EXTENDED FLASHBACKS

There’s a difference between ‘things characters think as they’re in a scene’ and ‘scenes which happened sometime earlier. I’ll call this second kind a ‘real flashback’, for lack of a better word. The other achieves interiority, in which no one’s mind ever stays fully in the moment (unless we’re good at meditating, I guess).

The first ‘real’ flashback of Normal People happens on page seven.

He‘s not frightened of her, actually she’s a pretty relaxed person, but he fears being around her, because of the confusing way he finds himself behaving, the things he says that he would never ordinarily say.

A few weeks ago when he was waiting for Lorraine in the hall, Marianne came downstairs in a bathrobe. It was just a plain white bathrobe, tied in the normal way. Her hair was wet, and her skin had that glistening look…

Normal People

Until now, events from the past have simply crossed Connell’s mind as he chats with Marianne in the present moment. Sally Rooney has done this using a combination of present perfect verbs and side-shadowing.

Now we see the real benefit of writing in present tense. Rooney wants to tell readers about the time Connell saw Marianne in a vulnerable moment. This requires a full flashback scene. All she needs do is this: Finish one paragraph (in the present tense), start a new one (in the past).

Note how it’s not quite that simple, though. There’s a little trick to it. The switch requires a bridging verb phrase: ‘was waiting‘. We call this verb phrase the past continuous in English, or sometimes the past progressive. Doesn’t matter what it’s called. The takeaway point for writers: A switch from present tense to simple past is a little too abrupt for the reader. That bridging verb phrase is required to smooth things out.

However, as Rooney’s example shows, writers only need the bridging phrase once. The rest of the entire paragraph can now be written in simple past (came, was, had).

Note: Switching back to present tense does not require the same bridging. Sally Rooney simply switches back to it with ‘Marianne says‘.

[continuing the same paragraph] It wasn’t like he deeply cared to know. He certainly didn’t tell anyone in school about it, that he had seen her in a bathrobe, or that she looked flustered, it wasn’t anyone’s business to know.

Well, I like you, Marianne says.

Normal People

For comparison’s sake, I will rewrite Sally Rooney’s work in past tense. Past tense, no problem:

He wasn’t frightened of her, actually she was a pretty relaxed person, but he feared being around her, because of the confusing way he found himself behaving, the things he said that he would never ordinarily say.

But notice how Rooney’s flashback scene is also written in past tense. These are Rooney’s words following on from above — I’ve changed nothing:

A few weeks ago when he was waiting for Lorraine in the hall, Marianne came downstairs in a bathrobe. It was just a plain white bathrobe, tied in the normal way. Her hair was wet, and her skin had that glistening look…

Normal People

Readers have lost the clear distinction between what’s happening in the present, and what happened in the past. If Sally Rooney wanted to make that distinction clear she’d have to write:

A few weeks ago when he had been waiting for Lorraine in the hall, Marianne had come downstairs in a bathrobe. It was just a plain white bathrobe, tied in the normal way. Her hair was wet, and her skin had that glistening look…

Normal People

Had been waiting. The bridging verb phrase has expanded from two words to three. That’s what Rooney means by ugly and clunky. Also, I’ve left ‘it was’ as it is, but does it seem a little janky to you? Or should it be: ‘It had been just a plain white bathrobe…

How long is the writer meant to continue on with the past perfect continuous (a.k.a. progressive) tense before switching back to simple past?

Later, on page ten, there is another proper flashback (to the end-of-term soccer match). Rooney has used a double carriage return to introduce it. On page twelve, Rooney switches us back to the present tense, with no bridging verb, just a new paragraph: ‘Marianne’s classmates all seem to like school…‘.

And so it continues for the rest of Normal People: Minor flashbacks written in present perfect, entire flashback scenes after returns or double returns, segued using the present continuous. Is these the general guidelines for writing present tense, or is this a Rooney thing?

Rooney’s work is highly introspective, so when Normal People was adapted for television, scenes naturally included many pauses, and sparse dialogue considering how much was happening in the characters’ heads. This made it a sitting duck for parody.

Let’s look at another stand-out present-tense work.

CASE STUDY: THE HUNGER GAMES BY SUZANNE COLLINS

Preview The Hunger Games on the Kobo website.

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

opening paragraph of The Hunger Games

Like Sally Rooney, and any other good writer, Suzanne Collins offers interiority of her main character by conveying to readers what’s going on inside her head. Hence verb phrases such as must have (a deduction).

Worth noting: Without the interiority, where verb phrases are various, present tense would call more attention to itself because the entire paragraph, the entire page, would be in present tense.

I prop myself up on one elbow. There‘s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too, Or so they tell me.

second paragraph of The Hunger Games

The second paragraph is written in past tense with one sentence of flashback to the erstwhile beautiful mother.

Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drawn him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he‘s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

third paragraph of The Hunger Games

The first proper flashback describes the history of the cat. Notice the bridging phrases, not always verb phrases: ‘Even though it was years ago … Sometimes‘ These words provide the segue between present and past tense within a single paragraph. The paragraph ends with ‘has stopped’, present perfect. We saw this in Sally Rooney’s Normal People: Here, the present perfect provides an ‘outro’ bridge because the following paragraph returns to present tense.

Unlike Sally Rooney, Suzanne Collins makes much use of sentence fragment, (avoiding verbs and/or tense).

As I read on, the main difference between Sally Rooney (writing adult contemporary) and Suzanne Collins (writing YAL) is that Sally Rooney, very early on, includes relatively long scene which happened in the past. Suzanne Collins keeps readers in the present. When she writes backstory, she drops it in smaller chunks. The chunks are about half to a third as long before depositing readers back into the present action. Of course, The Hunger Games is action genre and Normal People is a character study, so that explains the difference.

CASE STUDY: OLIVE KITTERIDGE BY ELIZABETH STROUT

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is an interesting case. Whereas the examples above are written in present tense with occasional dipping into past for flashbacks, Olive Kitteridge is also written in present tense, but dips in and out of memory so that the amount of past and present tense verbs are shared equally across the work.

Here’s the opening paragraph, with one (long) sentence of present tense. Notice how Elizabeth Strout takes us from present to the past within a single (long) sentence.

For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.

The story changes back to present tense 14 pages later:

Autumn now, November, and so many years later that when Henry runs a comb through his hair on this Sunday morning, he has to pluck some strands of gray from the black plastic teeth before slipping the comb back into his pocket. … [a page later] Olive herself has become an unapologetic atheist. He does…

But writing like this, Elizabeth Strout did make occasional use of past perfect in those 14 pages, reminding us, subtly, that this all took place in the intradiegetic past:

  • A darkness had rumbled through him
  • In college, Henry Thibodeau had played football…
  • Denise had written Olive a thank-you note…

How does Elizabeth Strout know when to throw a past perfect in there? Well, first of all, the past perfects occur at the beginning of new paragraph, and once after a double carriage return. New paragraphs indicate some kind of shift, but not all shifts are equal in weight. Elizabeth Strout throws in a past perfect to indicate a bigger shift (in comparison to the more minor ones). In this way, writers can use verb phrases and tense to mark clearer divisions — in character, place and theme — not simply to mark divisions in time.

Note that Elizabeth Strout opens her novel in present tense how William Faulkner opened Light In August. Although the most recent part of the story is present tense, the huge chunk of backstory means there’s very little present tense at all. Backstory is written in simple past or past perfect, depending on how long ago things happened.

Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, ‘I have come from Alabama: a fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece.’ Thinking although I have not been quite a month on the road I am already in Mississsippi, further from Doane’s Mill than I have been since I was twelve years old.

She had never even been [PAST PERFECT] to Doane’s Mill until after her father and mother died, though six or either times a year she went to town on Saturday, in the wagon, in a mail-order dress and her bare feet flat in the wagon bed and her shoes wrapped in a piece of paper beside her on the seat. [SWITCHES TO ITERATIVE — DESCRIBING WHAT USED TO HAPPEN FREQUENTLY] She would put on the shoes just before the wagon reached town. After she got to be a big girl she would ask her father to stop the wagon at the edge of town and she would get down and walk. She would not tell her father why she wanted to walk in instead of riding. He thought that it was because of the smooth streets, the sidewalks. But it was because she believed that the people who saw her and whom she passed on foot would believe that she lived in the town too.

When she was twelve years old her father and mother died in the same summer, in a log house of three rooms and a hall, without screens, in a room lighted by a bugswirled kerosene lamp, the naked floor worn smooth as old silver by naked feet. She was the youngest living child. Her mother died first. She said, “Take care of paw.” Lena did so. Then one day her father said, “You go to Doane’s Mill with McKinley. You get ready to go, be ready when he comes.” Then he died. McKinley, the brother, arrived in a wagon. They buried the father in a grove behind a country church one afternoon, with a pine headstone. The next morning she departed forever, though it is possible that she did not know this at the time, in the wagon with McKinley, for Doane’s Mill. The wagon was borrowed and the brother had promised to return it by nightfall.

The brother worked at the mill…

[THREE OR FOUR PAGES LATER] The wagon mounts the hill toward her. [SWITCH TO RECENT PAST] She passed it about a mile back down the road. It was standing beside the road, the mules asleep in the traces and their heads pointed in the direction in which she walked. …

[NEXT PARAGRAPH] The sharp and brittle crack and clatter of its weathered and ungreased wood and metal is slow and terrific: a series of dry sluggish reports carrying for a half mile across the hot still pinewiney silence of the August afternoon. Though the mules plod in a steady and unflagging hypnosis, the vehicle does not seem to progress

Light In August, William Faulkner

REASONS FOR WRITING IN PRESENT TENSE

Aside from shorter, leaner verb phrases, there’s nothing that can be done in present tense that can’t also be done in past. Simple past tense is the standard, unmarked version. Everyone is used to it. I hear no one complaining there’s too much of it.

Immediacy can be achieved with narrative closeness (i.e. close third person or first person).

Present tense makes this just a little more difficult because by putting your implied reader in the room with your characters, you feel you’re right there with them, too, as writer. Any variety of close narration also helps avoid this temptation, of course. Writers can avoid over-explanation with narrative closeness, as well.

Still, here are some reasons why you might choose to write a story in present tense:

  1. You’re writing a character driven story with themes around character formation and traumatic events infecting the present.
  2. You recognise in yourself a tendency to explain things to adult readers.
  3. You’re aiming for minimalism, or perhaps you just prefer shorter verb phrases for aesthetic reasons.
  4. You’re describing something occurring perpetually in the present, relentlessly, without change. If Andrea Arnold’s American Honey were a novel and not a film, I might expect a story like that to be written in present tense.
  5. Your work features introspective main characters who experience many flashbacks. I don’t just mean fully-fledged flashbacks — your characters are constantly reflecting on things. Events in the present remind them constantly and briefly of former times. Rooney’s characters are definitely introspective, to the point where, when Normal People was adapted for TV, we’ve now got these great gaping silences where introspection would be. The show is now easy to parody. (Cf. “Older Normal People” on YouTube.)
  6. Introspection aside, you have a lot of backstory, because you have reasons to tell a story based in the present time of the narrative. Present tense for ‘present time’ and past tense for backstory and flashbacks can work nicely.
  7. You want readers to wear your characters like a coat, to inhabit them. This can also be achieved using very close third person, in which case we’re talking about narrative distance, not past tense. However, there is more than way to skin a cat.
  8. You’re writing historical fiction and you’d like to emphasis the “provisionality” (temporary-ness) of a certain point in time. This is why Hilary Mantel wrote Wolf Hall in present tense. Readers already know how history played out (because of backshadowing), so by plonking readers back into the present tense of a former time, that sense of “history’s already played out; I know all there is to know” is removed. “Episodes are charged with doubt and danger.” (John Mullan.) Dickens did it first.
  9. Dickens and Charlotte Brontë moved between past and present tense to change the emotional valence. When David Copperfield narrates his mother’s funeral, Dickens moves from past to present tense to increase the emotional aspect.
  10. Writers can switch between present and past to mark a difference in voice between alternating point of view characters. In David Copperfield, Dickens chose first-person past tense for Esther and third-person present tense for the rest.
  11. Mullan also points out how Penelope Lively did the same in Moon Tiger. Kate Atkinson alternated tense in Behind The Scenes at the Museum. In both cases, carefully segmented sections of tense “provide the reader with a satisfying sense of narrative design
  12. …Both these novels use tense shifts to dramatise the relationship between individual aspiration and family history.”

Those who tell the stories rule the world.

Native American Proverb