2

I've recently started trying my hand at some fiction writing for the first time. Already I reckon there are a lot of people out there that would say that I shouldn't be thinking about present tense if I'm so new and that I should learn past tense first, however, I'm just doing this as an exercise for now so please forgive my decision. I have read people saying present tense is terrible, it's incredibly hard to do well and that it sticks out like a sore thumb when you're doing it poorly(which I think is actually a boon, it's easy to put down bad writing, It's nice when that bad writing sticks out!) what I am struggling to find is a collection of excerpts that show the pinnacle of present tense. I want to read some excellent examples, I want to see the figures of rhetoric put to good use, but I can't seem to find any. I'm sure I could find some if I was to read through some of the popular present tense books out there but I don't really have time at the moment...

Please share some of your favourite examples and tips for present tense fiction so that I can learn to recognise it!

So far I find what little I have written flows well enough but doesn't seem especially beautiful or interesting. Before I write any further I want to study a few excerpts and have a go at getting the first section decent.

Your guidance is appreciated!


One thing I have noticed is that I seem to end up writing lines that read like an old text adventure game. And I also find myself writing he says she says type stuff, having to correct myself and make it more appealing. It seems more to do with my amateur status than the inclinations of a present tense writer, but I can't be sure. For example, I might( without thinking ) write something like "he carries the heavy sack to the table" when I would rather write something like "carrying the heavy sack he lays it on the table" if you catch my drift.

I also find that my writing when in the present tense naturally becomes very heavy in dialogue. I think that it could just be the format of the story I started writing as my first exercise, but it is indeed dialogue heavy. I quite like that the interruptions in dialogue feel more natural in present tense, for example, I can just break off into another character speaking and it seems natural to me, whereas if it was past tense I would feel like it was ill-considered if they are just interrupting the text midline with an ellipse. "I can't believe you would say..." "well what else would I think? You're acting like a damned fool of late!" etc. Seems natural to me in present tense but if I read something like that in the context of a past tense peace, then I would think it was a little off. You wouldn't find that in someone's journal for example... it feels like the narrator should have taken into consideration the coming interjection and written around that in some way. But in present tense, it feels - to me at least - more like you're breathing life into the page whenever you read it. I find it seems reasonable to have interjections of this ilk, even when it is not directly narrated.

What are your thoughts on this?

  • 1
    Not many books are written in present tense. The only ones I know of which come to mind are the Hunger Games books. Not the best example of story (in some respects; in others it excelled), but I would say Collins definitely pulled off present tense (and first person) without a hitch. – Thomas Myron Jun 20 '17 at 2:07
  • 1
    There's quite a bit of YA written in present tense. Also All Quiet on the Western Front, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Room, The Night Circus, Bright Lights Big City (with bonus second person!) etc. – Kate S. Jul 13 '17 at 11:26
  • Another (quite brilliant) example of a novel written in present tense is Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall – Weathervane Jul 21 '17 at 10:13
1

I was going to post and example until I re-read your question and picked up on a couple of phrases: 'beautiful' and 'flows well'.

There are a number of questions on this site asking about POV and tense - they are not really cosmetic style choices. They are tools and effects to help you best tell your story. If beautiful, free-flowing prose is you goal then present tense may not be the best weapon of choice.

A story need not be exclusively past or present tense. For example we can use a change of tense to reflect a first-person narrator switching from telling a story to reliving it.

It's not nice getting dumped. I admit I was moping around the apartment being moody. Bob, my house-mate couldn't take it any longer.

"Come on, you," said Bob. "Get dressed. We'll go down to the bar on the corner. Get a few drinks. Have a few laughs."

When Bob gets an idea in his head he's like a dog with a frisbee. He wasn't taking no for an answer. We got so drunk. I don't remember getting home. I wake. I hear Bob's voice. He's whispering something. I feel trapped - it's his weight. He's saying he loves me. He's inside me now. I want him to stop but I'm so drunk. I can't form words, only make incoherent sounds. No, Bob, no. What are you doing? I'm praying to God to make him stop.

I must have blacked out again. Next thing I knew, I was pouring Cornflakes into my breakfast bowl. "Do you need a lift to work?" Bob asked. "Sure," I replied. "Give me ten minutes."

Present tense will give you speed and immediacy, Allegro for musicians. It is ideally suited to dialogue heavy scenes.


Jackie lies sprawled out on her bed like a starfish. The room is spinning. The sound of her own heartbeat pounds, echoing inside her ears, reverberating around her brain. The three-pointed light-fitting above her bed whirls around like a carousel. "Make it stop. I feel sick." She tries to sit upright.

"You are wasted." Marcin pushes her back. "Lie down before you fall down."

"Please . . . God."

"Tomorrow, you will have ugly dirty bastard hangover."

"Ha-ha! Two strong arms." She reaches up, grabs his forearms, and tries to pull herself upright. She fails, and collapses back onto the bed.

"Time for sleep," says Marcin.

"Moron. It's two strong arms, let me help. Not big strong arms," mumbles Jackie. "Can't you get anything right?"

"I will try."

Jackie closes her eyes. "Please, I beg you. The spinning, make it stop."

"You are begging me?"

"Yes, I'm begging you."

"Okay, there is trick I learn in Poland, but is secret."

"Please . . . " Jackie leans over the side of her bed.

Marcin moves the bowl to catch more of the contents of her stomach. "Grilled chicken breast not look so good second time around." He holds the bowl at arms length as he takes it next door to the bathroom.

"Don’t leave me."

"I not leave you. I am here," he calls over the running water.

"Please make it stop. I’ll do anything," she says, slumping onto her back.

"I am here now." Marcin passes her a towel. "You will do anything for to make feel better?"

"Yes. Anything."

"Interesting proposition from drunk woman," he mumbles before taking back the towel from her and wiping the vomit from her chin. "I want you to make promise."

"I promise. I promise."

"You not know what is yet."

"I don’t care."


Present tense is also more difficult for manoeuvring around time lines. The 'past' is any period before now. 10 seconds ago or 1000 years ago - it's all the same tense. Present tense can only be now.

0

If you're having trouble finding novels in present tense, look for short stories. Many of my favorite stories are in present tense, They're some of the most beautiful, insightful, moving stories I've read but not, I think, specifically because they're in present tense.

  • Amy Hempel "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried"
  • Tony Earley "The Prophet from Jupiter"
  • George Saunders "Pastoralia" "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" (and others)
  • Lydia Davis "Break It Down" (though much of it speaks of the past)
  • Aimee Bender, many of her stories in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.