Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Present is Making me Tense

T7942So I’ve read six novels this year (2011), and through no fault of my own, they’ve all had one thing in common: They’ve been told in first person present tense.

When did this become a thing?  I know it’s nothing new; one of the books is A Handmaid’s Tale, which is from the 1980’s if I’m not mistaken.  But the tense works in that book.  In the others, not so much.  Three of the books are The Hunger Games Trilogy, which just aren’t very good books anyway (I’m ducking until people stop throwing things at me).  One of the other two is Water for Elephants, which would have been a great novel if not for the present tense.  It reminded me of Dune, which was otherwise fantastic, but I couldn’t finish because it kept switching POV within the same scene, sometimes within the same paragraph.

I’ve written in the present tense before.  I wrote a short story about a gay teenage boy the night of the Homecoming dance in which he planned to come out.  I wrote part of a zombie novel from the zombie’s POV.  In both cases, the characters are stuck in the moment for completely different reasons.  The same applies for The Handmaid’s Tale.  The MC lives in the present; she has no future or past, at least none of either that she can latch on to.  She’s a puppet of the state.  All she can safely focus on is the moment at hand.  That’s why it works.

In a story that takes place over several years or worse, one in which a character is remembering the past (talking to you, Elephants) it’s completely inappropriate.  There’s something grounding about the past tense.  This is what happened to me, and now I’m relating it, as opposed to, this happens, then I do this, then something else happens.  It’s like listening to teenage girls.

“So, like, I go, ‘blah, blah, blah.’  Then he’s all ‘blah, blah, blah.’  Then Bethany goes berserk and drives away.  And then later, she comes back, and she’s all…”*

Reading Elephants was like walking on ice or trying to scale glass; there just wasn’t anything to grab on to.  I kept slipping out of the story.  It was a good story, too.  I really liked the characters and the world they inhabited.

Anyway, this is totally a personal preference.  Apparently I’m in the minority since Elephants received a ton of critical praise, and The Hunger Games books are ridiculously popular.  So what’s your opinion?

*No offense to teenage girls, of course.


  1. i pretty much can't stand present tense. It drives me bonkers. That said, though, i didn't even notice in the Hunger Games that it was present tense until i went back and checked later for something else and realized it was.

  2. I love present tense, but I know writing in present tense for genre fiction is taboo. I'm glad it's more accepted in YA lit.

  3. One of my Works in Progress is in first person present and for no reason except that it works for the viewpoint character.

    I might change back to more conventional styles if I reread and find that it doesn't work.


  4. Oh, brave you to come out and say you didn't like the hunger games! I haven't read it but I feel the same way about Inkheart; I hated it, thought it was either bad writing, bad editing or bad translation.

  5. I've been trying to read Wolf Hall for six months - something about first person, present puts me to sleep. This is not a problem I normally have when I'm reading.

    ps I voted for your 100 word sentence - it was fine ;)

  6. I liked the Hunger Games. The first one anyway, which is the only one I've read.

    That said, I think I've read more books in the present tense in the past few months than in the last two years. I think it's becoming more and more popular. It's more immediate, but for me, it is very hard to do.

  7. Tense doesn't bother me, neither does narrative voice, so long as I can connect with the story. If it's well written and the characters and plot are strong, I don't care if it's 1st-person present, 3rd-person past, or any variation thereof.

    It really bothers me when people are adament against a particular tense or perspective. There is so much good writing out there that is overlooked because of tense/narrative hate. I don't understand it.

    That being said, the second person "you" narration doesn't work well for most writers (save Jay McInerney, who is rather brilliant), and I've never read a future tense novel. I'd avoid attempting those.

  8. I HUGELY agree with you. It drives me NUTS about 95% of the time. I read Handmaid's Tale so long ago, that I don't even remember that angle, but your evaluation makes sense to me. And (even if you disagree), in Hunger Games i could ignore it because it went with the 'reality TV nature of the story.

    USUALLY, I just completely can't get into it. I think it's silly. I'm not a huge fan of 1st person anyway, but then you add present tense and it is like this ego-infused... yeahno... don't like it.

    I also solidly believe that, because as you pointed out, sometimes it DOES work, a person needs to master 3rd person past FIRST before they start experimenting with PoV or Tense.

  9. Is present tense the new thing in YA? I Am Number Four - an okay book - is also present tense. I am just about to read Hunger Games - thanks for the heads up. I totally agree with you about present tense ungrounding the story. I was about to blog about this issue when I found myself writing a present tense story last week.

    Why? I don't know - probably when I drafted it I wasn't sure how it was going to end. And I ended it on a cliffhanger, so telling it in past tense might have created a weird time paradox - if the narrator is talking from the point of view of the action being completed, then shouldn't he know - and therefore tell - what happened? Or something? When (if?) it bounces back from the market I've submitted it to, I might reconsider.

    Generally speaking I experience present tense as a constant shot in the arm from the writer: THIS! IS! HAPPENING! NOW! GET! EXCITED! BE! ON! EDGE!

    Mostly I would rather decide for myself if I should be excited.

    Harlan Ellison apparently had this to say about present tense:

    "The problem is you're doing such [redacted] stupid idiot [redacted]. This present tense [redacted] [redacted]. How many times do you have to be told? The present tense is obtrusive."

    Apologies to Mr. Ellison, but I didn't want to swear all over your blog!

    Unexpurgated version here:
    Harlan's Week at Odyssey

  10. Thanks for all the feedback, everyone. Just my opinion, and like I said, it can work, but if you're retelling something that happened in the past, why wouldn't you tell in the past tense. I actually didn't mind the present during the arena scenes, but -without giving too much away - the whole series takes place over a much longer time frame, and she just lost we after awhile. It felt almost like she was talking to herself, or reminiscing in her head, and I was an unwelcome intruder. Past tense engages the reader a lot more, I think. Again, not saying it can't ever work.

    Also, how can you not love Harlan Ellison?

  11. Yes! Harlan Ellison is just one of those amazing people. Deathbird Stories, I say! Deathbird Stories!