What’s The Deal With Present Tense?

October 11, 2014
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I’m getting tense.

Present tense.

I have been seeing it more frequently in books by indie authors.

“I hear a faint knock on the bedroom door….”

I know, it’s supposed to immediately put me in the scene, feel what the character is feeling, see and hear what the character is seeing and hearing, make my heart pound along with theirs, and so on and so forth.
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But I just find it .. annoying. Combine the present tense with a cliché and I grow very frustrated.

“His fingers curl around the steering wheel. His knuckles grow white.”

What is going on, I wondered? (Notice how I could have said “I wonder”?) I am not the only one who has noticed this trend.

“Whereas present-tense narration was once rare, it is now so common as to be commonplace,” said David Jauss, in a book excerpt published by Writers Digest last March. “Although there are signs that its use is diminishing among established writers, it’s becoming the default choice for many younger writers.”

Yes, I know, John Updike’s Rabbit, Run was present tense. But there are very few Updikes. Many (maybe most) of the present-tense books I read by indie authors are unable to sustain the voice for the entire book. Some actually start in the present tense and relent to past tense by the second or third page.

Mignon Fogarty – better known as Grammar Girl – weighed in recently on present-tense fiction. “Reading a fiction novel requires the reader to suspend disbelief to some degree to get wrapped up in a story we know isn’t true, and a present tense novel can require an extra suspension of disbelief to accept the idea that events are unfolding right now.

“I get to school late. I take a seat in the back and pull out my notebook.”

Fogarty makes the point that such lines can sound more like stage directions than lines in a story. For me, they simply upset my equilibrium as a reader.

Call me a traditionalist – a stick in the mud, a curmudgeon – but my personal preference is still the past tense.

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