Why Present Tense Bugs Me In Fiction

A couple of days ago, I released this report summarizing the WTFs that have tripped me up during the first 50 ImmerseOrDie Reports, discussing some insights and statistics I’ve pulled together about them. Included in that report is a list of the 28 different different issues that have tripped me up while reading, and at the bottom of that list was the following entry:

Present tense: I simply can’t immerse into present-tense stories. It feels silly to me.

That report has seen a lot of attention in the last couple of days, but this single line item, which represents exactly 1 of the 131 citations I’ve made, appears to have generated the most heated discussion. And I understand why. A lot of people adore present tense, and I think I particularly tweaked their noses when I listed my reason as “it feels silly to me.” Fair cop. In a list that otherwise seems reasoned and dispassionate, this one item smacks of subjective pique, rather than cerebral consideration.

So in a few places where the question has been asked online, I promised to write up my explanation, and this article is my formal response.

First, let me say that, when I say “it feels silly to me,” I in no way mean to imply that other people should feel the same way. I get that it’s a trend that is gaining steam, and that lots of people read and write in present tense, and love it. But those people read and write in circles that I do not frequent.

I grew up reading traditionally published fantasy and SF in the 70s and 80s. In that time, and in those genres, I can’t remember a single case of a story written in the present tense. I don’t say this to suggest that “real writers don’t use present tense,” because clearly, there are lots of real writers working today who do use it. My only reason for relating this historical fact is to qualify that some portion of my feelings on this issue are probably based on expectations and biases I was trained to have in my youth.

But not all of them.

I’ve written about this issue several times in the past, but one of the most succinct examples comes from the IOD review in which I cited this problem in the first place. Here’s the first part of what I said then:

This is going to gain me some snarls and growls from a lot of writers – especially younger ones – but I’m going to do my best to explain why this creates problems for me. Fans of the present tense mode like to say that it is more immediate. It puts you in the middle of the action, like it’s happening now. And actually, that’s exactly what my problem is. Because I know it’s not happening now. If it were, how did this book get written and put into my hands, days before the events took place? That sounds like a picky detail, but I kid you not, that’s the question that keeps running through my head. Subconsciously, I know it can’t possibly be happening now, so clearly this is made up. With past tense, I am at least able to concede that it might have happened. After all, I wasn’t there. But if you tell me it’s happening now, while I’m watching, I call bullshit, because it clearly isn’t. Your writing mode is in conflict with my subjective reality. And that’s a hard premise from which to construct willing suspension and immersion.

I’m sure many readers don’t think about things this deeply when they’re reading, and as a rule, I don’t either. But that’s after my willing suspension has kicked in and I’ve gotten into the flow of the story. When there’s something about the writing itself that prevents me from actually achieving that immersion, I can’t just ignore it and force the immersion to happen anyway. That’s not how immersion works.

Anyway, in the original article, I then went on to discuss the historical issue…

Worse, it conflicts with the cultural tradition of storytelling. I believe that we humans are hard-wired for stories. They are a form of early-warning system, in which important cultural lessons are accumulated and passed down. It goes back to the warrior, returning from the hunt, and relating how he crept under the banyan tree on the trail of a gazelle, only to have a tiger leap on him from the overhanging branches. Survival lesson: don’t go under a banyan tree without checking the branches first. These stories are always conveyed in the past tense, and that subtle cue gives them veracity. It did happen. The narrator was there. It was real. And this story is the lesson he brings to share with me from that harrowing experience.

Now obviously, plenty of people are able to relate just fine to present tense stories, so it would be absurd to suggest that there’s any kind of genetic predisposition to hearing stories in past tense only. But the point about increasing the verisimilitude is one I feel strongly about. Stories told in the present tense do not feel true to me in the way that past tense accounts do. In fact – and here’s where the “silliness” thing comes in – well, here’s what I said at the time:

By contrast, present tense story telling conveys a more anecdotal, inconsequential feeling to me. So there I am, a chicken in one hand and a squirrel in the other, when my belt lets go and my pants drop to my knees. What am I supposed to do? 

For me, present tense always feels like the setup to a joke, and that makes it harder for me to take the story seriously.

It doesn’t have to feel that way to you, but it does to me, and that’s the only truth I can report. But I know I’m not alone. For every email or internet comment I got saying that I was being unfair about present tense, I got an equal number saying “Amen to that!” and “I’m with you, brother!” That doesn’t make present tense a “mistake.” It just means that if you use it, there are going to be some people who won’t like your book. And that is just something every writer has to learn to accept, because every choice you make as a writer is a decision that will close the door to some readers, while opening a door to others.

It’s just part of the territory.

Anyway, having looked back over my previous explanation, I find that I don’t really have much more to add. I know lots of you like present tense, or at least tolerate it, and that’s fine. I don’t suggest that you change a thing. But ImmerseOrDie is not a report on what authors must or must not do. Nor is it a report on what all readers like or disklike. It is a report on what works for me, and what doesn’t. And hopefully, the reports are clear enough, and well enough expressed, that they give authors another tool they can use to help them decide which issues might affect a sizeable chunk of their audience. All I can do in my reports is be honest about my experience, and try to explain why the book evoked whatever feelings it evoked. And that’s what I do.

So go ahead and use present tense fiction if you like, and I even invite you to submit to the IOD. But be aware that you’re likely to start with 1 WTF out of the gate. That’s not a killer though, since you get 2 for free. But if your stuff is good and there’s nothing else to trip me up, you’ll still make it to 40.

And who knows? Maybe somebody will submit a present-tense book so gripping that I don’t even notice. It could happen.

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is uniquely unqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.