Super Survey Sunday: Present Tense Novels


April 28, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue

We’ll get to the survey shortly, but first…

Earlier this month, I wrote a post about things authors do that drive me insane. You can read it here. The thing is, even if a book contains one or more of my pet peeves, I will probably still finish it.

I’m a book junkie, I can’t help myself. I justify this behavior by telling myself that reading books I don’t like is actually helpful for me as a writer. By analyzing what I disliked about a book and where I think the author bombed, I’ve learned quite a bit about writing.

“Every book you pick up has its own lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.” – Stephen King, On Writing

Yesterday, I picked up a book and put it down before finishing the second chapter. I believe this is a first. Of the handful of books that I have not finished, I have made it through at least half of each one before throwing in the towel.

So, what was the kiss of death?

At first I thought it was that the book was written in present tense. I considered that for a moment and then remembered that some of my all-time favorite books are written in present tense: the Disillusionists Trilogy by Carolyn Crane and Choke and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.

Aha! I’ve got it! The present tense books I like were written in first person, the abandoned book was written in third.

Apparently third person POV combined with present tense is my kryptonite.

I just can’t do it. It physically pains me. While the present tense should make me feel like I’m right there in the action, the addition of third person narration has the opposite effect. It distances me. It makes me feel like I’m listening to someone read the script from a screenplay. I just can’t shake the notion that I’m listening to someone give direction to actors, so I can’t settle in and immerse myself in the story.

So, what’s your take on present tense novels?

So, having come to this understanding about myself, I went out to the interwebs to see if this is a common reaction to present tense writing.


I was not at all surprised to see the word “screenplay” repeated by so many of the people complaining about present tense novels. What did surprise me was just how vehemently so many readers hate anything in present tense regardless of POV, to the point of refusing to even consider reading a novel written in present tense.

More importantly, I found an article that has a nice summation of why present tense is so hard for many of us to accept.

“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.” – Grammar Girl, Present Tense Books

I guess what I’m saying is: “For the love of triple fudge brownies, do not give me a book in 3rd person present tense.”

You could call this a personal bias, but there’s enough debate over it on the interwebs that I feel fairly justified in warning writers away from present tense in general. Unless you have a very specific reason for choosing present tense, you’re probably only risking alienating a substantial portion of your possible audience.

I could go on, but I’ll leave you with some links on the topic if you really want to explore this further.

Past Tense or Present Tense? by Les Edgerton. Edgerton explains why it’s a fallacy that present tense makes writing seem more immediate.

Present Tense vs. Past Tense in Young Adult Novels at the How to Write Shop

Writing Fiction in the Present Tense at Precise Edit’s Blog. This post explains the pitfalls you can fall into when writing in present tense that will annoy the reader.

Why do people hate the present tense? Forum discussion at NaNoWriMo

Some very quick thoughts on present tense at Editorial Ass

Writing in Present Tense Might be a Bad Idea at The Writeditor


17 thoughts on “Super Survey Sunday: Present Tense Novels

  1. Debbie says:

    Gee, I thought it was just me.

    I don’t LOVE first person present tense, but it’s far less intrusive than third person present tense. I have also stopped reading books that are third person present tense–they literally gave me a headache. Glad to know I’m not alone on this issue!

    • No worries, you are not at all alone 🙂

      Although I do feel a wee bit bad for any writers out there trying to make this tense work. I’m sorry! I still think you’re wonderful people and I don’t hold it against you personally.

  2. Erica Dakin says:

    Hi, you don’t know me, but you seem cool! Anyway, personally I really, truly dislike present tense writing in any novel, and I cannot see the point of it. One person suggested to me that if you have a first person novel in past tense it gives away that the protagonist has survived the book, but personally I think that’s rubbish trying to justify an awkward choice of tense.

    I have read two trilogies in present tense. The first was Fifty Shades of Grey, which I absolutely hated. This was for many more reasons than the present tense writing, but the tense really didn’t help. The second one was the Hunger Games, which I mostly liked. Still, all throughout the entire series I kept being aware of the present tense writing, and it prevented me from truly being immersed in the novel.

    I cannot imagine ever reading a third person present tense novel. I’m sure I’d have done the same as you did.

    • Some of the interweb buzz says that it depends on how good the writing is for whether or not first person works. I think that’s probably valid, but that doesn’t ensure that a book won’t get dismissed by publishers and readers simply because it’s in first person.

      There certainly are more books coming out in present tense, so maybe in a couple decades there will be a shift in tolerance as readers become more used to it. I don’t know, we’ll see.

  3. katemsparkes says:

    So I’m not (necessarily) crazy, then…

    No, I knew this was a common thing, but I still feel guilty about it, like it’s a personal flaw or something. I just finished The Night Circus. It was beautiful, but it took me 4 months to get through it, because I couldn’t connect with the story or characters and kept wandering off to read other bright, shiny things. I blame that partly on the use of third-person present tense narration. The “immediacy” doesn’t draw me in more, it makes it nearly impossible for me to connect to the story, and it feels more distant. I don’t understand it, but I’m glad it’s not just me.

    Now, that one I got through, because the descriptions in the book and the story concept were enough to keep me going. But I’ve picked up promising-looking books only to put them back on the shelf because they’re written in third-person present tense, so I know I won’t enjoy them. I have one waiting on my kobo to read, written by a blogger I like, so I’ll give that more of a shot. These things do matter. Usually, though, it’s an automatic pass if I haven’t received a recommendation from someone I trust.

    First-person present-tense isn’t my favourite, either. I can read it, if the story is good and I like the POV character’s voice. I enjoyed The Hunger Games trilogy very much, though at some points I kind of hoped that the use of present-tense meant Katniss was going to die at the end. Now THAT would be a very valid reason for using present-tense narration, wouldn’t it? It’s not my favourite style, but once I get into it (and it does take me longer), I’m good. Third-person present tense always feels like a struggle.

    • I know what you mean! I kept trying to get into that book just because I thought it was an intellectual failing on my part.

      Take A Clockwork Orange. The first time I picked it up, I didn’t last five pages. It was just too much to adjust to the mish-mashed language. I came back to it a few months later, with a fresh mind and was able to tolerate using context to understand the prose. In the end I really liked the book, so I was glad I gave it a second chance.

      It makes me want to think that present tense writers are pioneering and I should be patient, but I’m just not. Oh lord, do I have a hipster complex???

  4. Yeah, when I’m reading texts grounded in present tense, regardless of POV, I am deeply uncomfortable most of the time. There’s just a part of my brain that thinks, “This is SO WRONG.” I think the term “squick” applies well here, as in it “squicks me out.” The only time when I have found present tense bearable, even sometimes enjoyable, is not about POV so much as genre.

    Romance and its more salacious cousin are sometimes very well-suited to more immediacy and intimacy with the characters and storyline, which is why some authors do very well – especially with short stories – while using both present tense and the oft-shunned 2nd person. I suppose, based on your analysis of the need for distance to suspend disbelief, that these are genres where some readers want *less* distance and more blurring of the fiction/reality divide.

    • That’s a good point. There are some places that present works very well. I don’t think twice about seeing it in dream sequences or a short battle scene. I just don’t do well with it in a full-length novel.

    • wordzly says:

      I agree that present tense probably works better in certain genres, and romance is a good example of that. I don’t really like present tense. It feels so ‘unreal’? Like a bad synopsis or screenplay. First person present tense might be tolerable but third-person is just bizarre.

  5. melissajanda says:

    I have difficulty reading present tense too, Kira. My left brain (editor) continually nags at me to correct the tense. It’s distracting and prevents me from really getting lost in the book.

  6. Dave Higgins says:

    I voted for squirrels because – until I read katemsparkes’ comment on The Night Circus– I could not remember any books I had read were written in the present tense. As I did not really have issues with it, and cannotr remember other examples, I think that makes it something I do not care about.

    Whether this is due to it not bothering me or it mostly turning up in books I do not love for other reasons I am not sure.

    Thinking specifically of the three books I have never finished (like you I need to read to the end even if it is dragging) they are written (1) in a different set of tenses originally (War and Peace), (2) in an intense style (Desolation Angels) and (3) in making-me-tense (Finnegans Wake), so I probably incline toward overall issue with language rather than tense specifically.

    • That’s an interesting take. It’s interesting to me that the poll is getting votes for squirrels and “ok for 1st person” and no other categories. Based on the overall venom towards first person I found on the internet, I expected a bigger divide. Then again, it’s a blog poll. Since so many of my followers are writers, I expect we’re a little more reluctant to eschew any specific writing style altogether. That probably is related to us being more concerned with language, plot, and characters.

      • katemsparkes says:

        I’ve never understood people’s problem with first-person perspective. I love reading it. But then, authors who write or have written in third-person present tense probably don’t understand the kerfuffle over that, either. 🙂

  7. cptam1947 says:

    Read what you do not like to learn what you do not know.
    By Robert Hobson

    • I know, I know. I understand the reasoning behind that statement, but I just…can’t…do it. Ultimately, I read to be entertained. If I’m too distracted from the story by the style, the entertainment quotient goes down.

  8. […] I won’t. Oh, also first attempt at more than a few paragraphs of present-tense, inspired by this blog post by kiralynblue- but hey, it’s first person! Oh, and their first assignment. Hey, I’ve […]

  9. DoingDewey says:

    Haha, I’m with Dave. I also voted for squirrels because I could not tell you what tense any of the books I’ve read were written in. It’s just not something that impacts my enjoyment of a book 🙂

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